1929 Air Race
By Gene Nora Jessen
International Women Pilots / 99 NEWS Magazine
Special Issue - 1999
Good luck!" Walter Beech said, as he saluted Louise Thaden. "Do you feel all right?" he asked. "Sure, swell." Seven of Walter Beech's popular Beech Travel Airs were en route to Santa Monica, California, to compete in the Women's Air Derby to Cleveland, Ohio. The transcontinental air race was open to women for the first time, and the Travel Air was the airplane of choice. Walter Beech had decided to follow Louise as far as Fort Worth, Texas, to make sure everything was okay.
"Sure, swell," was a lie. Louise actually felt dizzy and nauseous. She thought it must be from the heat and the excitement of the race.
Louise flew with her head down below the rim of the open cockpit, pulling up periodically to check her position against her road map, dead-reckoning it was called - kind of an unfortunate term. Good judgment was slipping away just like used-up fuel, unretrievable.
The terrain and the map didn't jibe, and Louise concentrated on matching the roads and towns she saw to the piece of paper clutched in her left hand. Miraculously, the suffering pilot soon spotted the Fort Worth airport and headed straight for it with no thought of complying with traffic. She simply aimed the nose down, and when a safe height above the ground, pulled the power and bounced it on. Not pretty, but both she and the airplane were through flying. Immediately climbing out of the cockpit, a curtain of darkness closed in as the Travel Air's lower wing broke her fall to the ground. Walter Beech and others made a dash for the blue Travel Air and were relieved when Louise came around. "I don't feel very well," Louise said.
"I shouldn't have let you leave Tulsa," Walter Beech berated himself. "I thought you didn't look good." The mechanics discovered that, despite being in an open cockpit airplane, Louise had been inhaling exhaust fumes from the engine, sitting down low behind the Wright J5 engine.
Beech's solution was to run a four-inch pipe back from the leading edge of the cowling into the cockpit for a source of fresh air. Louise flew the rest of the trip to California, and the entire race, with her face up close to that source of life-sustaining air.
Women had flown airplanes early on, also balloons, parachuted, test flew, repaired and flew stunts in Hollywood, and were not spared the ultimate price for their daring. They flew in air circuses, set altitude and speed records, wing-walked and barnstormed. But they didn't race airplanes. Only men raced airplanes.
The spectacular Cleveland Air Races were the ultimate challenge, including transcontinental races, closed course racing, sensational stunts, and all the newest airplanes.
Air race officials finally succumbed in 1929 and established the first all women's transcontinental Air Derby from Santa Monica to Cleveland. Each pilot was required to hold 100 logged pilot hours (largely ignored) and enter an aircraft with horse power "appropriate" for a woman. Though Opal Kunz owned and flew her own 300 HP Travel Air, it was disallowed since it was deemed "too fast for a woman to fly." With $25,000 in prize money at stake, she found a lesser horsepower aircraft to race.
Twenty women showed up at the starting line. Louise Thaden was not the only competitor who experienced difficulty. A male pilot who flew with Amelia Earhart was killed en route home. Mary Haizlip's airplane had been damaged and she frantically searched out a replacement, starting a day late. She told no one that her replacement aircraft had only two-hours' fuel capacity, and she came into most of the stops dry. Phoebe Omlie actually put her airplane in a field near the Santa Monica airport and was hauled off to jail by the sheriff who thought she must be a dope smuggler.
Jim and Clema Granger's operation at Clover Field was a madhouse. The National Exchange Club race sponsor, even on August 17, the day before the race start, was changing the route. Will Rogers, who was there with his sidekick, Wiley Post, allowed as how, "It was too bad Mexico City couldn't raise $50 or it, too, could have seen our women fliers." The women staged a late-night protest over a stop they deemed too dangerous, and a compromise was reached in the wee hours of the morning.
The morning of the l8th found the women polishing their airplanes and pacing nervously. A tall and shy young local pilot by the name of Howard Hughes smiled at the excitement and wished the women well. They lined up in two competitive categories, depending upon horsepower.
Will Rogers noted that their female genes compelled each racer to take one last glance at her compact, along with a dab of powder on her nose and succinctly announced, "It looks like a powder puff derby to me!"
The first leg was purposely left short, to give the press, public and Hollywood types the morning to gaze and interview. Husbands, mechanics and others milled around, double-checking, polishing and generally increasing the level of nervousness of the pilots.
A crowd was drawn to Pancho Barnes attired in flying jodhpurs and a sporty beret, and smoking her standard black cigar. Rumor had her married to a clergyman, but her zesty vocabulary surely belied any close connection to the church. In fact, Pancho was indeed a pastor's wife, but in a fit of boredom with that stifling life, had sailed as an able-bodied seaman running guns, and had jumped ship in Mexico gathering up her lifelong nickname, Pancho. Pancho's colorful language had terrific shock value, but her flying skills couldn't be denied.
At 2 p.m., at the sound of the radio-relayed pistol shot, the flag dropped and 19 airplanes headed out full speed for San Bernardino (Mary Haizlip left the next day). Walter Beech's Travel Air was the airplane of choice with seven in the race. Two racers were flying enclosed cockpit jobs, Amelia Earhart in a Lockheed Vega with a Wright J5 engine and Edith Foltz in an Eaglerock with a Kinner. Amelia flew in a dress and Edith in her famous Foltzup outfit, which converted from jodhpurs to a skirt.
There were just a few mild shakedown problems on the first leg. Amelia had a stuck starter and had to turn back for a quick repair. Mary von Mach got squeezed by a couple of racers and landed for a little breathing room. Then immediately took off again.
In San Bernardino, huge crowds gathered at the field blocked off for the racers. The spectators drove their cars right onto the field. Onlookers marveled at the good job the racers did getting landed, rolled out and off the landing area for the airplane immediately behind.
By the time Opal Kunz landed, with Amelia right behind her, the visibility was terrible due to all the dust stirred up. Opal pancaked, damaging her landing gear, and Amelia ran out of runway, but the crowds parted giving her room to stop. Opal's airplane was easily repaired, and the racers settled in for what evolved into their regular arrival pattern: airplane care, nightly banquet, entertainment and a short ration of sleep.
Race Day two was from San Bernardino to Phoenix with a stop in Yuma. "This is the first real test of the women's ability to fly," said pretty Ruth Elder, who tried to fly the Atlantic, fell into the ocean and later into the movies. The public was spellbound by her daring adventures. Her adventure the morning of August 18 involved emptying her fuel tanks of oil with which the mechanics had mistakenly "fueled" her Swallow instead of gas. But that was just the start of the day's problems.
Claire Fahy put her Travel Air down at Calexico, out of the race with broken flying wires. She believed acid had eaten through them, confirming an earlier warning of sabotage. Mary Haizlip, who had started a day late, got lost and landed across the border in Mexicali, not the only racer to take a little Mexican tour.
Amelia Earhart nosed over while landing at Yuma, and the racers politely waited in the heat for delivery of a new prop, ensuring they would suffer the brunt of the afternoon desert heat. Pancho got lost and wandered into Mexico, Ruth Elder lost her maps over the side. She landed to locate her position, waving off an unfriendly bull. Thea Rasche was downed with an engine failure and found her damaged airplane's fuel lines full of contaminants. Emergency landings were expected and the women were pretty good shade-tree mechanics. They fixed their airplanes and moved on.
Bobbi Trout's problem was a little more serious. Her fuel ran dry just short of Yuma, forcing her to put down in a plowed field against the furrows. Though within sight of Yuma, she landed in another country, cartwheeling her Golden Eagle, doing serious damage. Some repairs were done on the spot, then helpful Mexicans moved the airplane to the Yuma Airport where it was basically rebuilt. Bobbi resumed racing three days later.
By dark, 16 race planes had landed in Phoenix. All the missing airplanes were accounted for, except Marvel Crosson.
Marvel and her brother Joe had fallen to airplane addiction as kids. They bought a $150 wrecked Curtiss seaplane, put wheels on it with junkyard parts, installed an old OX-5 engine and then actually flew the beast. They barnstormed together, then sought their fortune in Alaska, where they became prominent .members of the pioneer aviation community.
Marvel was an experienced pilot and had flown the entire course prior to the race, yet her Travel Air was found demolished in the mesquite jungle in the Gila River Valley. Her body bad been thrown from the airplane. Apparently, she had suffered from the same carbon monoxide which had almost downed Louise Thaden enroute to the start of the race.
There were hysterical calls to stop the race because "these women have proven conclusively that they cannot fly." The women gathered themselves together and decided that the best tribute to Marvel would be to go on. So they did.
Race Day 4: Douglas, Columbus, El Paso to Midland. Early morning found Pancho painting "MEXICO OR BUST" on her Travel Air. Pancho was not the only racer to stray across the fence; Blanche Noyes also put down in Mexico to find out where she was, then when no one spoke English, she knew. She had been a pilot for six weeks. A sand storm stopped the racers at El Paso.
Race Day 5 was an all-Texas day from El Paso to Pecos, Midland, Abilene and Fort Worth. Blanche Noyes detected an in-flight fire in her luggage, landing in desert mesquite to rip out the burning wooden flooring with her bare hands, and extinguish the fire with desert sand. She damaged her landing gear taking off from the desert, then had it welded hoping to make it to Wichita, Kansas, for a new undercarriage.
The citizens of Pecos were so excited about the women racers landing in their town that they drove onto the landing strip for a close-up look. When the pilots raised the nose with those big old engines to make a landing, visibility out the front was blocked. Pancho Barnes flared to land at Pecos not realizing that a car had encroached on the landing strip. Pancho hit the car and totaled her airplane. Though she was not injured, she was out of the race.
Margaret Perry felt ill throughout the race. She stopped at Abilene, Texas, where she was hospitalized with typhoid fever and was out of the race. Fearful of possible recurring carbon monoxide problems, Travel Air mechanics arrived to modify all the Travel Airs. The pilots' sleep deprivation compounded, but they pressed on. They departed Texas, moving into different terrain. They could fly at lower altitudes, and the section lines straightened themselves out into neat square patterns. Crossing the Red River introduced the red earth of Oklahoma, lower visibility and forest fires to their east. Mary Haizlip was forced down twice by a dirty oil line. Vera Dawn Walker made a precautionary landing in her Curtiss Robin to cool an overheating engine.
In Wichita, home of the Travel Air and the air craft of choice for a third of the racers, 10,000 spectators awaited them.
Each racer was assigned a mechanic and the aircraft was hangared for maintenance, repair and security. After tending to their trusty steeds, the women changed into their wrinkled dress-up frocks and participated in the parties and festivities which they considered an important public relations duty. The sun had done its work on the pilots flying in the open-cockpits. They appeared with their farmer-foreheads, owl-eye look along with sun-tanned V-necks showing in their scoop-necked dresses where they dutifully visited with the friendly crowds, signed autographs and responded to the press.
Neva Paris was quoted calling flying "the sport of the gods." Actually, the womens' looks and clothes gained more inches in print than their airplanes and standings. But Mary Haizlip got in one technical quote: "I allowed five degrees coming over, and I smacked the field right on the nose."
The East St. Louis stop at Parks College on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River was almost impossible to see through the murk. The racers followed the Missouri River most of the way, crossed it twice, then kept it in sight on their right wing until it led them into East St. Louis.
Once found, getting their airplanes on the postage-stamp-sized field was a challenge. Blanche Noyes and Neva Paris both suffered landing gear damage after intentionally ground-looping to avoid running off the end of the field. Thea Rasche was contending with dirt in the gas. Bobbi Trout, catching up to the main body of racers, welded a loose exhaust pipe before moving on. These were all typical malfunctions and normal field repairs and all were repaired in time for the Sunday morning takeoff.
Fog on Sunday morning gave the racers a little breather, especially needed by Louise Thaden whose oil had accidentally been drained. There were three cross-country races to Cleveland underway: the women from Santa Monica, plus two mens' races from Portland, Oregon, and Miami Beach, Florida. The Graf Zeppelin was also speeding towards Cleveland during its round-the-world flight, causing almost every airplane and balloon in Southern California to be booked to view the behemoth as it crossed the coastline.
Despite flying a completely rebuilt airplane, Bobbi Trout continued to have mechanical problems, deadsticking into a small field and dinging an aileron when she ran out of room. She made the repair with a tin can patch and went on.
The ninth and last day of the race was only from Columbus to Cleveland and everyone hung on for just one more leg to the finish. Ruth Nichols was one of the most experienced pilots in the race, holding transport license No. 2. Quietly flying the entire race well, without fanfare or drama, Ruth had some maintenance done on her Rearwin and made an early test flight. The new concrete runway at Columbus was still under construction, and the first portion was closed. A large steam roller was working at the edge of the runway, just about where the usable portion began. Ruth seemed to drift a little as she came to the usable part. She hit the steam roller and somersaulted, coming to rest upside down on the soft dirt. Miraculously, she was not hurt, but her third-place standing dissolved.
Cleveland was only 120 miles and 44 minutes away for Louise Thaden. Each of the pilots flew the last leg with singular concentration. Louise arrived over the finish line first. Blanche Noyes and Gladys O'Donnell were right behind her.
The frenzied crowd swarmed Louise's blue and gold Travel Air as throngs of reporters and photographers engulfed the airplane. A horseshoe of flowers was placed around Louise's neck and then the airplane's propeller. Phoebe Omlie took first place in the lighter aircraft category. Louise dedicated her trophy to Marvel Crosson.
In 1929, a Boeing mail transport plane flew a transcontinental refueling endurance flight to test the feasibility of shuttle airplane service between the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Sixty-two years later, another shuttle airplane was flown by female astronaut pilot Eileen Collins, a test of the feasibility of shuttle airplane service into outer space around the planet Earth. She carried Louise Thaden's cloth flying helmet, autographed by the other racers, into space. Eileen later carried Bobbi Trout's pilot certificate signed by Orville Wright to the Russian space station Mir.