The Liz Library Women's History Section

Spotlight on Louise Thaden

Bentonville Woman Boldly Flew as No Woman Had Flown Before
by Irene Stuber

      It was the perfectly miserable end to a perfectly miserable day...
      Too late the two women realized their plane was crossing the finish line of the most prestigious air race the wrong way.
      Embarrassed and convinced they were dead last in the first transcontinental air race to pit women against men, Louise Thaden along with her copilot Blanche Noyes tried to hide by taxiing their bright blue bi-wing plane into an inconspicuous area away from the overflowing grandstands.
      But a large group of men started chasing them, shouting, waving their arms.
      "I wonder what we've done wrong now!" Louise Thaden said with disgust to her copilot as she tried to direct her plane to a distant corner of Mines Field in Los Angeles.
      Indeed, what else could go wrong?
      Fourteen hours and 55 minutes earlier in Brooklyn, NY, the starter for the 1936 Bendix race lost his flag and had to use his handkerchief to signal Thaden for take off.
      Almost immediately their radio went out forcing them to navigate by dead reckoning through bad weather that plagued them across the entire continent. Then to top the debacle, they crossed the finish line from the wrong direction in front of thousands of fans who had expected to see the best.
      The men running after them were able to block their way and only then were the women made to realize the men weren't chasing them. They were race officials trying to catch them.
      Without radio contact, Louise Thaden and her co-pilot Blanche Noyes had no way of knowing they had won the prestigious 1936 Bendix Trophy Race.
      For the first time in the history of the greatest air race to define piloting skills and endurance - and the first time that women were allowed to compete against the men - women proved their abilities.
      Thaden and Noyes won $7,000 - both the $5,000 first prize for winning and the consolation prize of $2,000 that had been established for the first woman to complete the race, so confident were race officials that women would not do well.
      The victory photo with the huge Bendix trophy shows pencil-thin Thaden with a smile of absolute joy.
      Laura Ingalls crossed the finish line second, 45 minutes later and the duo of Amelia Earhart and Helen Richey finished fifth.
      In her autobiography Louise Thaden described some of the problems in the trans-continental race in a plane that only weighed 992 pounds, had one motor and could have fit (without wings) on any modern flatbed truck.
      "Our navigation helps were not very good. We had a (radio) receiver and it went out and we had to just dead reckon. I had a knee (writing) pad and every time we had to deviate off our compass course, I would write down the time and our heading and then the first time that we found a valley going back in that direction I'd write that time and heading. In that way we stayed on course all the way to Los Angeles."

      Thaden, however, was not new to flying or to winning races. Having learned to fly in 1927 at the age of 22, she set her first record in 1928 when she flew her plane to nearly 20,000 feet, higher than any woman had ever gone.
      She'd left her family's farm near Bentonville, Arkansas, where she was born and moved to Wichita, Kansas, where she worked as a sales clerk for a coal company. She hung about the local flying field and dreamed that flying could make her "master of my fate." She was finally offered a job with flying lessons as part of her salary.
      Thaden's first taste of racing victory was in the 1929 Powder Puff Derby in which the women flew from sunup to sundown leaving California August 18, 1929, and ending in Cleveland, Ohio, site of the national air races eight days and 2,800 miles later. The jumps were 300 miles a day with stops for rest and refueling.
      At fueling stops, the women had to sign autographs, submit to interviews, and even defend their planes from too inquisitive fans who kicked the tires and attempted to stick things into the fabric-covered wooden frame to see how sturdy they were.
      Several accidents occurred during the race, including one to Blanche Noyes, who would be Thaden's co-pilot in the Bendix competition. Flying at 3,000 feet, she saw the baggage section of her plane spouting smoke and flames. She was forced to land in the west Texas desert and use the free blowing sand to put out the flames. One wheel of her plane was badly damaged in the mesquite-filled area. In an amazing show of skill, she took off on the one good wheel and duplicated the feat to land at the end of the day at the scheduled airfield unharmed.
      But journalists and critics of women's flying ignored the bravery and obvious abilities and centered on a single fatality. Marvel Crosson bailed out of her stricken plane over Arizona at too low an altitude - perhaps waiting too long - and died on impact, her parachute only partially open.
      Flying was a dangerous occupation and accidents were bound to happen. But while men died as victims of accidents, women pilots died because they were incompetent. One headline about Crosson's death read: "Women Have Conclusively Proven They Cannot Fly."
      In 1934 another accident occured that was used by male race officials to further bar women. During a woman-only race, the fabric of one of the planes peeled away fouling the tail. Instead of parachuting out immediately, she choose to fly away, of the course to get away from the watching crowd. She died rather than kill any fans. Although it was obviously equipment failure, race officials and newspapers used the death against all women pilots, forgetting her bravery.
      Of the 20 women who started the 1929 race, 15 made it to the finish line in Cleveland. Gladys O'Donnell finished second to Thaden and Amelia Earhart was third. Louis Thaden recalled watching the other planes come roaring across the finish line until "a glistening row of wings shimmered in the sun, lined up in front of the longer center grandstand."
      It was a proud sight, she thought, but also a sad one: "We were all there, an undetermined, aimless group, now that the Derby had ended."
      In retrospect she could be poetic. At the time she said to the exuberant crowd: "All the girls flew a splendid race. Mine is the faster ship. Thank you."
      None of the women showed any sign of any feminine weakness or panic that had been predicted. Women would surely faint at the first sign of danger, the men predicted. Ruth Elder did admit to an unspoken prayer after she made an unscheduled landing in a field of cattle in her bright red aircraft. "Please let them be cows."
      Thaden, in addition to winning races, also set altitude, endurance, and speed records. Her faith in women pilots was legendary. She would always claim that women were "innately better pilots than men."
      She said "The successful completion of the Derby was of more import than life or death (to us).... We women of the Derby were out to prove that flying was safe."                The 1929 Powder Puff Derby was significant in another way. It was the first time so many women pilots had been together: for most of them flying was a lonely occupation needing a terrible amount of dedication and self-confidence.  
    Some had never met another woman pilot since in 1929 there were so few of them, sometimes scattered one or two to an entire state. The nearest woman pilot to share experiences and discuss their unique problems were often hundreds of miles away. While men pilots had rubber hoses built into the planes that extended from the cockpit to a drain under the fuselage, women pilots were given no such conveniences.
      At one stage in her career, Louise Thaden took charge of the women's division of the Penn School of Aviation in Pittsburgh. Although men and women were trained on the same equipment by the same personnel, a separate division was formed because the all-male operators of the school believed that methods for training women to fly should in some way be different from those used to train men, though no one seemed really sure why or how.
        Thaden showed that the cost of training male and female pilots was the same, both in ground and flying courses. (This battle of costs would be fought again during the training of women pilots in World War II with the same results.) Thaden reported that although women were generally slower in learning how to land, they were better in air work and quicker in learning take-offs.
      (Iris) Louise McPhetridge Thaden (1905-1979) wrote in her autobiography High, Wide, and Frightened (1938) about the times when firsts were really firsts, of a time when camaraderie existed because words were not always necessary between sister pilots, a time of instant friendship and a spirit of cooperation, and most of all, a sense of something shared. Many of us knew such a feeling in our early days with the feminist movement.
      The Bendix would be won again by a woman in 1938 by the immortal Jacqueline Cochran, winner and holder of more records than any other man or woman in the history of aviation with the P-35, designed and built by Alexander P. de Seversky. Seversky used Cochran to convince U.S. Army Air Corps generals that the plane itself was superior, not just the pilots who had flown it before. Her time was so fast, someone started the rumor that the race had actually been flown by a man who was hidden aboard the plane!
      Besides flying, Thaden played an active role in promoting the aviation industry through her speeches, her articles, and her autobiography. At the end of the 1930's, Thaden returned to the commercial side of aviation, serving as a factory representative and demonstration pilot for Beech Aircraft Corporation. By the end of her life in 1979 she had flown a glider and a jet. The Bentonville, Arkansas, Municipal Airport has been named the Louise Thaden Field. Located off Highway 71, the terminal has a number of exhibits that celebrate Thaden's pioneering ... including that marvelous photo of the huge Bendix trophy eclipsing Thaden's slim stature, but not her smile - a smile of total glee that will always serve as a beacon for other women to boldly go where no woman has gone before.

      Thaden held three international records, solo, endurance and altitude, no other woman pilot held all three at the same time.

A woman sociologist, Katherine Davis, allied herself with male attitudes when she stated that "There is no woman alive today ... equipped for such a flight." What she was describing was the 1927 attempted flight of Ruth Elder across the Atlantic - as a passenger.

© 1990-2006 Irene Stuber, Hot Springs National Park, AR 71902. Originally web-published at We are indebted to Irene Stuber for compiling this collection and for granting us permission to make it available again. The text of the documents may be freely copied for nonprofit educational use. Except as otherwise noted, all contents in this collection are © 1998-2009 the liz library.  All rights reserved. This site is hosted and maintained by the liz library.