N.H. author presents book on women in early aviation

  • Keith O’Brien of Lee has published his third book, “Fly Girls.” Erik Jacobs / Jacobs Photographic

  • Famous airmen—like Clarence Chamberlin, left, and Wiley Post, right—believed Ruth Nichols would succeed in her transatlantic attempt, seeing her off in New York. Courtesy of Jeff Nichols

  • Some of the competitors in the first-ever women’s air derby, stopping in East St. Louis, Ill., in August 1929. From left to right: Mary Elizabeth von Mach, Jessie “Chubbie” Miller, Gladys O’Donnell, Thea Rasche, Phoebe Omlie, Louise Thaden, Amelia Earhart, Blanche Noyes, Ruth Elder and Vera Walker. Courtesy of the St. Louis University Libraries

  • Rivals in the sky, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols and Louise Thaden became friends on the ground, helping the female pilots organize against the men. Courtesy of the Thaden Family Collection

  • Fly Girls

Monitor staff
Published: 9/5/2018 5:34:56 PM

How many early women aviators can you name? Amelia Earhart? Sure. Bessie Coleman? Maybe. Anyone else?

Then you might be surprised, like journalist Keith O’Brien of Lee was, to discover dozens of women were taking to the skies in the 1920s and ‘30s. His newest book, Fly Girls: How five daring women defied all odds and made aviation history, tells a few of those women’s stories.

O’Brien said he stumbled on the story idea after picking up a copy of The Astronaut Wives Club. In the first chapter, it introduces the wives; Trudy Cooper’s section mentions the Powder Puff Derby.

In 1929, 20 women flew in the first women’s airplane race, the Women’s Air Derby as part of the National Air Races; a humorist called it the Powder Puff Derby. Later, the Powder Puff Derby moniker was inaugurated as the actual name of a race in 1947.

O’Brien said he looked at the Wikipedia page of the derby and realized he didn’t know much about most of the competitors. Then, he started researching.

Daring women

Amelia Earhart was among those competitors and is included in the book, too. She’s probably the most well-known, but she might not have been the best female pilot of the time.

The book also focuses on Ruth Nichols, a New York socialite; Louise Thaden, a coal saleswoman and mother from Kansas; Ruth Elder, an actress from Alabama who was flying before Earhart; and Florence Klingensmith, who might have been the best female pilot before she met a tragic end. But the book isn’t limited to them, many other women are mentioned, too; there were 99 who formed a women’s aviation club called the Ninety-Nines.

“These women were pioneers,” O’Brien said.

Women were also breaking into aviation at a time when flying was one of the major sports of the day, with boxing and baseball. Thousands of people would come each day to the air races, while thousands more sat on cars outside the arena to watch pilots speed across the country or around pylons. It was like the Superbowl. Cities vied with each other to be hosts. And it was dangerous, he said, like if someone died every race or at least month in NASCAR.

“Still fans came out to see them and pilots wanted to compete in them,” he explained.

It was so dangerous that after a woman died in a plane crash, women were banned from competing in some of the major air races. It would be a few years later, after a man died in the same fashion, that women would be allowed to compete again.

Not only did they compete, they won against themselves, beat records and came out first in co-ed races.

Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes went on to win the prestigious Bendix Trophy Race in 1936. This was the first time that women had won the Bendix Trophy for flying cross-country. Laura Ingallas crossed the finish line 45 minutes later to win second place. Earhart and Helen Richey finished fifth.

The women made flights that would change everything for the women who would follow them; some of them paying with their lives.

“I feel like this story is for anyone who has been told ‘you can’t do this,’ ” O’Brien said. “That’s what these women did.”

“It makes impossible things feel more possible,” he said.

Finding sources

Since, these women are now deceased, O’Brien had to rely on other primary sources to find background.

He said he went through resources large and small. The Amelia Earhart archives are voluminous. Then, there was the National Air and Space Smithsonian. But there were also small-town historical societies in the towns where the women were from.

“I certainly got lucky sometimes,” he said.

Clifford Henderson, who organized the air races, had no kids. The historical society in Palm Desert, Calif., held his personal collection and two chapters of an unpublished memoir. O’Brien said he called nieces and nephews looking to see if anyone had the other chapters. Finally, he found another 250 pages with Henderson’s step-daughter.

He also struggled with locating information on Nichols.

“She was the type of person who would have kept her archives,” O’Brien said. She was wealthy, a record-setter, and knew she was famous.

Finally, in the back room of a museum at the regional airport in Cleveland, Ohio, he found what he needed.

“Her whole life was in those file cabinets,” O’Brien said.

Through the letters, diaries, flight logs and newspaper reports, O’Brien pieced together a narrative of the barriers women faced in aviation and the talents they needed in order to pilot early aircrafts.

“I hope more than anything these early female aviators who banded together, who fought entrenched discrimination, will finally get the recognition they deserve,” he said. He wants people to know about more than Earhart; the history is much richer than just one woman.

“Some of (the women pilots) were more skilled in the cockpit than she was,” he said of Earhart.

“They were not just rivals, but friends,” O’Brien said. They supported each other professionally and personally.

“That was a fascinating story to tell,” he said.

O’Brien will be at Gibson’s Bookstore on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. to speak about Fly Girls. For more information, visit gibsonsbookstore.com.

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