“The glory of soaring above God’s Earth and the satisfaction of taking the machine up and bringing it back to the ground safely, through my own skill and judgment, has melted away the boundaries of my life. Racing opens my door to the world. Don’t cut me off from the adventure men have been hoarding for themselves in the guise of protecting me from danger.” – unnamed female aviator, 1929
Several of the women aviators competing in the 1929 Air Derby gathered for this photograph at Parks Airport in Illinois. Included, from left-to-right, are Mary Von Mach, Jessie Miller, Gladys O’Donnell, Thea Rasche, Phoebe Omlie, Louise Thaden, Amelia Earhart, Blanche Noyes, Ruth Elder, and Vera Walker. THF256262
The 1929 Women’s “Powder Puff” Air Derby was the first air race in which women aviators were allowed to participate, despite air races occurring internationally and nationally since 1909. By 1929, 117 women held pilot’s licenses in the United States and were breaking records, including some set by men, left and right. Twenty of these aviators arrived at Clover Field in Santa Monica ready to compete, but perhaps the greater motivation was to show the world how truly capable women aviators were.
The derby, from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio, was to be completed over nine days with the total time in flight recorded each day. The aviator with the shortest flight time overall, for both the DW (heavy aircraft) and CW (light aircraft) classes, would win the top prize. In order to qualify to compete, the aviators, like their male counterparts in the National Air Races, were required to have completed over 100 logged hours in flight. Several of the twenty aviators did not actually meet this qualification but flew anyway. Unlike their male counterparts, however, there were restrictions placed on the women’s aircraft engine strength. One of the aviators, Opal Kunz, had her newly-purchased 300 horsepower Travel Air airplane deemed “too fast for a woman” and was forced to rent a 200 horsepower plane for use in the derby.
The nine-day derby saw multiple mishaps. Both Florence “Pancho” Barnes and Ruth Nichols crashed their planes but managed to escape unscathed. Phoebe Omlie accidentally landed in a field where the local Sheriff nearly arrested her for alleged drug smuggling, while numerous other aviators discovered suspected sabotage efforts to their aircraft. Ruth Elder, lost on the leg to Phoenix and needing directions, accidentally landed in a field of grazing bulls, causing her to panic that the red color of her airplane would incite anger. The farmer’s wife relayed her location and Elder quickly resumed flight without damages. Tragically, on the second day of the race, Marvel Crosson perished when she crashed in the Arizona desert. Despite calls to suspend the race after Crosson’s death, the remaining women decided that finishing the race would best honor their fallen friend.
On the final day, August 26, 1929, fifteen of the original twenty women crossed the finish line in Cleveland, Ohio. Louise Thaden won the DW class and Phoebe Omlie won the CW class. As Thaden was lauded for her first-place finish, she addressed the crowd, “The sunburn derby is over, and I happened to come in first place. I’m sorry we all couldn’t come in first, because they all deserve it as much as I.”
The Henry Ford recently added over 200 artifacts related to women aviators to the Digital Collections. Of the women aviators who competed in the 1929 Air Derby, the collection includes archival materials for five of them; Louise Thaden, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Elder, Mary Von Mach, and Ruth Nichols. Numerous other significant early female aviators that did not participate in the 1929 Air Derby are also represented in the collection.
Katherine White is Associate Curator of Digital Content at The Henry Ford.