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Soaring into Herstory: The Women's Air Derby of 1929

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The Great War ushered in the Golden Age of Flight and women were not going to sit idly by as men soared into the wild blue yonder. By the late 1920s, barnstorming was losing its luster and setting records was king.

It was a hot, overcast day on August 18, 1929. Clover Field in Santa Monica was overflowing with spectators as the host for the first Intercontinental Woman’s Air Derby, dubbed “The Powder Puff Derby,” by humorist Will Rogers. He came up with the title while watching Ruth Elder, “the Compact Queen,” seated in her Swallow NC8730 along with other pilots powdering their faces for the hordes of reporters. 

Twenty female aviators signed up to participate in the 2,759-mile course to the finish line in Cleveland, Ohio. Of twenty competitors, 18 were from the U.S. The remaining two, Thea Rasch, “The Flying Fraulein,” hailed from Germany and Aussie Jessie "Chubbie," Miller was the first woman to pilot a plane from England to Australia. 

Fresh off her flight as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic in a Fokker F7 Friendship, Amelia Earhart arrived ready to race. The "Miss America of Aviation," Ruth Elder, attempted to be the first woman transatlantic airplane pilot. Opal Kunz, wife of Tiffany & Co.’s vice president, arrived in her 300 HP Travel Air.  Evelyn Trout began flying at 17 with money earned at her family filling station in California. “She looks like a boy but flies like a man,” one reporter wrote referring to Trout’s short-cropped, pomaded black hair.  Tiny 94-pound Vera Dawn Walker was often referred to as the “pint-sized test pilot.” Howard Hughes stepped up as her sponsor so she could complete the flying test and participate in the race in a Curtiss-Wright.

 A handful of the female aviators who competed in the first women’s transcontinental air derby which began in Santa Monica on August 18, 1929. Amelia Earhart is fourth from the right. Louise Thaden, who won the 2700-mile race, is fifth from the right.
A handful of the female aviators who competed in the first women’s transcontinental air derby which began in Santa Monica on August 18, 1929. Amelia Earhart is fourth from the right. Louise Thaden, who won the 2700-mile race, is fifth from the right. | Courtesy of Saint Louis University Libraries.

The crass yet charismatic stunt pilot, Florence “Pancho,” Barnes stood out among the crowds. The Civil War balloonist’s granddaughter was dressed in jodhpurs and a sporty beret and cussed like a sailor.

Pancho Barnes and Amelia Earhart with fellow pilots from the 1929 Powder Puff Derby | Courtesy of Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive
Pancho Barnes and Amelia Earhart with fellow pilots from the 1929 Powder Puff Derby | Courtesy of Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive

Female contestants were required to log 100 hours of solo flights — including a minimum of 25 hours of cross-country flying — hold a license for the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world air sports federation, as well as an annual sporting license from The National Aeronautics Association. They also had to carry a gallon of water, a three-day food supply and an aircraft with horsepower appropriate for women. These rules applied to male pilots as well.

With $25,000 bucks on the line, the aviators took off for their eight-day journey above a massive crowd from Clover Field— now Santa Monica Municipal Airport — on August 19, 1929.  With no iPhone for navigation, the racers relied on dead-reckoning and road maps. The race didn’t transpire without its share of problems, calamities and one unfortunate death.

Mary Haizlip, the second woman in the U.S. to qualify for a commercial pilot's license, had damaged her plane, forcing her to seek out a replacement. Phoebe Omlie accidentally landed in a field and was hauled off to jail by the sheriff, who thought she must be a dope smuggler. Claire Fahey was knocked out of the race in Calexico, Arizona with broken flying wires. Bobbi Trout ran dry of fuel just short of Yuma, Arizona, resuming the race three days later.  Blanch Noyes detected an inflight fire in her luggage, landing in Mesquite, Nevada and extinguishing the fire with sand.  

Making a planned stop in Wichita, home of the Travel Air Company, 10,000 spectators were waiting. The women were exhausted. They changed into their wrinkled frocks and made the rounds at the party looking rather silly with farmer-foreheads from their caps and owl-eyes with suntanned V-necks showing.

Despite having assigned mechanics, there were still issues throughout the race. Rasche found dirt in her gas tank, while Trout welded a loose exhaust pipe before moving on.

Barnes was out of the race in Pecos, Texas. Hitting a car on the landing strip, she totaled her Wright J5-powered travel air biplane. There was one fatality. Marvel Crosson and her brother Joe barnstormed together and sought fortune in Alaska.  An experienced pilot, Crosson’s plane was demolished in the Arizona desert, her body thrown from the airplane. The 25-year-old aviator suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning and died. While devastated, her fellow flyers continued on with the race.

In the heavy class, Louise Thaden came in first place, O’Donnell second and Earhart third. Omlie, Folz and Keith-Miller led the lightweights. Thaden dedicated her trophy to Crosson.

Louise Thaden, Gladys O’Connell and Ruth Nichols, pioneer female aviators during the first women’s transcontinental air derby in 1929. Thaden won the race. | Courtesy of Saint Louis University Libraries.
Louise Thaden, Gladys O’Connell and Ruth Nichols, pioneer female aviators during the first women’s transcontinental air derby in 1929. Thaden won the race. | Courtesy of Saint Louis University Libraries.

Shortly after the race on November 2, 1929, a group of 117 female racers gathered beneath a Cleveland airport grandstand to talk business. A few weeks later they established the Ninety-Nines Organization at Curtiss Field, Long Island, New York. The name was selected to represent the 99 charter members. Earhart was their first president. The organization continues to this day.

In 1935, the Ninety-Nines invited Katherine Sui Fung Cheung, the U.S.’s first Asian American aviatrix, to become a member. She later opened a flying school in China.

Katherine Sui Fun Cheung | Courtesy of Dottie Leschenko
Katherine Sui Fun Cheung | Courtesy of Dottie Leschenko

When World War II broke out, Ninety-Nines were ready to aid their country. A handful became instructors in training programs. Mary Von Mach worked on final inspections of B-24 bombers while others ferried aircraft to units across the country and in England.

For most Ninety-Nines, flying was a hobby. For others, it was a career. Many worked in engineering fields, setting the standard for the next generation — during the Space Race. Modern-day Ninety-Nines include airline pilots, instructors, scientists, NASA astronauts and the first female commander of a Space Shuttle.

For additional reading check out ‘‘Sky Girls: The True Story of the First Women's Cross-Country Air Race” by Gene Nora Jessen

Update: This article was updated August 20 to reflect that the derby originally took from Clover Field in Santa Monica, not Mines Field.

Top Image: A handful of the female aviators who competed in the first women’s transcontinental air derby which began in Santa Monica on August 18, 1929. Amelia Earhart is fourth from the right. Louise Thaden, who won the 2700-mile race, is fifth from the right. | Courtesy of Saint Louis University Libraries.

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