REVIEW: Sky Girls by Gene Nora Jessen
The exhilarating true story of the unsung pioneers who blazed a pathway towards a new era of female aviation!
The year is 1929, and on the eve of America’s Great Depression, nineteen gutsy and passionate pilots soared above the glass ceiling in the very first female cross-country air race. Armed with grit and determination, they crossed thousands of miles in propeller-driven airplanes to defy the naysayers who would say it cannot – not should not – be done.
From the indomitable Pancho Barnes to the infamous Amelia Earhart, Sky Girls chronicles a defining and previously forgotten moment when some of the first women pilots took their rightful place in the open skies. For a country on the brink of defining change, they would become symbols of hope, daring, and the unstoppable American spirit. And for generations to come, their actions would pave the way for others to step into the brave unknown and learn to fly.
It’s 1929 and airplanes are all the rage. Lucky Lindy and the barnstormers have set alight interest in aviation though some fuddy duddies still don’t think plane travel will ever overtake trains. Still every possible record and “first” is eagerly being sought by male and female pilots. Female pilots!!?? Heavens what is the world coming to say some old fashioned cynics and misogynists. Well 20 women took up the challenge of proving themselves and their skills in a cross country “derby” which gained the unfortunate (for us but not back then for them) title of Powder Puff Derby. From Southern California across country through AZ (with a few unscheduled flyovers and stops in Mexico for some), NM, TX, OK, KS, MO, Il, IN and on to the finish line in OH these women showed what they knew and could do. They also displayed initiative, pluck, daring and some impressive mechanical skills.
The early and dangerous days of flying took a heavy toll on those who braved the skies in the flimsy and often experimental planes of the day. Pilots grinned and joked about how often cemeteries were located next to airports which were surrounded by trees, telegraph and telephone lines. But militaries were keen on getting more people trained to fly and manufacturers competed to build and supply planes. Successful pilots became celebrities. When the Derby was announced female pilots eagerly signed up with many flying in reverse from the East coast out to CA to check out the route, obstacles and flying conditions. Once there, they found chaos as race organizers were changing it up until the morning of takeoff.
Most of the women had been flying for years, some had their transport licenses and many were instructors. A few had just recently taken up the sport with some entering after less flying experience than was required. Almost all the planes were open cockpit thus requiring the familiar flight helmets and goggles with the dashing silk scarves a needed addition to keep those goggles wiped clean. A few of the pilots liked to make a splash with coordinated flying outfits and the ones who did found their descriptions were often more interesting to reporters than were their flying skills.
The route was broken up into relatively short flying hops since many of the planes didn’t carry enough fuel for longer flights. Crowds swarmed the airports and the primitive conditions often meant that pilots were dodging spectators on the runways as they landed. Along with Amelia Earhart there were other well known women including Pancho Barnes who gained later notoriety with her Happy Bottom Riding Club beloved of WWII and later pilots who trained at the nearby Edwards Air Force base.
The women were up to the challenges of marking maps and managing to fly the plane while consulting them with the wind whipping through the cockpit. The airports were often small thus calling for the use of any navigational aid available including roads, railroads, mountains – but don’t hit one, rivers and later in IN a helpful farmer who cut an arrow into his harvested corn field pointing out the way. The disdain and patronizing attitudes of many only served to energize these women to prove what they could do. The roll call of patches, welds and repairs several had to do themselves as well as keeping a keen eye on men (called terminally stupid or brain dead by one irate pilot) who often didn’t know as much about fueling and servicing the planes as did the women proved the women’s gumption and determination to succeed. A few even kept flying after delays pushed them out of contention. They all, however, got tired of the ubiquitous rubber chicken served at every banquet along the way, even in Texas!
Thunderstorms buffeted them, desert air dehydrated them, boggy landing fields could mire the plane wheels and a few competitors were convinced that there was sabotage going on but the women pulled together, watched out for each other and triumphantly proved that women did indeed belong in the cockpit.
And who won? Well I won’t name names but she logged 2700 miles over 9 days with 20 hours, 19 minutes and 4 seconds of flying time. Think on that during your next coast to coast flight. At least these women didn’t have to battle check in lines, pat downs and irate fellow passengers along the way. What they did was help pave the way for the women who followed them including astronaut Linda Godwin who took Louise Thaden’s flying helmet on a mission into space and Eileen Collins who took racer Bobbi Trout’s pilot certificate – signed by Orville Wright – along with her. We have come a long way, baby. B