When Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Model 10-E Electra disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in the summer of 1937, her legacy was forever cemented in the history books. But hers was not a singular story. During the 1920s and '30s dozens of aviatrices were flying to new heights and speeds, hoping to crash through the glass ceiling of their male-dominated field. Many of those heroic tales, however, were long ago relegated to dusty library shelves and forgotten film reels — until now.
In his new book, "Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History," author Keith O'Brien explores the lives of these incredible — and often overlooked — women. (Pictured above: Pilots participating in the first-ever all-female air derby, often derisively dubbed the "Powder Puff Derby." From left: Louise Thaden, Bobby Trout, Patty Willis, Marvel Crosson, Blanche Noyes, Vera Walker, Amelia Earhart, Marjorie Crawford, Ruth Elder, and Pancho Barnes.)
"When you go back and you read the newspaper accounts of the time, when you live in old microfilm, you see a world that we have forgotten," O'Brien tells FOTO. "A world that not only included Amelia Earhart flying as the vanguard of female aviation but a handful of others who were just as bold, just as brave as Amelia and, frankly, at times even more skilled in the cockpit than she was. These women risked their lives to do the thing that they loved and then we forgot them. And that, to me, felt wrong. I wanted to tell their story."
Here, O'Brien gives FOTO a glimpse into the lives of the five extraordinary, inspiring women at the heart of "Fly Girls." (Pictured above: Women from the Ninety Nines, a group for female pilots.)
AMELIA EARHART (1897-1937)
History has, perhaps, been most kind to Earhart and her story. Many know the broad brushstrokes: She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and she ultimately met an untimely end while trying to circumnavigate the globe. But in many respects, history has also simplified Earhart's story to the point where it's now unrecognizable.Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
"Most of what people think they know about Amelia is wrong," says O'Brien. "What made her famous initially was that she was plucked from obscurity [by publishing magnate and future husband George P. Putnam] from a settlement house serving immigrants in Boston where [she] worked as a social worker and [was] put on a plane flown by men across the ocean in '28. So she becomes famous initially for being flown by men across the ocean.
"The press falls all over her because she is the first woman to fly over the Atlantic even though she didn't really do anything. And to Amelia's credit she knew that… She could have used the fame and the money that came with that flight to do anything she wanted. She could have become an actress, a vaudeville stage performer, a model. But she knew that she had done nothing on that flight; she was a sack of potatoes is her words, and Amelia would spend the rest of her very short life, another 9 years, making bold and daring flights almost in answer to her critics, who believed that she was famous for doing nothing." (Pictured above: Earhart with her navigator Fred Noonan.)
LOUISE THADEN (1905-79)
One of Earhart's closest friends and biggest rivals was Louise Thaden, a coal-saleswoman-turned-pilot, who would go on to set flying records for speed, altitude, and endurance. Thaden's biggest coup, however, was claiming first place at the high-profile Bendix Trophy Race in 1936, the first year that women were allowed to compete alongside the men. Despite all of Thaden's impressive accomplishments, her story has largely faded into obscurity. O'Brien explains why:Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
"You could argue that early on, Louise Thaden is a more accomplished female aviator than Amelia Earhart. But Louise gets married. And she decides to have children. Her first child is born in 1930, her second in 1933. At a time when society expected young mothers to stay home with their babies, Louise made a different choice. She did what many working parents do today: She made sacrifices to juggle her family and the love for her children with her own personal ambition. And at times because of these sacrifices, Louise missed out on fame that other women got. And as a result of those decisions she slips away. She sort of vanishes, and this great woman who was right there shoulder-to-shoulder with Amelia Earhart in the 1920s and ‘30s is ultimately erased as the decades go by. It was my goal to bring her back as much as I could in the pages of the book." (Pictured above: Thaden with fellow pilot Frances Marsalis.)PhotoQuest/Getty Images
RUTH NICHOLS (1901-60)
Rounding out the core trio of “Fly Girls” is Ruth Nichols, a New York-born socialite, who earned the nickname “The Flying Debutante.” Along with Earhart and Thaden she was a founding member of the Ninety-Nines, an organization for licensed female pilots. Nichols, out of all the women in “Fly Girls,” survived the most devastating crashes, but would suffer physical and mental anguish from her injuries.New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images
“All of them crashed over the years, but in many of Ruth’s crashes, she was seriously injured,” explains O’Brien. “At times she was burned. At times she broke vertebrae in her back. She would live for a time in the 1930s with a steel corset wrapped around her torso to support her broken back. And my research shows that Ruth would struggle into the 1940s and ‘50s with a lot of physical pains, which were likely a result of these injuries. So Ruth Nichols was, in some ways, the ultimate survivor. She did suffer these many mishaps, these many crackups, but she would return to the air. As she famously said, ‘I will follow the air trail wherever it leads.’ And she did do that until the end of her life.” (Pictured above: The wreckage of Nichols' 1935 crash.)Imagno/Getty Images
RUTH ELDER (1902-77)
If not for low oil pressure, Ruth Elder may have flown into the history books instead of Amelia Earhart. A year before Earhart was ferried across the Atlantic, Elder attempted the same feat in her bright yellow “American Girl” airplane piloted by George Haldeman. But their flight to Paris ended 360 miles early — facing mechanical problems, they ditched their plane in the sea and were rescued by Dutch sailors from a nearby tanker. Despite missing their mark, Elder and Haldeman received a hero’s welcome back home. Elder would earn the nickname “Miss America of Aviation” and embark on an acting career, landing roles in films such as “Moran of the Marines” and “The Winged Horseman.”George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images
Pictured above: Elder and Haldeman (at left) being feted in New York by Grover Whalen, head of the mayor's reception committee.Minnesota Historical Society/Corbis via Getty Images
FLORENCE KLINGENSMITH (1904-33)
In 2018, it’s easy to take for granted how safe flying is. But back in the 1920s and ‘30s, airplanes posed a serious risk to life and limb. “It was dangerous to fly in a plane at the time — many people were afraid to do it,” explains O’Brien. “It was even more dangerous, exponentially more dangerous, to race an airplane at speeds of over 200 miles an hour, 50 to 75 feet off the ground around pylons placed on the ground, in a cluster of other planes going that fast and that low.” Yet, that’s exactly what Florence Klingensmith did.
“Of the main characters of ‘Fly Girls,’ Florence was the most talented female flier,” O’Brien tells FOTO. “Some of these pilots, both male and female, raced in transcontinental races or raced across oceans, across a straight line for distances.That was not Florence’s game. She raced in what were called ‘free for alls.’ It was a very hard thing to do. Most male aviators couldn’t fly, or couldn’t fly fast anyway, in a pylon race. Florence Klingensmith could and she was extremely good at it. She was so good that in 1933, air race officials gave her the opportunity of a lifetime: They would invite her to race against the men in Chicago. What happened that day in Chicago would change things forever for women on the ground and women in the air.”
What happened that day in Chicago is that the wing of Klingensmith’s plane began to disintegrate as she whizzed around pylons at an average speed of 200 miles per hour. Realizing her aircraft was going down, Klingensmith piloted it away from the watching crowd, crash landing in a field. She did not survive. The next year, women were no longer allowed to compete in this race. (Pictured above: The scene of Klingensmith's crash.)Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
“I love this photo because Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols, and Louise Thaden really were three of the leaders in this era between 1927 and 1937,” says O’Brien. “They were always vying against each other in the sky, breaking each other’s speed records, breaking each other’s altitude records, at times racing each other across the ocean. Their lives are entangled and their friendships, at times, are complicated because they were all sort of chasing the same dreams. But I think what’s powerful about this is that they were really friends.”New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images
ON THE EDGE OF GLORY
“This photo is taken in late 1930. Ruth is wearing a dashing fur coat with her mother who is also wearing a fur coat, and they’re standing in front of her Lockheed. Underneath the nose of the plane, she has painted all her records. Within six months of this photo, Ruth Nichols will make a daring flight. She will try to be the first woman to fly solo across the ocean — leaving from New York City, flying up the coast of North America and out over the sea. This is one year before Amelia Earhart would attempt such a flight. And Ruth Nichols attempted this flight knowing that it could end her life — that if something went wrong over the ocean, that was it. There was often no saving a pilot who got lost over the ocean.”PhotoQuest/Getty Images
FORGOTTEN NO MORE
“Florence is wearing a bouquet of flowers over her shoulder. She has just won the inaugural Amelia Earhart Trophy Race in Cleveland, Ohio — an all-female air race around pylons. It’s worth noting Amelia didn’t participate in this race... There are no statues for Florence Klingensmith. There are no schools named after her. There’s not even a plaque for her in Chicago where she raced against the men. She has been forgotten, and I hope ‘Fly Girls’ will play a small role in bringing her story back for people to appreciate.”
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