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

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?' "

Jacqueline Cochran, a charter member of the Ninety-Nines, became the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953. She was also an ace in business, starting a successful cosmetics company, which her flying helped publicize. A highly competitive racer who was always eager to fly "hot" racing airplanes, Cochran won the prestigious 1938 Bendix transcontinental race.

As the American public became sold on air transportation in the 1930s, women played an increasingly important role in the selling. Dozens of new air transport lines were added, and passenger growth mushroomed.

Nichols and Earhart promoted aviation by making countless speeches and writing hundreds of magazine articles. Many airplane companies hired women to demonstrate and promote their products in the 1930s. The sales gimmick was successful for the companies, and it gave the women a chance to fly, although Helen Richey resigned her job as the first woman commercial airline pilot in 1934 because the all-male pilots' union refused to admit her, and she was seldom allowed to fly.

Where There's Smoke

The "stars" of aviation were in great demand for advertisements. "Cigarettes have nearly been my downfall," Earhart wrote in 1928 after "wickedly endorsing" a certain cigarette, though she estimated smoking only three that year. Earhart donated her $1,500 fee to Cmdr. Richard Byrd's South Pole expedition, but an irate reader still admonished: "I suppose you drink too!"

In 1936 and 1937, Earhart worked with female students of Purdue University, one of the few U.S. colleges to offer aviation classes to women. Purdue presented her with a new twin-engine Lockheed Electra loaded with all the latest instruments, funded by Lockheed, Bendix and other groups. The donors wanted to promote aviation, Earhart said, "and especially, perhaps, overcome women's 'sales resistance' to air travel."

It was in that Electra that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, nearly succeeding in completing the world's longest around-the-world flight. In July, 1937, after flying 22,000 miles, the plane was lost at sea. Throughout her career as an aviation spokeswoman, Earhart insisted that the risks of long-distance flights and air races should not be compared to the safety of ordinary air transportation. "You might as well compare automobile racing with safe driving," she wrote.

By the outbreak of World War II, Oakes noted, air travel had become commonplace. With the novelty gone from private flying, manufacturers and aircraft sales companies no longer needed women as demonstration pilots and saleswomen.

"By making aviation tamer and more acceptable," Oakes said, "women had, ironically, closed several doors to paths they had previously followed toward fame in aviation."

Tiny Minority

In 1930, only about 200, or 1%, of licensed American pilots were women. Though the number of female pilots today has increased to more than 44,000 (including 275 who are commercial pilots), they are still a tiny minority--6%--of all pilots.

Now, as then, however, some of the most distinguished pilots are women. For instance, Brooke Knapp, a 40-year-old pilot from Los Angeles, holds the world's record for the fastest around-the-world flight (average speed, 512 m.p.h.)

Hazel Jones, a pilot for more than 40 years and the current president of the Ninety-Nines, believes the future of women in commercial aviation is bright. "Most airline pilots were in the military, and a great many of the Korean War-era male pilots are now retiring from commercial work. As more women get military pilot training, they'll be stepping into those vacancies. The number of airlines also has been growing rapidly since the industry was deregulated, creating more opportunities for the woman pilot."

Whatever the future may hold, it was the determined women aviators of the 1930s who helped pave the way. In the early 1930s, German-born Thea Rasche, a charter member of the Ninety-Nines, wryly summed up the spirit of that decade's women aviators: "Flying is far more thrilling than love for a man and far less dangerous."

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