Celebrating the 90th anniversary of the first national women's air derby

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The 1929 Women’s National Air Derby at Clover Field. Photo courtesy of National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Ninety years ago this August, 20 women pilots flew from Santa Monica to Ohio in nine days. The race was the first all women's national air race, also known as the Powder Puff Derby. Women had learned to fly at a time when they just secured the right to vote. The air races were extremely dangerous, and fatal crashes were common. 

Women pilots of the first Women's Transcontinental Air Race gather for photos at Parks Airport while waiting for the fog to lift during a stop-over. Left to right: #1 Mary Elizabeth von Mach, #2 Jessie "chubbie" Miller,#3 Gladys O'Donnell, #4 Thea Rasche, #5 Phoebe Omlie, #6 Louise Thaden, #7 Amelia Earhart, #8 Blanche Noyes, #9 Ruth Elder and #10 Vera Walker. August 24, 1929. Photo credit: St. Louis University. 

The Powder Puff Derby involved the famed Amelia Earhart, plus other women you might not have heard of.  

Ruth Elder was a Hollywood film starlet and the first woman to try to cross the Atlantic. She fell short and bailed in the ocean. Then she joined the Powder Puff Derby, but the race went awry for her too. Her map flew out of the open cockpit, and she had to land in a field to figure out her location. 


Ruth Elder on the front page of the Santa Monica Evening Outlook newspaper on August 17, 1929. Courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library.

Pancho Barnes was a stunt pilot and heiress from Pasadena. She smoked cigars, drank hard liquor, was foul-mouthed, and basically did whatever she wanted. In the Powder Puff Derby, she accidentally detoured to Mexico. 

Marvel Crosson was an experienced pilot, and she flew the entire Powder Puff Derby course before the race. But her plane was found demolished in the mesquite jungle in the Gila River Valley, and her body had been thrown from the airplane, and she did not survive.

Ultimately, 14 pilots finished. One of the top finishers dedicated her trophy to Crosson. 

Shortly after the 1929 Derby, the racers came back together and invited more women pilots to join a new organization. Ninety-nine women signed up, and they called themselves "The 99s." They're still active today.

It's understandably much easier to fly today, with the help of GPS, and no worries about maps flying out of cockpits. 

Recently, 13 women and one man commemorated the 1929 race and the formation of "The 99s" by racing small planes from Santa Monica Airport to San Bernardino Airport. When they landed in San Bernardino, they were greeted by songs from a musical based on the 1929 derby, called "Powder Puff Pilots." 


Participants of the August 18, 2019 race. Photo credit: Victoria Bernal. 


Inside a racing plane piloted by Kate Scott, chair of The 99's LA chapter, and her mother Teresa Ferguson. August 18, 2019. Photo credit: Victoria Bernal. 

A view of LA from inside a racing plane piloted by Kate Scott and her mother. August 18, 2019. Photo credit: Victoria Bernal. 

Arhynn Descy, a competitor and chair of the event, pointed out some concerns: planes have not been redesigned to cater to women, nor have they been tested on women for safety. "If you're slightly taller or bigger, the same size as a man for example...you're fine. But if you're smaller, quite often it's hard to reach the pedals or see out because the dashboard is quite high." 

Perhaps the biggest perk of modern day flying is the camaraderie among pilots. "I started flying very late… I'm poor and have no godly reason that I should have made it this far," said pilot Andrea Garcia. "But when you see somebody else who's done it, and you see somebody else who's doing it, then you realize that you can do it too."