Losing and Leading

In August of 1929 Amelia was one of nineteen contestants in the first woman’s cross-country air derby. She signed up for the race on her birthday, July 24, the same day the Vega became officially hers, but only after a six-week struggle over rules with the committee for the National Air Races. The all-male committee had suggested that the women’s event, which would precede the air races at Cleveland, begin at Omaha rather than Santa Monica to spare the women the dangers of crossing the Rocky Mountains. An alternative suggestion from the committee was that of starting in California but with each woman accompanied by a male navigator. Amelia was outraged. She immediately became the self-appointed spokesperson for the perspective contestants.

On June 11 she sent telegrams of protest to both the NAA contest committee and the national races committee along with a statement to the press. It would be ridiculous, she said, to advertise the derby as an important event if the course was the easy route over the middle west from Omaha to Cleveland. As for taking along a male navigator, the proposal was an insult to contestants who were required to have a minimum of one hundred hours of flight time. If she were not allowed to fly solo from California, she said, she would not enter the race. She was joined in her protest by Lady Mary Heath, Elinor Smith, and Louise Thaden.

The NAA committee passed the buck to the manager of the National Air Races, Cliff Henderson, who persuaded the race committee to accept Amelia’s terms. The race, they ruled, would extend over a period of eight days, starting August 18 at Santa Monica. The contestants would fly solo in planes to be rated as CW (85 to 115 cubic inch displacement) or DW (150 to 220 cubic inch displacement). Amelia signed up with six other women. Twelve eventually joined them.

Amelia’s effort to gain recognition for women as competent pilots was not made any easier by Will Rogers, aviation aficionado and the nation’s most famous humorist. In his nationally syndicated newspaper column, the gum-chewing pseudocowboy from Oklahoma called the race the “Powder Puff Derby.” Feature writers followed his lead, referring to the women aviators as “Flying Flappers,” “Aerial Queens,” and “Sweethearts of the Air.” To counteract this public perception of the derby as a female flying circus, Amelia said she thought it would be more important for all of the contestants to reach Cleveland safely than for any of them to set new records. Most did not agree. They flew to win and before the derby was over, one would die, and nearly all would narrowly escape serious injury or death.

Once Amelia had possession of the Vega, she had almost no time to fly it. Instead she spent her time publicizing the derby or working for her new employer, TAT. The last real rest she had was on the weekend before the derby, which she spent at Lake Arrowhead with Lindbergh’s friends, Jack and Irene Maddux. One of Keyes’s partners in TAT, Maddux was very fond of Amelia but saw nothing wrong in using her presence as his houseguest to gain recognition for himself and the new airline. Three days before the race he gave a dinner aboard a Maddux transport plane for Amelia, five other derby fliers, and the mayor of Santa Barbara. All of the women spoke on a national network hookup over the plane’s radio. Maddux also arranged for Amelia and Irene Maddux to arrive in a Goodyear blimp at the start of the derby on Sunday, August 18.

Twenty thousand spectators gathered along the edges of the Santa Monica airfield or stood on a nearby hill under a fiery sun to see the derby fliers take off. Their nineteen planes were lined up at two starting lines on the field, six of the light CW class in front and thirteen of the heavier DW class behind. Amelia’s light-green Vega was the sixth in the DW class to leave but at the south border of the field she turned back, circling until the last plane had left before landing. Her electric motor switch had shorted out, costing her fourteen minutes of lost flight time while repairs were made.

The first overnight stop, at San Bernardino, was chaotic. There were not enough mechanics or guards for the planes and long after midnight the women were still wrangling with officials over a scheduled stop the next day at Calexico, California, en route to Phoenix. A number of pilots in the DW-class planes who had used the field the week before said it was unsafe for heavy aircraft. One of them, Florence “Pancho” Lowe Barnes, a Pasadena heiress who had acquired her nickname from reputedly crewing on a banana boat running guns to Mexico, settled the matter. The stocky, profane, cigar-smoking Pancho, clad in riding breeches and leather boots, stomped from room to room with a petition stating that the fliers would refuse to continue the derby unless the first checkpoint was changed from Calexico to Yuma. The officials agreed.

By the end of the second day Amelia’s hopes for a safe race to prove women were competent pilots had been dashed. She was one of the offenders, crashing at Yuma when her plane struck a pile of sand and nosed over. The accident did cause an unusual reaction from the derby fliers, ordinarily so fiercely competitive. They voted to give Amelia an extra hour and a half of waiting time without penalty for repairs. Later that day she almost cracked up again when she side-slipped and bounced in for a precarious landing at Phoenix.

As usual she refused to accept responsibility for the crash at Yuma. She had been told, she claimed, that the Yuma field was good for its entire length. “Instead I struck sand,” she said. “There wasn’t anything to do but let it [the plane] go over.” Only a week before, the pilots who had objected to Calexico’s field had also said Yuma’s was not much better with soft, sandy spots—a difficult place to land.

Other competitors were having a worse time than Amelia. Marvel Crosson, a twenty-five-year-old Alaskan bush pilot, had disappeared after leaving Yuma. The slim, pretty Crosson, holder of a women’s altitude record, had refused her colleagues’ pleas to wait at Yuma for repairs to an engine that had been overheating since the beginning of the race. She did promise to “take it easy” to Phoenix, where a new engine was to be delivered and installed during the overnight stay there. No one had seen her since soon after she left Yuma.

Bobbi Trout, a twenty-three-year-old test pilot and former altitude and endurance record holder, was washed out of the race after drifting over the border into Mexico where she was forced down at Algondones. Her plane flipped over, destroying landing gear and propeller. Trout was not injured, but she had lost her chance to win the derby.

Carburetor trouble forced German flier Thea Rasche down at Holt-ville, California. Rasche showed reporters an anonymous telegram that read, “Beware of sabotage.” Another contestant, Clare Fahy, echoed Ras-che’s accusations of sabotage at San Bernardino after mechanics discovered both center section wires of her plane had been severed. They attributed the damage to a rough landing but Fahy’s husband, Lt. Herbert Fahy, said the wires had been weakened by acid and advised his wife to drop out of the race.

Four other fliers also had trouble. Ruth Elder reported that San Bernardino attendants had mistakenly put gas in her oil tank causing vapor to form on her goggles and a loss of ten minutes flying time while she circled over the desert cleaning them. Opal Kunz, whose husband was vice-president of Tiffany’s, lost her way, ran out of gas, and landed in a creek bed four miles from Prescott, Arizona. A far more militant and outspoken feminist than Amelia, Kunz sought and got help from several male residents of the area who carried enough gasoline in tins to get her plane to Phoenix. Mary Haizlip, a professional flier from St. Louis, was also forced down, at Mexicali.

New Zealander Jessie Maude Keith Miller lost her lead in the CW division when she misunderstood the instructions for a fly-over of Calexico—and landed there. Miller, the first woman to fly from London to Australia (with Bill Lancaster, a man for whom she left her husband) shared a room with Amelia in Phoenix. Her roommate had more to say about the night at San Bernardino than Amelia. She told reporters it had been a waking nightmare in which unauthorized persons climbed in and out of the planes while the pilots were at dinner and none of the women slept more than two or three hours. “We’re tired,” she said.

Amelia was more worried than tired waiting for news of Marvel Crosson. It came the next afternoon at Douglas, Arizona. Crosson was dead, her body discovered near her plane by a search party in the mountains outside Wellton, Arizona. When Louise Thaden and Gladys O’Donnell heard the news they burst into tears.

There were other, less serious misadventures that day. Vera Dawn Walker, a Los Angeles actress, had been lost in New Mexico for more than an hour and Blanche Noyes, a Cleveland woman, also an actress, had flown almost sixty miles inside Mexico where she landed at Cananes to get her bearings but took off immediately when she saw a mob of villagers running toward her plane. Keith-Miller had damaged her Fleet-Kinner during a forced landing at Elfreida, Arizona, but managed to repair it herself, reaching Douglas late that night.

On the next, the fifth day of the derby, four more contestants met with accidents. At Pecos both Gladys O’Donnell, who ran an aviation school with her husband Lloyd at Long Beach, California, and Edith Foltz from Portland, Oregon, damaged their landing gears, although they completed the day’s course to Fort Worth. Pancho Barnes was out of it after she overran the field at Pecos and plowed into a parked car, demolishing her aircraft. The fourth, Noyes, had a fire aboard. She landed thirty miles west of Pecos in some mesquite trees, burned her hands pulling smoking equipment from the baggage compartment, then took off again, tearing the bottom of the fuselage and smashing part of her landing gear. Noyes flew back to Pecos, had her hands bandaged, ordered parts for the landing gear sent to Fort Worth, called in the story to a Columbus newspaper, and took off again for Fort Worth. A fifth flier, Margaret Perry of Beverly Hills, was forced to drop out of the race when she was hospitalized at Fort Worth with typhoid fever.

The exhausted survivors were hustled into waiting cars at Fort Worth and taken to the estate of publisher Amon G. Carter where a banquet was given in their honor. Amelia now had an ally in Will Rogers who had followed news of the derby with great sympathy for the women pilots. He wrote in his column that race officials had been unfair in making the contestants stop “in every buffalo wallow that has a chamber of commerce. They even make ’em eat with Amen [sic] Carter,” Rogers added.

On the morning of August 25 in East St. Louis ten of the eleven remaining fliers in the race had their picture taken.* All but two wore grease-spattered coveralls or riding breeches and boots. Only Amelia and Blanche Noyes were in blouses and skirts but they looked just as bedraggled as the others. Before they left, the fliers sent off a collective message to the local committee at Columbus where they would spend that night. They would, they said, eat anything except fried chicken, which they had eaten every night since leaving Santa Monica.

Amelia criticized more than the food when she arrived at Cleveland. The committee had left no time for the fliers to rest. They were up at four every morning, on the field by five and off at six, she said. The early flight was only two or three hours but the remainder of the morning was spent signing autographs and answering questions while guarding their planes from curiosity seekers. Most of the fields had no place to rest and no more than a wooden table to sit on. After flying two or three more hours in the afternoon they had to wait to see that their planes were secured before rushing into town to a banquet and then back to the field to make certain their planes had been serviced.

She also said there were unruly crowds wherever they went and that trying to taxi along a runway with people running toward one’s plane with its whirling propeller was a frightening experience. Her complaints about the crowds were more than justified. At Columbus, the last stop before Cleveland, eighteen thousand fans overwhelmed the police, swarming onto the runway. A number of these boisterous trespassers leaped aboard the planes the minute they came to a stop and walked the length of the wings. Others poked umbrellas and pencils through the fabric-covered aircraft.

Amelia came in third in the derby, one and three-quarters hours after the winner, Louise Thaden. Thaden won $3,600 in prize money; Gladys O’Donnell, $1,950 for second place; and Amelia, $850 for third.

In the closed-course races that followed at Cleveland Amelia entered one of five for women. She asked Blanche Noyes to join her. “There are two Great Lakes airplanes we can get,” she told Noyes. “If you fly one of them, I’ll fly the other.” When Noyes said she had never flown a Great Lakes before, the supposedly safety-conscious Amelia, who had never flown one either, said, “Well, you can learn.”

Noyes learned during the race. She came in third but Amelia was disqualified for missing a pylon. It was obvious that she did not know how to turn tightly at these markers. Commenting on her lack of skill, the great closed-course racer Edna Gardner Whyte said that Amelia was never a good enough flyer for this kind of contest nor did she have the necessary competitive spirit. Another great speed flier, Mary Haizlip, agreed.

The day after her attempt at racing, Amelia was the only woman in a glider demonstration staged by the National Glider Association. Frank Hawks, the man who had given her her first plane ride almost a decade before, arranged the event, which he called “The Famous Motored Pilots’ Derby.” When Amelia attempted a turn without sufficient air speed the glider went into a spin. She pulled out of it a few feet from the ground but slammed the aircraft down in front of the grandstand, damaging the undercarriage. Hawks, who held the transcontinental speed record at the time, said that if she had lost her head she would have had a bad crash but “she kept her wits about her and did exactly the right thing.”

The derby and the races that followed gave Amelia her first extended contact with many of the country’s best women pilots. She listened more than she spoke and avoided gossip, asking for suggestions, and repeating praise but never criticism of one pilot by another. The best of her competitors thought her no threat to their supremacy as pilots and at the same time admired her for her public stand on behalf of their rights.

In California, before the derby, Amelia and Ruth Nichols had both talked to their colleagues about forming a women pilots’ organization. In Cleveland an informal meeting was held in Amelia’s hotel suite. In New York another group, some of whom worked for the Curtiss Wright Flying Service, had also discussed organizing. The group included Neva Paris and Opal Kunz, both derby contestants, and Frances Harrell, Margery Brown, Fay Gillis, Betty Huyler, and Clara Trenckman. All except Trenckman were fliers. This group sent out an invitation signed by Paris, Brown, Harrell, and Gillis to meet on November 2 in a hangar at Curtiss Field in Valley Stream, Long Island.

Amelia was one of the twenty-six women from six states who met in the hangar, where they had to shout over the din of airplane motors and drink their tea served from a toolbox wagon. Nancy Hopkins of Boston, who met Amelia for the first time at the meeting, thought she was very shy, even humble, in the company of many of the women who had more flight time than she. “She seemed apologetic over her unearned publicity from the 1928 flight,” Hopkins said.

Amelia had very little to say during the meeting until discussion turned to a suitable name for the organization; she suggested it be called for the number of its charter members. Her suggestion was adopted. Between November and February of the next year the name evolved from The 86s to The 97s to The 99s, later changed to The Ninety-Nines, Inc.

Amelia was an avid recruiter. Her methods varied, depending on how well she knew the potential candidate and her interests. One who was drafted was Mary Haizlip, the petite and very competitive young derby flier who lived in St. Louis with her husband, future Bendix Trophy winner James A. “Jimmy” Haizlip, and her widowed mother, Anna Hays. A frequent houseguest of the Haizlips, Amelia sent Mary a note stating that Mary was now a charter member and should reimburse Amelia one dollar for signing her up and paying the membership fee.

In mid-March Amelia was hostess to twenty-eight members for a meeting at the American Women’s Club on 57th Street in Manhattan. The organization was still without officers after the acting secretary-treasurer, Neva Paris, was killed in January when her plane crashed in a Georgia swamp. Amelia steered clear of office holding in an organization of so many strong-willed, competitive women who had yet to agree on anything more than a central purpose of finding more jobs in aviation for themselves and other women.

However, a month later she did agree to be chairman of a group of women pilots who met in Detroit to discuss the coming National Air Races in August of 1930. Overtures were made to contest director Maj. R. W. Schroeder, who tentatively offered a special speed race for women pilots comparable to the Thompson Trophy race for men, a “free for all” open to every type of plane. He advised Amelia that if six pilots “of the gentler sex” entered, he would add to the program a similar contest.

Amelia said she was confident that at least six women would enter but what she wanted was a women’s derby like the one of 1929, in which planes of any classification could be entered with appropriate handicaps for the more powerful. A week later the events were announced. Forty-two of the forty-six would be restricted to small planes with none of the remaining four open to women. There would be two women’s derbies, neither for larger planes. Amelia and four other women—Nichols, Smith, Thaden, and Noyes—refused to compete.

These members of the “gentler sex” did not intend to protest and then simply disappear. They set August 28 (later changed to August 27) as the date for a meeting of the Ninety-Nines in Chicago during the week of the races, which were to be held there instead of Cleveland, “in order to reach some agreement with the race committee” for the 1931 races. There were nineteen women at the meeting, seven of whom were licensed as transport pilots. The acting secretary-treasurer, Louise Thaden, appointed a committee of three in her place—Amelia as chairman, Jean LaRene of Kansas City, and Gladys O’Donnell of Long Beach. The entire group elected a constitutional committee of three—Amelia, Ruth Nichols, and Marjorie Lesser.

The seemingly shy, retiring woman who had said so little at the first meeting in November, the loser who had washed out of the closed circuit race, and who had almost killed herself trying to fly a glider in Cleveland had become the acknowledged leader of a group claiming 175 members out of the national total of 285 licensed women pilots.

* Mary Haizlip was not in the picture. The day before she had been forced down at Washington, Missouri, by a broken fuel line. A farm hand helped her repair it but he was afraid to crank the propeller for her. Barely five feet tall and weighing less than one hundred pounds, Haizlip cranked it herself, then jumped back in the plane and took off for St. Louis, her hometown, where she arrived just before sunset.

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