Within months after the Wright brothers broke the boundaries of flight, more and more men around the world were inventing their own planes and heading up into the wild blue yonder. They sat on top of one of the plane’s wings, and the controls consisted of two levers, and they didn’t wear seatbelts, if you can believe that!
Lots of women wanted to fly too, of course, but they typically were turned down when they requested flying lessons. Many men legitimately felt that women didn’t have the temperament to fly, but many more simply wanted to keep the blue yonder to themselves. Pilots had quite a cachet, and if a woman could do it, then obviously it couldn’t be that hard!
However, many determined women persevered, and won their wings. And several of them died doing what they loved. There was the double standard again, of course. There were more male flyers than female flyers – lots more – and when they crashed and died, that was just something that happened to pioneers in a dangerous sport. When a woman died, that proved that all women were unfit to fly.
But it took World War I to ground the pioneer women of flight. After the war ended, many women had moved on with their lives, and it took a few years for the next generation of pilots to get into the air.
By 1929, there were only 70 licensed women pilots in the United States. Of those, only 40 had accumulated 100 hours of solo flight.
Twenty of those women got together in 1929 to fly in the Powder Puff Derby. It was part of the National Air Races, but was strictly for women. Participants included the most well-known pilots of the day including Amelia Earhart (who didn’t finish), Marvel Crosson (killed due to carbon monoxide from her plane’s exhaust feeding into the cockpit), Pancho Barnes, Louise Thaden, Blanche Noyes, Bobbi Trout (who didn’t finish.)
Louise Thaden won the race… but then came Black Friday and the Stock market Crash of 1929. Flying planes, always expensive, got more and more out of hand for the average person, which prevented quite a few women from learning to fly.
Not all, however, and when World War II grew on the horizon many women tried to enlist into the Army Air Force to help defend their country. They were turned down. Some of the most determined, like Jacqueline Cochran, flew over to England where they joined the ATA – the Air Transport Auxiliary. Many British women were part of the ATA as well, and flew everything from pursuit planes such as the Hurricane and Spitfire to the heavy bombers around the country. (Men unfit for service also flew for the ATA as well.)
In late 1942, when the realities of war were hitting home to the military high command, the WAFS were formed under Nancy Harkness Love. They were the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, and were made up of an elite group of women pilots, all with hundreds of hours of flight time. Jacqueline Cochran returned from England, and using her own clout, got the WAFS transferred to an organization that she had originally proposed – the WASP (women’s auxiliary service pilots).
Thousands of women applied to join the WASP, many who had no flying experience at all. Of these, a little over a thousand were chosen, and began training in two separate locations. After graduation, they were assigned to air bases where they either ferried planes around the country, or towed targets for male pilots to practice their marksmenship on. It was dangerous work, but nevertheless the women were paid about half of what their male counterparts were paid, and when they died (as 38 of them did) it was their families that had to pay to get their remains shipped home.
In 1944, when it was clear the war was won, the WASP were summarily disbanded. They weren’t needed anymore, so they were allowed to pay their way home. (And forgotten for over 30 years by the US government.)
But over a thousand female pilots didn’t want to be grounded, and those who could afford to kept on flying. In 1947, therefore, the Powder Puff Derby was resurrected, and for 30 years these women, and many others who acquired their license after the war, flew across country each year to great acclaim and publicity.
In 1985, seven years after the last Powder Puff Derby was flow, the AWTAR put out a yearbook of all 30 races, with dozens of photos of the women, their planes, and the sponsors through the years. (AWTAR stands for All Women’s Transcontinental Air Race, as the Derby was officially known.)
In 1952, for example, the honorary starter was actor Robert Taylor. In 1954, actor Robert Stack. In 1955, Crystal City Texas, home of “Popeye”, sponsored pilot Marian Burke, and a lifesize model of Popeye flew in the back seat. In 1965, the Esso Tiger (a costume obviously) flew copilot.
In the funnies (aka the newspaper comic strips), STEVE CANYON had a female pilot character named Bitsy. In 1969, Bitsy enters the race, but is forced to leave the race on a rescul;e mission. Also in 1969, Charles Schultz commemorated the entire race in a series of PEANUTS cartoons featuring Snoopy, Peppermint Patty and Marcie. Had Snoopy not commandeered his trusty Sopwith Camel at the last minute, who knows if Peppermint Patty would have won.
Various factors contributed to the demise of the Powder Puff Derby in 1977. Among them, the rise of Title IX and women’s desires to break into male bastions. In a tit for tat, a male pilot sued to be allowed to fly in the Powder Puff Derby…and any lawsuit of course drains the funds of those involved. SO 1977 saw the last race.
But the women scarcely missed a beat. A scaled down version, called the Air Race Classic, began the very next year. No longer flying across the country, they’d fly only across half of it!
Whether the race can continue to find sponsors and pilots so that the 2009 race can take off as planned, remains to be seen. With the US economy in its current woeful condition, it might take its toll on the number of participants.
Let us hope that pilots – all pilots – will not be grounded in the years to come, and that the Air Race Classic will live on!
Powder Puff Derby: The Record, 1947-1977. Edited by Kay A. Brick. AWTAR, Inc. 1985 (I’m both proud and saddened to know that I know own WASP/air racer Betty Wharton’s copy of this book.