We Take to the Air
The event which started concerted activity among women fliers was the cross country air derby for women of 1929. This was a race which started on the West Coast and ended eight days later at Cleveland, Ohio.
Sunday afternoon August 18, nineteen planes with propellers turning, lined up at Clover Field, Santa Monica, California. Will Rogers was on the loud speaker to point out the humorous aspects of such an event. Taking their cue from him, newspaper men coined descriptive names for the affair before contestants reached their first stop. It was generally called the "powder puff derby" and those who flew in it variously as "Ladybirds", "Angels" or "Sweethearts of the Air". (We are still trying to get ourselves called just "pilots".)
Finishing a race, as in anything else, is as important as starting, and sixteen of the women crossed the white line at the end. This was the highest per cent of "finishers" in any cross country derby, up to that time, for men or women.
This first air derby was won by Louise Thaden of Pittsburgh, with Gladys O'Donnell of California, second and me third. It captured the public interest and proved invaluable in interesting other women in aviation. A large part of the crowds to which greeted the derby at the prearranged stops along the route were women. They came to see what the powder puffers themselves looked like and after that what kind of airplanes they had. Some were so interested in these they poked umbrellas through the fabric on the wings to discover what was inside. Since then I have maintained that women's hesitancy in accepting air travel is simply because they are uninformed about it. What people don't understand, they usually fear.
Funny and serious situations continuously arose behind the scenes on the race. Blanche Noyes discovered fire in the baggage compartment of her plane and had to come down on a mesquite covered section of western Texas to put it out. No one knows how she managed to land without damaging the plane nor how she took off again from such a place.
Now and then some of the inexperienced pilots got lost, some ran out of gasoline, some were forced down by motor trouble. During the course of the race, more than one had to pick out the best spot available and make an unscheduled descent. Of course, when a pilot finds it necessary to land away from an established airport he - or she - heads for a good big pasture if one is around. One day one of the girls had to seek a pasture for some reason and the best one she saw had animals in it. Nevertheless she landed safely and then to her consternation watched the creatures solemnly walk toward her. Her version of the story is that she promptly offered up a little prayer. It was "Dear God, let them all be cows."
Speaking of cows, I am reminded of one of the most famous of air mail stories. Dean Smith flew the route from New York to Cleveland for a good many years. On one occasion, when his motor failed him, he too sought a pasture for a landing. Unfortunately, the "animals" in it were not well behaved for they stood in his way and he landed directly on one. The following is in substance the account of the accident which he telegraphed to his chief --
To return to the derby, it is but fair to give credit where it is due. The race was arranged and its prizes financed by the National Exchange Clubs, an organization which I believe has done more to aid aviation than any other non-professional group in America. It is interesting to compare the status of women flying in 1929 with their position today. To be eligible for the 1929 derby, a current license and a minimum of one hundred hours' solo flying were required. I doubt whether more than thirty American women could have qualified. But of this possible thirty, twenty turned out. In 1929, only seven women held Department of Commerce Transport licenses and six of these were in the race. Today, as I have said before, there are more than seven times this number. In addition to these and the 450 LC's and Privates, twelve women hold glider licenses and five are licensed mechanics.
Although only two years separates them, it is a far cry from the pioneering derby performance to women's share in the National Air Races in Cleveland in 1931. There for the first time in the United States men and women participated in a cross country derby together. There were about fifty entrants whose planes had been handicapped on the basis of their top speeds.
Unlike the British, the Americans have done little mixed racing, nor have they favored any system of handicapping. The method of determining classes has been almost universally based on size of motors. Thus, a cabin airplane built to carry six passengers might be placed in the same class with a strictly racing plane carrying only the pilot because both had engines with the same cubic inch displacement.
In England, on the other hand, almost all racing has been carried on with the fast planes starting late to give the slower ones a chance motors not being considered. So that, barring an accident good piloting wins or loses. The King's Cup Race, the most famous annual cross country event, is run this manner, and is open to all pilots of both sexes. Miss Winifred Brown is the only woman who has won it (1930).
Excerpted from The Fun of It by Amelia Earhart, New York, 1932.