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Women Pilots Built Their Careers on Fear of Flying : Companies Hired Them to Prove Safety of Air Travel

March 23, 1986|JOYCE DALL'ACQUA | Smithsonian News Service

In 1932, stunt pilot Bettie Lund watched her husband and flying partner, Freddie, crash to his death. Barely over the initial shock, she took a telephone call from the manager of the Charlotte, N.C., airport, who told her about Freddie's contract to appear in an air show there. "I'll fly in his place," Lund said.

That began Lund's solo career of aerobatics--barrel rolls, slow rolls and inverted flying--along with the air races she regularly entered. She felt, Lund told a reporter, that she was a "crusader to establish the safety of the air."

Lund, air racer Phoebe Omlie, trailblazer Amelia Earhart, record breaker Jacqueline Cochran and dozens of other remarkable women in the 1930s became the symbols of a new era in aviation. Their mission: convince people that flying was a safe means of transportation and that women made good pilots.

Major Selling Job

The high-powered, high-flying women of early aviation had a major selling job to do. To the public of post-World War I America, flying was for the "foolhardy," or for the very wealthy who could afford to buy airplanes in the days when it was a fashionable stunt to land at a garden party or a race course.

"The female pilots of the 1930s had a humanizing influence on aviation," said Claudia M. Oakes, associate curator at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Oakes is author of a new book, "United States Women in Aviation, 1930-1939," celebrating the careers of these pilots who made headlines in their day but are mostly forgotten now.

"The women made flying seem less dangerous, more commonplace," Oakes said. "People of the day started to think, 'If a woman can fly, anyone can,' and this helped the general aviation industry to grow."

The decade's famous female pilots were not only concerned with safety and comfort. Blanche Noyes, Louise Thaden, Omlie, Cochran and many others competed against men in air races--and won. Laura Ingalls performed 714 barrel rolls in a row on May 8, 1930, destroying the men's record of 417. Omlie and Pancho Barnes were noted movie stunt pilots of the '30s.

Unprecedented Journeys

The airplane made it possible for women to travel alone on unprecedented journeys. Earhart, history's best-known female pilot, flew many "firsts"--the first woman to fly as a passenger across the Atlantic (1928), the first person to fly across the Atlantic twice (1932), the first to solo from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland (1935). Amy Johnson, Beryl Markham, Lady Mary Heath and others pioneered hazardous, long-distance air routes.

Ruth Nichols set a non-stop distance record, from Oakland, Calif., to Louisville, Ky., in 1931, just a few months after severely injuring her back in an airplane crash. Nichols was the only woman simultaneously to hold the women's records for speed, distance and altitude in heavy land planes. She was one of the first women to fly dirigibles, gliders, seaplanes, amphibians and four-engine aircraft.

Nichols knew that women's air races and distance flights attracted publicity. "News," she wrote in a 1932 magazine article, "is a salable asset and has a concrete value in dollars and cents," money that could help improve aircraft design and safety.

Fay Gillis Wells, another well-known pilot of the 1930s, said of Nichols: "She just never gave up. She wanted to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, but she crashed in Newfoundland and Amelia (Earhart) beat her to it."

Flew in Soviet Plane

Wells, now in her 70s, had an unusual opportunity in 1930, when her father, a mining engineer, was transferred to the Soviet Union. After moving there, she worked as a journalist and continued to fly. In 1933, she became the first American woman to fly a Soviet-made airplane. Wells was asked to accompany Wiley Post, the first person to fly solo around the world, on a trip from Los Angeles to Moscow. When she turned Post down to go on her honeymoon with journalist Linton Wells, Post chose humorist Will Rogers. Both men were killed when that flight crashed in 1935.

Earlier, in 1929, while working in the sales department of the Curtiss Wright Flying Service, Wells helped found the Ninety-Nines, an association of female pilots still active today. "We organized for the fun of it and also to have a network to pass on information about jobs," she said. The first meeting took place in an airplane hangar above the din of an engine. Tea was served on a toolbox on wheels.

The club's name was Earhart's idea, Wells said. "She sat very modestly in the back row while we argued about the name. Some of us wanted names like the Lady Bugs, and others wanted to be the American Assn. of Licensed Woman Pilots. Then Amelia spoke up and said: 'Why don't we name ourselves after the number of our charter members?' "

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