This week marks the 85th anniversary of the First Women’s Air Derby, a transcontinental air race that originated at Clover Field — now Santa Monica Airport (“SMO”) — and concluded eight days later in Cleveland, Ohio.
Here at Aerlex Law Group, our offices overlook SMO, and it seems like a fitting occasion to remember the remarkable women aviators who took flight in the competition that humorist Will Rogers dubbed “The Powder Puff Derby.”
Major air races had been held nationally and internationally since 1909, but accomplished female pilots were not permitted to participate. Finally, in 1929, the Women’s Air Derby was established as part of the National Air Races. To qualify, the women had to meet the same standards that were required of men competing in the National Air Races.
In August 1929, seventy women held a United States pilot’s license. Of those, twenty young female aviators assembled at Clover Field on the afternoon of August 18 to take part in the groundbreaking competition. Navigating the 2700-mile course with only road maps on their laps, the women flew from Santa Monica to Cleveland via stops in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. Along the way, there were continuous mishaps and a constant need for maintenance. Some competitors were forced to drop out of the race. Florence “Pancho” Barnes and Ruth Nichols crashed their aircraft. Margaret Perry contracted typhoid fever. Claire Fahy’s plane was found to have suspicious mechanical damage. Sadly, pilot Marvel Crosson, who had just set an altitude record at 23,996 feet the previous May, perished in a tragic crash. The race continued despite these perils, malfunctions and calamities. And at every stop, enthusiastic crowds gathered to meet the female flyers they had read about in the press.
At the Cleveland Municipal Airport, a throng estimated at 18,000 people greeted the pilots as they finished the race. Louise Thaden came in first, and she was followed by fourteen others: Amelia Earhart, Ruth Elder, Edith Foltz, Mary Hazlip, Jessie Keith-Miller, Opal Kunz, Blanche Noyes, Gladys O’Donnell, Phoebe Omlie, Neva Paris, Thea Rasche, Bobbi Trout (finished untimed because of two forced landings), Mary von Mach, and Vera Dawn Walker.
The Air Derby set the stage for other major air race competitions for women and supported the notion, highly suspect at the time, that women could be accomplished pilots. The race also strengthened the bonds between the participants and inspired them to organize. A few months later in 1929, most of these female aviators became founding members of The Ninety-Nines, an organization of licensed women pilots founded to promote and support women in aviation.