Pilot Ruth Nichols, 1929 (Library of Congress)
Between the world wars, no sport was more popular, or more dangerous, than airplane racing. The men who flew the planes were hailed as dashing heroes who cheerfully stared death in the face. The handful of female pilots on the racing scene were ridiculed for what the press portrayed as silly efforts to horn in on a manly, and often deadly, activity.
Drawing on his new book, Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin) Keith O’Brien recounts how a cadre of those women banded together to break the original glass ceiling: the entrenched prejudice that conspired to keep them out of the sky.
O’Brien covers the stories of five remarkable flyers who came from all classes and all over the country. They include Florence Klingensmith, who trained as a mechanic but broke into flying as a stunt girl in a bathing suit; Ruth Elder, determined to be the first woman to fly the Atlantic; Amelia Earhart, the most famous, but not necessarily the most skilled; Ruth Nichols, who chafed at the constraints of her blue-blooded family; and Louise Thaden, whose mother recalled a childhood spent as “a follower of boyish pursuits.”
He traces how these women proved their mettle in the air and broke into the male-dominated racing circuit. With a goal of challenging the greatest pilots in one of the most prestigious and grueling competitions, the Bendix Trophy Race, one them did just that in 1936—and beat the closest man by 50 minutes, earning recognition as one of America’s best pilots.
O’Brien is a former reporter for the Boston Globe and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio. Fly Girls is available for sale and signing.