By Bonnie L. Johnson
This article will be the second of four articles to introduce the reader to the women’s feats in aviation. This article will introduce you to the 1929 Air Derby. The follow-on articles will be about the role of women in World War II and the Mercury 13, and the Air Race Classic.
By 1928 many women had earned their pilot’s licenses and wanted to be recognized as equal to men, thus prompting the National Exchange Club and the Women’s International Association of Aeronautics to create the first women’s transcontinental air race. Men’s transcontinental air races were already popular events. The women’s race course would operate the same as the men’s. Prize money of $8,000 was offered and certainly a motivator for the women, but mostly they wanted to show they could fly just as well as men in a competition event.
Twenty women entered this very first female air race. All were eager to show what women could do. Some are well known – Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, and Bobbi Trout. Others – Louise Thaden, Gladys O’Donnell, Blanche Noyes, Ruth Elder, Neva Paris, Mary Haizlip, Opal Kunz, Mary von Mach, Vera Dawn Walker, Phoebe Omlie, Edith Foltz, Chubbie Keith-Miller (an Australian), Thea Rashe (a German), Marvel Crosson, Claire Fahy, Ruth Nichols, and Margaret Perry – unfortunately are lesser known to us.
The airplane of choice for many of the female flying competitors was the Travel Air, built by the Travel Air Manufacturing Company of Wichita. The other native Kansan airplanes were the Rearwin, Alexander, American Eagle, and the Swallow. Other non-Kansan airplanes were Monocoupe, Golden Eagle, Gypsy Moth, Fleet, Waco, Spartan, Curtiss, and Lockheed. The Wright J5 engine was installed in half of the airplanes. Other installed engines were OX-5, Warner, Kinners, DH Gypsy, Ken-Royce, Challenger, and Phantom J6. With airplanes and engines checked out, the ladies were ready to start.
The race started Sunday, August 18, 1929 in Santa Monica, California; the ladies would be ‘timed out’ and ‘into’ the various airport stops along the air course. Their first stop was an overnight in San Bernardino due to a late afternoon departure. The next day it was on to Calexico, California and Yuma with everyone arriving except Fahy. The flying wires of her Travel Air broke during the flight. This was the first of several incidences that led the ladies to believe that their airplanes were being sabotaged. The next leg from Yuma to Phoenix, Arizona would find another racer dropping out. Marvel Crosson never checked into Phoenix.
On Tuesday, August 20, 1929 by the time the ladies landed in Douglas, Crosson’s body had been discovered in the dessert near her crash. There was talk of halting the race. But after a gathering of the female racers, they felt that Crosson would have been greatly disappointed if the race terminated because of her accident. The press tried to make an issue of women not being able to fly. This made the women more determined; they knew they had to finish the race.
A side note: Louise Thaden upon delivery of her Travel Air and first flight to Dallas had experienced carbon monoxide poisoning. Walter Beech and his mechanic were flying chase for Louise into Dallas. When Walter discovered Louise’s malady, he quickly had his mechanic modify her airplane. When Walter learns of Marvel’s accident, he has all Travel Airs modified. So Marvel’s death actually saves many future lives.
Day Four was a short day with legs into Columbus and El Paso; the foul weather prevented the race from continuing to Midland. The overnight stay, not planned for El Paso, gave the ladies a chance to rest.
On Thursday, August 22, 1929 the legs were from El Paso to Midland to Abilene ending in Fort Worth. By all accounts the reception in Fort Worth was wild and the crowds on the airfield uncontrollable. The spectators mobbed Earhart when she landed in her red Vega. Wichita promised the flyers their airplanes would be guarded during their stay.
Friday morning many folks checked the Will Rogers’ daily article for an update of the ladies progress in “The Powder Puff Derby”, a moniker that stuck with the women’s air race.
Friday had a long leg into Tulsa with an overnight stop in Wichita. Upon arrival into Wichita, not only were the airplanes well-guarded, but so were the 10,000 spectators watching from viewing stands (site of today’s Kansas Aviation Museum), where they could not have access to the ladies or their airplanes. Wichita would honor Louise Thaden for her first place finish into Wichita.
Saturday, Day 7, found the ladies at the airport with the factory airplanes headed for the Cleveland Air Races. Thaden learned that she would be allowed to race not only the Travel Air to Cleveland, but she would be able to participate in the Cleveland Air Races in a new Mystery Ship. She could hardly wait to arrive in Cleveland, but first the race had to go on to Kansas City and East St. Louis.
Sunday was another race day for the ladies had to complete the race before the end of the day on Monday, which was the start of the Cleveland Aeronautical Exposition. The first leg was Terre Haute with Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio being the next two legs. Upon their arrival into Columbus the ladies knew the end was easily within reach. Some started to experience mixed feelings – joy (the end is near) and melancholy (the end is near). They all knew they had come a long way and overcame many obstacles to get to Columbus and tomorrow finally Cleveland.
Monday, August 26, 1926 was an easy day with one leg into Cleveland. The Columbus take-off was done in one-minute intervals in terms of standings so that the ladies would arrive in Cleveland in order of standing in the race. This meant that Thaden and O’Donnell were lined up side-by-side for take-off on the same runway, a first. Earhart was behind them with Noyes following. Thaden made it first into Cleveland from Santa Monica, California, a course of over 2700 miles, nine days, and logging over twenty hours of flying time. As the spectators mobbed Thaden’s blue and gold Travel Air, she quickly turned off her engine for fear of hurting anyone. Because of her first place finish, Thaden had the honor of addressing the crowd, “Hello, folks. The sunburn derby is over, and I happened to come in first place. I’m sorry we all couldn’t come in first, because they all deserve it as much as I. They’re all great flyers.”
The final standings for the heavies were Louise Thaden, Gladys O’Donnell, Amelia Earhart, Blanche Noyes, Ruth Elder, Neva Paris, Mary Haizlip, Opal Kunz, Mary von Mach, and Vera Dawn Walker. The light plane finishers were Phoebe Omlie, Edith Foltz, Chubbie Keith-Miller, and Thea Rashe. The remaining field was Pancho Barnes (crashed), Claire Fahy (broken wires), Ruth Nichols (wrecked), Margaret Perry (typhoid), Bobbi Trout (untimed), and Marvel Crosson (died).
This article is about the derby but not who the ladies were as individuals. The following poem written by an aviatrix, who competed in the 1929 Derby and achieved other firsts in flight while still being a wife and a mother expresses the motivation of many a pilot:
Flight is abiding peace.
It is faith and compassion.
It is a spirit totally free.
Flight is yesterday’s yearning.
The fulfillment of today’s dreams.
- Louse Thaden
The completion of the air derby founded the beginnings of another event – the creation of the International Women’s Pilots Organization or the 99s to honor the ninety-nine charter women. In 1929 there were only 117 licensed female pilots and 99 of them responded to Neva Paris’s letter to join an organization to promote women in aviation careers. Earhart was elected their first president.