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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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."
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
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
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
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
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.