How women broke into the dangerous sport of airplane racing

In the 1920s and 30s, some 500,000 spectators came out to watch airplane races every weekend. Pilots earned tens of thousands of dollars for winning -- a huge purse in those hard times. They also crashed at up to 200 mph, right in front of fans. Men dominated the sport. But a few women broke into it, and fought to beat the best men. Their story is told in the new book “Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History.”

Some of the competitors in the first-ever women’s air derby, stopping in
East St. Louis, Ill., in August 1929. From left to right: Mary Elizabeth von Mach,
Jessie “Chubbie” Miller, Gladys O’Donnell, Thea Rasche, Phoebe Omlie,
Louise Thaden, Amelia Earhart, Blanche Noyes, Ruth Elder and Vera Walker.
Credit: St. Louis University Libraries. 

Florence Klingensmith—nervous before her first flight here, around 1928—soon emerged
as the woman to beat in the sky. Credit: Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. 

Rivals in the sky, Earhart, Nichols, and Thaden became friends on the ground, helping
the female pilots organize against the men. Credit: Thaden Family Collection. 

Author Keith O'Brien. Credit: Erik Jacobs. 



  • Keith O'Brien - author of “Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History”