“Ladies first” may have been the rule in polite society in the early days of flight, but women who wanted to be pilots had to fight for any place in the dangerous but rapidly developing field of aeronautics. Women competed for any place in air shows and races, risking life and limb in the unpredictable air shows, pylon racing, cross-country racing, and stunt flying. Still, they banded together as the “Ninety Nines,” and, shut out of the big-money races for a time, sponsored their own long-distance competition which became famous as the Powder Puff Race.
Like early male pilots, many of them died in those flimsy contraptions of wood and canvas, but the thrills and drama that attracted women and men alike to fly those aircraft built huge followings among the public and provided the impetus for the rapid improvement of the airplane.
Keith O’Brien’s forthcoming Fly Girls Young Readers’ Edition: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019) focuses on the lives of five female flyers, Florence Klingensmith, Ruth Elder, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols, and Louise Thaden, young twenty-somethings with a passion for flying. Although Florence Klingensmith, forced to begin as a swimsuit-clad wing walker, died in her cockpit, and Amelia Earhart, who profited from media attention by means of her marriage to publisher G.P. Putnam, was lost in her effort to be the first woman to fly around the world, the survivors among the five lived to see the fruits of their efforts. Louise Thaden, mother of two, won the nation’s top flying prize, the prestigious 1936 Bendix Trophy, finishing first among women and men in the cross-country race. Ruth Nichols lived to be the first woman to pilot a supersonic jet in 1958. The glamorous Ruth Elder held for a time the record for the longest flight by a woman, became a movie actress, worked as a executive in the airline industry for Howard Hughes, and was the subject of several books, including the Nancy Drew- era fiction series, the Ruth Darrow Flying Stories, no doubt inspiring the next generation of female aviators and astronauts.
They flew for Marvel Crosson, who died in 1929, and for Ruth Nichols, who nearly died too many times in flames. They flew for Florence Klingensmith, who gave her life in Chicago, for Frances Marsalis, killed while racing in Dayton, and for the missing Frances Grayson.
These exceptional women were an unusual fraternity, united in their passion, their spirit, and their friendship. Before Amelia Earhart left for her last flight, her close friend Louise Thaden had a premonition about the effort, but the two joked about Earheart’s prospective funeral.
“You have nothing to gain and everything to lose,” Thaden said. “If I don’t see you before you shove off for Hawaii,” she asked, “what flowers should we send?”
“Water lilies seem appropriate, don’t you think?” Earhart joked.
In this new young readers edition, NPR reporter O’Brien stresses the bonds between all the women “aviatrixes” of those early days of flight. The women flew not just for themselves, but for all women pilots and for all the women of their time who yearned to move into new areas of modern life.
A lively and engaging historical collective biography revealing the sisterhood, the camaraderie of these early pioneers, this book celebrating the little-known fly girls of the early days of aviation should be a first purchase for middle and high school libraries.