Women had been flying airplanes since the early days of aviation, and by 1928, they had also piloted balloons, parachuted out of disabled planes, served as their own mechanics, set altitude and speed records, wing-walked and barnstormed. But they hadn’t yet raced airplanes.
A year later, however, they got their chance when the Women’s Air Derby was organized – the first all women’s transcontinental air race.
The course was from Santa Monica to Cleveland with stopovers in Arizona. To compete in the race, each pilot was required to have logged 100 hours of flight time and to pilot an aircraft with horsepower “appropriate for a woman.”
On Aug. 18, 1929, 20 women, including the famous Amelia Earhart, showed up in Santa Monica for the air derby. Even before the race started, there was tragedy and trouble. The pilot who had flown with Earhart to Santa Monica was killed in a crash on his way home. Mary Haizlip’s airplane had been damaged during her flight to Santa Monica, forcing her to start a day late and with an aircraft that had only two- hour fuel capacity. When Phoebe Omlie landed her airplane in a field near Santa Monica, she was hauled off to jail by the sheriff who thought she was a dope smuggler. To top it off, the race’s sponsor changed the route the day before the race.
The morning of the race, Howard Hughes and Will Rogers came to wish the women well. Rogers noted that each racer took a last glance at her compact and gave her nose a puff of powder. He said, “It looks like a powder puff derby to me!” The name stuck, and at 2 p.m. when the radio- relayed pistol shot sounded; the flag dropped and the women roared toward San Bernardino in the first ever Powder Puff Derby.
Seven of the women flew Walter Beech’s Travel Air, two racers flew enclosed cockpit planes, and Amelia Earhart flew a Lockheed Vega.
There were immediate problems. Earhart had to turn back for a repair when her starter stuck, and Mary von Mach got squeezed by racers on take-off and had to land for breathing room before taking off again.
The first to arrive in San Bernardino was Opal Kunz, with Earhart right behind her. Visibility was terrible because of all the dust that was stirred up by spectators driving their cars onto the field, and Kunz pancaked, damaging her landing gear. When Earhart landed, she ran out of runway, forcing the crowd to part to give her room to stop. The other racers arrived without incident.
On day two, the racers flew from San Bernardino to Phoenix with a stop in Yuma. “This is the first real test of women’s ability to fly,” said Ruth Elder, a fellow racer. Again, the women faced more setbacks.
Claire Fahy had to land her Travel Air near Calexico because of frayed wires and was out of the race. Mary Haizlip got lost and landed in Mexicali. Earhart nosed over while landing in Yuma and had to wait in the heat for delivery of a new prop. Elder accidentally dropped her maps over the side of her plane, and after finally landing was greeted by an unfriendly bull. Thea Rasche went down with engine failure and discovered her airplane’s fuel lines had been contaminated. Bobbi Trout ran out of fuel near Yuma and cartwheeled her Golden Eagle onto a field in Mexico. She was able to get it rebuilt and resumed racing three days later.
By the evening of day two, 16 planes had landed in Phoenix. All the missing airplanes were accounted for, except for the one flown by Marvel Crosson. The following day, reports arrived that the body of 28- year old Crosson was found near a clump of bushes in Wellton. Crosson, an experienced pilot who had flown the entire course prior to the race, had died the day before when her plane went into a tailspin.
Wellton spectators reported that she had attempted to jump to safety, but her parachute lay unopened two hundred feet from her plane wreckage.
Crosson’s accident added weight to suspicions that some planes had been sabotaged to force certain women out of the race. Trout, holder of the women’s endurance flight record, and Kunz said that their instruments had been misadjusted while still in California.
Investigation into the death of Crosson and charges of sabotage were launched by the chairman of the National Air Meet, Floyd Logan, but were never proven.
Calls went out to stop the race because “these women have proven conclusively that they cannot fly.” The women decided that the best tribute to Crosson would be to continue the race. On day four, the racers made stops in Douglas, Ariz.; Columbus, N.M.; and El Paso and Midland, Texas.
During the final leg of the race, the racers followed the Missouri River until it led them into St. Louis.
The ninth and last day of the race was from Columbus to Cleveland, Ohio. Louise Thaden crossed the finish line first, with Blanche Noyes and Gladys O’Donnell right behind her. The frenzied crowd swarmed over Thaden’s blue and gold Travel Air. A horseshoe of flowers was placed around her neck and around the airplane’s propeller. Thaden dedicated her trophy to Crosson, who had lost her life in the Arizona desert.
- Jane Eppinga. Photo courtesy Library of Congress from the New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.