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Glory & Appendicitis

By Wanda Langley
10/18/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

Endurance fliers Louise Thaden and Frances Marsalis triumphed over exhaustion—and media hype—in 1932.

In July 1932, Louise McPhetridge Thaden received a call from Charles S. “Casey” Jones, manager of Curtiss Airport at Valley Stream, Long Island. “How would you like to make a refueling endurance flight with Frances Marsalis?” he asked. “The planes are almost ready—all you have to do is fly.” Thaden, an experienced pilot, was intrigued by his proposition. “I think it would be fun,” she said, then explained that she’d talk it over with her husband Herb and call Jones back the next day. When it came, her answer was a resounding yes.

For Thaden, who would serve as the lead pilot on the flight, aerial challenges were nothing new. Born in 1905 in Bentonville, Ark., she was fascinated with flying from childhood on. At age 7, for example, she survived jumping off a barn holding a large umbrella. She entered Arkansas University when she was 15, majoring in journalism and physical education, but eventually dropped out and went to work for a coal company in Wichita, Kan. Thaden began spending her weekends watching planes being built at the nearby Travel Air factory, where she met owner Walter Beech. When Beech offered her a job at his Pacific Coast distributorship, she received flying lessons as part of her salary. She earned her private pilot’s license in 1927 and her transport license a year later.

Almost immediately she began setting women’s aviation records. Between December 1928 and April 1929, she set three records—in altitude (20,260 feet), endurance (22 hours, three minutes, 28 seconds) and speed (156 mph), the first woman to hold these records simultaneously. She also won the 1929 Women’s Air Derby, piloting a Travel Air built specially for her by Walter Beech. By the time Jones called, she was married to pilot and aeronautical engineer Herb Thaden and was the mother of a 2-year-old son.

Although less experienced than Louise Thaden, Frances Marsalis was still an accomplished pilot before her endurance attempt. Born in Del Rio, Texas, she spent her early childhood riding pigs, horses and cows on her father’s ranch. Frances completed her schooling in Houston and got a job working as a credit manager for a furniture store. At age 23, she came into a small inheritance and enrolled as a student at Roosevelt Field, N.Y., then transferred to the Curtiss Flying School in Mineola. In 1929 she received her pilot’s license and married flight instructor William Marsalis. In 1930 she earned her transport license and began ferrying planes for the Curtiss Company. She also became a stunt flier with the Curtiss Exhibition Company, flying with her husband and Dale Jackson. On many occasions, she said, “When my time comes, I hope it’s in a plane, where I can crack up in one grand splurge, engine wide open.”

Two weeks after Casey’s contact, Thaden and Marsalis arrived in Valley Stream for training. As charter members of the “Ninety-Nines,” the international organization of women pilots established in 1929, the two aviators knew each other, but they had never flown together. They also knew nothing about refueling flights—but then neither did anyone else connected with this venture. But Marsalis and Thaden agreed it should be fun.

One August afternoon the women took off in their Curtiss J6E Thrush, equipped with a 240-hp Wright engine, to practice making contacts with the refueling plane, a smaller Curtiss Robin powered by a Challenger engine. The practice sessions did not go well. When the pair landed, Herb Thaden and Casey Jones were waiting. They explained that they would go up and show them how to do it. Over the course of an hour, while the two women fliers observed from a third plane, the men tried to make contact with the refueler, but they had no better luck. At one point Herb ducked when the refueling line swung toward his head. The women reportedly laughed until they cried.

After three weeks of refueling practice, Louise and Frances felt confident they were ready. Takeoff was set for August 12. Jones served as general manager of the refueling endurance flight. Lee Warrender was their flight engineer. Viola Gentry, well-known aviator and friend of both women, coordinated food and supplies. Stewart Reiss and John Runger would be piloting the Robin, sponsored by Texaco. I.J. Fox, a New York furrier, sponsored the Thrush.

Workers stripped the six-passenger Thrush, taking up its carpet and removing the cabin ceiling and walls so the pilots would have access to electrical and fuel lines. The women stuffed supplies into the fuselage, including two auxiliary gas tanks, gallon oil cans, grease, spare engine parts, tools, parachutes, first-aid equipment, an air mattress with pump, Thermos bottles of water and hot coffee, extra clothes, books, cosmetics and—their real luxury item—a demountable toilet. The name painted on the Thrush read Outdoor Girls, but newspapers immediately dubbed their plane Flying Boudoir.

Before the flight, Casey handed Frances a list of 40 “must-do” instructions. Charles Gale, representing the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, also had a list of requirements, which concluded with: “Existing record is 123 hours—5 days and 3 hours. Must be exceeded by at least one hour for a new record. Beat it.” Louise and Frances intended to break the women’s refueling record, 122 hours and 50 minutes, set by Bobbie Trout and Edna Mae Cooper in January 1931. But they never considered trying to beat the men’s refueling endurance record of 420 hours and 21 minutes, held by Dale Jackson and Forest O’Brine since July 1929.

Communication methods were primitive. The Thrush had no direct radio contact with the ground. If the pilots needed to contact the airport, they had to fly low over Hangar 1 at Curtiss Field and drop a weighted note during the second flyby. The airport communicated to the pilots by sending up notes and messages in a weighted container delivered by the Robin. The refueling plane’s pilot used hand signals to tell the Thrush pilot what to do during refueling. In their plane, Thaden and Marsalis had to shout at each other to be heard over the engine noise.

On Friday, August 12, they lifted off at 4:17 p.m. as a huge crowd cheered them on. They circled the field slowly to conserve fuel. After four hours, they had consumed 38 gallons of gas from their 190 gallons on board. At 8:20 p.m., Louise and Frances saw the yellow refueling plane—dubbed “the wet nurse”—take off. Dinner was on its way. The Robin flew above them and dropped a rope with the weighted food container. Thaden and the Robin pilot had to make three tries before Marsalis managed to grab the container.

The first refueling was scheduled for 6 a.m. the next day. Refueling maneuvers required great skill, since the two planes did not ride the air currents the same way. In addition, the Thrush’s center of gravity shifted toward the back of the plane during refueling. Thaden slid the left wing of the Thrush under the Robin’s belly at 3,000 feet. In the refueling plane, pilot Johnnie Runger was giving Thaden hand signals. A 25-foot rubber hose dangled from the Robin, then about 20 feet away. Marsalis, standing at the Thrush’s rear hatch, grabbed the hose and stuck it in the gas tank. In 4l⁄2 minutes, 90 gallons of fuel flowed from one plane to the other. When Marsalis retracted the hose, she yelled to Thaden to break contact, and the Thrush moved toward the right, away from the Robin.

Then the two planes closed in again for the food drop. Marsalis grabbed the container and whooped with delight. But then Louise, thinking that shout meant she should break contact, kicked the right rudder. The Thrush bucked and went into a spin. Thaden pressed on the left rudder and forced the wheel forward, bringing the plane out of the spin. Marsalis jumped up and down and yelled in Louise’s ear: “You broke contact too soon. The rope caught in the crack between the aileron and the wing. I’ll fly—go back and take a look.”

When Thaden looked outside the hatch, she saw torn wing fabric flapping in the wind. The refueling pilots motioned for Thaden and Marsalis to bring down the damaged Thrush. They landed at Curtiss with almost 18 hours wasted, knowing they would have to start over again. Maybe this wasn’t much fun after all.

On Sunday, August 14, Thaden and Marsalis lifted off again at 2 p.m. This time they left behind all nonessentials, well aware that they were facing an ordeal. But they would not quit for fear of being thought weak. To better communicate in the cockpit, they tied a rope around Marsalis’ waist, then looped the other end around Thaden’s arm. Marsalis would yank twice on the rope to signal when to break contact during refueling and resupply.

The women flew in four-hour shifts. In addition to keeping the plane’s hourly log and winding the barograph, the off-duty pilot had to clean the oil strainer and the four engine-line strainers every six hours, as well as pump by hand 200 gallons of gas from the auxiliary tanks to the wing tanks every 24 hours. In addition, she had to pump oil, grease the rocker arm and change batteries.

It may have been just as well that the off-duty pilot did not have much time to rest, since the air mattress sprang a leak, as did the air pillows. The women took turns sleeping on the plywood floor, resting their heads under the instrument panel, but found that the engine noise and exhaust fumes overwhelmed them. After that they slept in the other direction, using an oil can for a pillow.

Bathing proved a problem. To keep somewhat clean they sponge-bathed with alcohol-soaked cotton. But it often seemed that just when one woman stripped to bathe, a plane would fly alongside, its pilots and passengers waving. The bather would scramble to get back into her coveralls or dive out of sight onto the greasy floor. Often when they finished bathing they were dirtier than when they started.

Frances broadcast in-flight news to a national radio audience via a Columbia Broadcasting System plane, another Thrush. At 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., the broadcasting plane dropped a radio line to the Flying Boudoir, and Frances, standing in the open hatch, grabbed the line and plugged it into a mike connection. In order to be heard over the engine, Frances had to shout the news at the top of her lungs. During one broadcast, Frances’ voice started off strong but then faded away. Listening on the ground, Casey Jones swore, “God damn those so-and-so radios!” His voice, transmitted over the plane’s radio, came through loud and clear to the national radio audience. For years afterward, Jones received fan mail about his impromptu broadcast.

They flew around the airport for three days. Thaden and Marsalis both developed sore throats from shouting and were reduced to signaling to each other and writing notes. Their hands grew stiff and sore. They went down to three-hour flying shifts, then two.

Late on Tuesday, Casey sent them a note in a food container. Explaining that the reporters were complaining their flight was not exciting enough, he asked whether Frances might develop an appendicitis attack. No one would know it wasn’t true, he said. The two women looked at each another and shrugged, Why not? Louise scribbled a note back to Casey: “Frances has a terrific pain in her side from which she is suffering agonies; I have tried to persuade her to let us land, but she is adamant. What shall I do?”

They dropped the note near Hangar 1 and watched people scramble for it. Within half an hour the refueling plane came up with supplies. The “ailing” Marsalis hauled in a 60-pound bucket filled with ice, topped with a bottle of Absorbine Jr. and instructions from an Army doctor, warning Marsalis not to exert herself. As the Thrush circled over the ocean, the women dumped the ice and then rubbed the Absorbine on their swollen feet. The next day newspapers screamed: “Endurance Flier Stricken.” No one questioned how Thaden could fly a plane for 16 hours straight and yet look after her ill colleague. The next day, word came down that Marsalis felt miraculously better.

At noon on Thursday, a very real threat to the endurance flight developed. Thunderheads appeared, and the ceiling lowered until Thaden and Marsalis were flying at less than 1,000 feet. Wind gusts bounced the Thrush around, making it seemingly impossible for them to refuel. At that point they had only 14 hours to go before they broke the women’s refueling record.

About 6:45 p.m. a hole opened in the clouds directly over Coney Island, and the Robin and Thrush climbed through the opening and made refueling contact in the clear air above. When they finished, the planes spiraled down and the opening closed behind them.

A note from Jones, delivered with the next food container, said a storm still threatened, but he thought they could ride it out. At dusk the rain came pouring down. Water trickled in at the joint between the windshield and roof, and also leaked under the instrument panel, soaking the pilots’ feet. They descended until they were only about 100 feet over the airport, then began making tight turns, following the green and red airport boundary lights. They now flew in hourly shifts, stupefied by fatigue.

At dawn on Friday, the rain turned to a drizzle, the ceiling lifted and they climbed to 1,000 feet. A sponge bath and breakfast somewhat revived both fliers. At 2 p.m. the Robin flew alongside with “CONGRATULATIONS” painted on its fuselage. Thaden and Marsalis had broken the women’s refueling endurance record by one hour.

On the ground, the crowd cheered and automobile horns honked. To celebrate, John Runger made a parachute jump from the refueler. “He shouldn’t do that,” Thaden screamed. “It’s dangerous!” Jones came up in the broadcasting plane and asked whether Thaden and Marsalis wanted to land. They said no, then ordered a steak dinner.

The next two days proved fairly uneventful. The ground crew sent up newspapers and messages to the fliers on Saturday, among them a congratulatory telegram from Edna Mae Cooper, whose record they had just broken. On Sunday the largest crowd yet turned out to watch them circle and refuel.

On Monday the 22nd, numbing boredom finally overwhelmed both women. They pounded on each other’s back to stay awake. They whistled, sang, chewed gum, flailed their arms and stuck their heads out into the slipstream.

When Jones sent up a note asking if they would stay up five more days and fly to Cleveland to open the National Air Races, the women had a brief discussion. “Well, what do you think?” Marsalis asked. Thaden replied,“As far as I’m concerned, I’m ready to call it quits and land.” That was fine with Marsalis, who said, “Shake gal—so am I.”

They dropped a note, saying they would land at 5 p.m. The Robin came up with a message on its side, telling them to land when they saw a white panel on the field. At 5, no panel. Not at 5:30 either. Finally, at 6, the white panel appeared on the field below them, and they circled one last time, then glided toward the runway. At 6:05 the Thrush’s wheels touched the good earth after eight days, four hours, five minutes and 48 seconds aloft. It was finally over. A crowd of 5,000 people rushed toward the little plane and had to be restrained.

As they stopped in front of Hangar 4, the two pilots saw Viola Gentry jumping up and down in her eagerness to greet them. They hobbled off the plane. It was their first time to stand fully erect in 196 hours. The Literary Digest later quoted Frances as saying, “I’m glad to be on terra firma, but I’m not very firm.” Louise wilted and had to sit down on the running board of a car. But some rest and celebratory scotch-and-sodas at Lee Warrender’s house revived them. That evening Jones gave the record-setters a party at the Garden City Country Club on Long Island. I.J. Fox handed each flier $500, and each received $150 from CBS as well as bonuses from Texaco.

Thaden and Marsalis had flown 17,000 miles in 196 hours and five minutes; they had made 78 contacts with the refueler and 16 contacts with the broadcast plane. Their plane had consumed 2,338 gallons of gas and 321⁄2 gallons of oil.

Reportedly feeling guilty about her role in the appendicitis hoax, Thaden vowed never to be a part of duping the public again. A week to the day after Frances Marsalis was “stricken,” Thaden had to be rushed to the hospital, suffering from an acute attack of appendicitis.

In December 1933, Frances Marsalis and Helen Richey set a women’s refueling endurance record of nine days, 21 hours and 42 minutes. Marsalis worked as a Waco salesperson until her death in August 1934. While rounding a pylon at the Women’s Air Meet in Dayton, Ohio, she slammed into the ground at 130 mph. One thousand people attended her funeral. Thaden said of her friend’s death: “I could not help thinking that although Frances may have missed a few pleasures—perhaps a little additional fame, too—that she could never have been as happy here as she must be in the Valhalla of flyers. For flying and things that fly were her life, her meat and drink and sleep, and the flying game is tough, a hard nut to crack.”

Thaden went on to head the women’s division of the Pennsylvania School of Aviation and was a member of the National Air Marking program in the 1930s. In 1936 she and Blanche Noyes became the first women to win the Bendix Air Race. That year Louise received the Harmon Trophy, the highest honor awarded to any pilot. She later worked for the Beech Aircraft Corporation, demonstrating and selling planes. She died in November 1979.

 

Wanda Langley is the author of Flying Higher: The Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II and The Air Force in Action.

Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here

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