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Phoebe and Vernon Omlie: From Barnstormers to Aviation Innovators

Originally published by Aviation History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie never achieved the worldwide fame accorded Amelia Earhart, but she certainly ranked in the upper echelon of women fliers who did their utmost to focus the nation's attention on aviation. She also contributed more than a little to the struggle for gender equality.

Born in 1902, shortly before Wilbur and Orville Wright made history at Kitty Hawk, N.C., Fairgrave was raised in St. Paul, Minn. In high school she fell hopelessly in love with the thought of flying. A visit by President Woodrow Wilson to Minneapolis to promote interest in the League of Nations triggered her aviation love affair — accidentally. As his motorcade proceeded to the capitol, National Guard airplanes flew overhead. Phoebe was in physics class when the procession passed her high school. While the other students looked down at the parade, Phoebe gazed up at the spectacle in the sky. 'That's what I'm going to do!' she shouted, waving toward the planes. 'I'm going to fly.'

After graduation, two weeks of work as a stenographer convinced the 18-year-old to turn her back on humdrum office life. She headed for a Minneapolis airfield operated by Curtiss Northwest Flying Company and started pestering pilots to take her aloft. After several days one finally agreed, thinking he would frighten her out of the notion permanently. The pilot, at the instigation of the airfield manager, gave the persistent teenager the works — a few loops, some rolls and a nose dive or two — hoping to make her good and sick. Fairgrave, however, was not dismayed. The trip had quite the opposite effect. She demanded more. After her fourth flight, she plunked down $3,500 her late grandfather had left her and became the proud owner of a Curtiss JN-4 'Jenny.'

While learning to fly her plane, Fairgrave began to consider the possibility of performing acrobatics on the wing with a seasoned pilot at the controls high in the sky, a dangerous-looking stunt then coming into vogue. She soon developed a routine that included performing the Charleston and hanging by her teeth while the plane flew several thousand feet above the crowds that invariably gathered to watch. Often she would end her performance by leaping from the wing and falling for several hundred feet before opening her parachute.

After some months spent honing her skills, Fairgrave announced that she would set a world's record for women's parachute jumping. She proposed to leap from the dizzying height of 15,000 feet — nearly three miles above the astounded citizens of Minneapolis. Today, when space walks and sky-diving former presidents are a matter of routine, that sounds like small potatoes, but in 1921 it was a bold move — particularly for a teenage girl.

Flying and acrobatics were not the only skills Fairgrave had been practicing during those months between high school graduation and her record-breaking parachute jump. She had also been learning to impress the press. After she informed her cronies at the flying field about her new objective, she stopped by the St. Paul Pioneer Press and let them in on her plans — a pattern she was to repeat in coming years. All the coverage she garnered in this and later stunts enhanced her reputation as a 'daring angel of the skies.'

Fairgrave's regular pilot may have thought the proposed jump was too dangerous, forcing her to find another flier. Whatever the reason, she asked pilot Vernon C. Omlie to fly her to the unprecedented altitude (for a parachute jump) of almost three miles. On July 10, 1921, as 'thousands lined the fence around the Curtiss Flying Field,' according to the Pioneer Press,'she stepped nonchalantly off the wing of the airplane.' Twenty minutes later, motorists who had watched her descent as they drove toward the landing spot picked up the smiling teenager in New Brighton, Minn., some miles from the flying field.

The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune blared Fairgrave's accomplishment from its front page. The lead paragraph made the most of her daring leap: '[Going] from a frigid Alaskan atmosphere of 10 degrees below zero back to the torture temperature of 98 degrees in the shade, all in 20 minutes, Phoebe Fairgrave of St. Paul said, today was the most thrilling experience she enjoyed yesterday when she shattered altitude records with a leap of 15,200 feet. Today Miss Fairgrave was packing her grip, preparing to leave for Iowa to join a flying circus.'

Emboldened by the critical acclaim her feat commanded, Fairgrave and Vernon Omlie set off on a barnstorming tour. As the tour progressed, so did their romantic liaison. Although it was a constant struggle to make ends meet in the frenetic world of 1920s aviation, they had, in the vernacular of the time, 'gotten mashed' on each other. In early 1922 they married.

Omlie was a lean and lanky aviator who had served in the Army Air Corps in World War I and was highly thought of by his colleagues. His pilot's license was signed by no less an aviation notable than Orville Wright. He was skillful, careful and very steady.

As the barnstorming tour expanded, he and Phoebe took on another pilot as partner — Glenn Messer, an established barnstormer from Des Moines.

Vernon insisted on planning and practicing every stunt over and over on the ground before they performed it in the air.Theirs was one of the first teams to transfer a 'beautiful young girl' from one plane to another while both were flying a mile above ground. Vernon found a barn in Iowa with a long runway from front to back where they could practice the stunt. They rigged a trapeze from the roof, in the middle of the runway, so that when Messer hung by his knees from it, his hands would be at the same height as Phoebe's when she stood on the seat of a buggy on the ground.

After Phoebe and Messer became comfortable with the necessary handclasps and movements required for her to transfer safely from the buggy seat to the trapeze, Vernon attached horses to the buggy and slowly approached Messer, who was hanging from the trapeze. He gradually increased the speed of the buggy until Phoebe and Messer could make the change smoothly even when the horses were at a gallop.

The first time they tried it in the air, Messer hung from the axle of the upper plane. But that clearly brought the plane's propeller much too close to Phoebe. They solved the problem by hanging a rope ladder from the axle, which allowed Phoebe and Messer to climb into the receiving plane after the transfer.

As Charles E. Planck wrote in his book Women With Wings, 'This act became one of their most spectacular and caused many a yokel to sunburn his tonsils watching it.' The daring stunt was originally perfected for movie makers, who were looking for such acts to provide ever greater thrills for motion picture fans. Early on, Phoebe began a series of speaking engagements at the Princess Theater in Memphis, describing her life in aviation and in the movies. Her stunts soon helped make Pearl White famous in such 20th Century Fox films as The Perils of Pauline.

In the 1920s, barnstorming was perceived — very much as movie stardom was in the '30s and '40s — as an instant ticket to wealth, fame and adulation. Thus, many were called, but few were chosen. In reality, most barnstormers found slim pickings in the wealth department. And the rewards were certainly not commensurate with the risks involved.

Vernon and Phoebe suffered their share of financial woes. Once a hotel owner in a small Illinois town even impounded Phoebe's luggage during a tour while they scrounged for money to pay the bill. Somehow they managed to keep going.

The format was simple. They would follow the country fair circuit through Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, going south as the weather cooled, eventually ending on the Gulf Coast. An advance man would precede them, prevailing on local merchants to let them install posters in their shop windows touting the flying circus. The quid pro quo was a free airplane ride for the cooperating merchants.

There was no realistic way the Omlies could charge admission to watch Phoebe perform her high jinks in the sky. But by the time most people saw that slip of a girl dancing the Charleston, hanging by her teeth or changing planes in midair, hundreds of feet above ground, the public was hooked. Most were also eager to pay handsomely for the thrill of an airplane ride, during which they could see their own homes from high in the sky.

The young couple's perseverance and practice paid off eventually, and they hit the 'big time.' According to Charles Planck, they sometimes received as much as $2,000 for an appearance, never less than $500. Yet for the daring performers, the barnstorming mystique was beginning to pale by the end of 1923. What had started out as glamorous fun began to look and feel very much like work.

Vernon was convinced that aviation could and would become an integral part of everyday 20th-century life. Phoebe, who had become a skillful pilot in her own right by that time, agreed completely. Yet it was still a time when most rural residents were advising stranded motorists to 'get a horse.' Many Americans could hardly bring themselves to take aviation very seriously.

As they tried to figure out how to turn their act into a serious vocation, Vernon and Phoebe focused more and more on Memphis, which they believed might make a good base of operations. In 1925 the flying circus finally arrived for a brief stay in that city. Then it moved along to the next location — without the Omlies.

Overcoming resistance to change in Memphis proved to be no easy task, however. In the first place, the airshow had been conducted at the fairgrounds horse track, and the Omlies hoped to keep it as their base. But an equestrian group that trained valuable racers at the track demanded that they get their airplane contraptions out of there. So Phoebe and Vernon were forced to find another field in the area to set up shop. They offered Memphis' citizens flying lessons, along with mechanical services, but they also continued to barnstorm the hinterlands, saving such attractions as car-airplane races for the folks who came to Memphis Driving Park to see their aerial shows.

Vernon and Phoebe quickly became paragons of aviation in the mid-South, of which Memphis was the unofficial capital. They were attractive, energetic, intelligent and convivial — and both were excellent pilots. Moreover, Phoebe's skills in dealing with journalists continued to generate publicity. When they organized the Memphis Aero Club, scions of locally prominent families joined in droves. They were the talk of the town and the area.

The flood of 1927 offered the Omlies their first real opportunity to render service to the local citizens. During the crisis they flew from sunup to sundown for eight days straight, working on their planes at night and snatching a few hours of sleep before rising the next dawn. They delivered mail and medicine all over the mid-South, landing on any available strip of ground. Their work was warmly praised by city, state and federal officials. More important, it demonstrated the value of aviation so graphically that the city began work on a metropolitan airport.

The aero service and flying school prospered, too, as a result of their high-profile service. Vernon stayed busy teaching and operating the business, while Phoebe continued flying and making public appearances throughout the area. In 1927 she became the first woman to earn a transport pilot's license. By that time, her fame as an aerial acrobat and movie stunt flier had been eclipsed by her business reputation. She was also the first woman to cross the Rocky Mountains in a lightplane, a feat she accomplished during the Edsel Ford Air Tour.

In 1930 Phoebe was the winner of a race for women in cabin planes in Chicago, piloting an airplane she called City of Memphis. She also became the editor of Aero Digest.

The stock market crash and ensuing Depression brought the Omlies the same problems everyone else in the world faced, but they managed to cope. Phoebe had evolved from a devil-may-care young nymph who defied death while cavorting on the wing of an airplane to a responsible pilot, flying her plane around the country on behalf of Monocoupe, a company that specialized in small planes with medium-power motors. She also participated in races and competitions such as the annual National Women's Derby, which ran from Santa Monica, Calif., to a city in the Midwest, usually Cleveland. She won the first such race in 1929, and in 1931 she took the National Closed Course Sweepstakes prize, $12,000 and a new Cord automobile.

Through it all, Phoebe was a popular subject for newspaper columnists. These hard-boiled men of the Fourth Estate maintained an attitude of male condescension toward women pilots. For example, they dubbed the Aerosol Trophy Race the 'Powder Puff Derby' — a term that remained prominent in the journalistic lexicon throughout the decade. Phoebe may not have had the polish of Amelia Earhart, a Smith College alumna, but she was a bright, articulate, attractive woman who was also an excellent pilot. The cynics in the nation's city rooms were convinced that ordinary people loved reading about the paradox of a slip of a girl excelling in a field thought to be a male preserve.

By 1932 Phoebe's feats had received so much publicity that she was asked by the Democratic National Committee to fly a woman speaker around the country, stumping for Franklin D. Roosevelt. She flew her assigned speaker 5,000 miles during the campaign, and often joined her in a ringing personal endorsement of Roosevelt.

After FDR won the election, Phoebe flew to Warm Springs, Ga., and asked the vacationing president-elect for a job. Soon thereafter she moved to Washington, D.C., and became the first woman government official in aviation. In 1935 Eleanor Roosevelt named her 'one of the 11 women whose achievements made it safe to say the world is progressing.'

Phoebe's job with the Roosevelt administration was acting as a technical adviser, serving as liaison between the National Advisory Committee of Aeronautics and the Bureau of Air Commerce. In this position she worked with Amelia Earhart to come up with an air grid to cover the nation, making flying safer.

For his part, Vernon Omlie kept a much lower profile, but he was just as busy and active, staying in Memphis teaching and running the flying service. His skill as a teacher was widely acknowledged — a reputation that was enhanced by his emphasis on air safety and meticulous flight plans. More and more successful young business and professional men joined his legion of students.

In 1933 one of his students was author William Faulkner, whose reputation as a writer would wax and wane several times before he achieved icon status two decades later. Faulkner was already a local celebrity at the time, and his choice of Vernon as a flying mentor must have enhanced Vernon's franchise in the eyes of other students. Faulkner and Vernon became good friends in the process, and the writer may have used Vernon and Phoebe as very loose models for the protagonists in his novel Pylon.

Although Phoebe's governmental duties meant she was based in Washington and had to travel throughout the country, she and Vernon remained a devoted couple. When in Memphis they would often dine in the Venetian Room at the Peabody Hotel. From contemporary accounts, it seems they were as dazzling a pair as any F. Scott Fitzgerald could have wished for.

In 1936 Phoebe left government service and rejoined Vernon in their expanding aviation operation. Tragedy struck a few months later, on August 5, when Vernon was killed in the crash of a commercial airliner in which he was flying as a passenger to Chicago. The fatal crash occurred near St. Louis in an airplane owned by Chicago & Southern, an airline that had never before had a fatality. It seems ironic that Vernon was killed in an airplane he was not flying himself. Vernon, who had died at age 40, had always flown with the utmost caution — never flying at night and, if unsure of the length of a field, getting out of his plane to pace the distance.

Phoebe, who was devastated by Vernon's death, never remarried. In the years that followed, she busied herself operating the aviation club and service business Vernon had worked so hard to nurture during the depths of the Depression. One of her most successful extracurricular efforts helped persuade the Tennessee Legislature to enact a law allocating a small amount of the aviation tax collected by the state to aviation instruction in Tennessee schools.

The basic idea of that law was soon copied by many states, but Tennessee was the first to have it, due in large part to Omlie's lobbying efforts. A few years later the federal government assumed exclusive responsibility for pilot training.

In 1941 Phoebe Omlie sold her interest in the business and returned to Washington as a coordinator in the research division of the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA). The CAA and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) cooperated with the Office of Education in the training of airport personnel, preparing the people who handled the planes and performed other work at the airports for the special problems of the flying fields. Omlie's long experience as a manager and co-manager at Memphis meant that she was eminently qualified to organize these classes. By the end of the year she had started programs in 46 states, through which several hundred men from the ranks of the WPA had been trained.

Eleven years later Omlie resigned, fearing the government's ever-increasing role in aviation was stifling the industry. She came back to Memphis a far different woman from the vivacious 23-year-old wing-walker who had barnstormed into town back in 1924 along with her pilot husband. After she returned, Phoebe cast about for something to challenge her spirit of enterprise. She bought a cattle ranch in north Mississippi, about as far from aviation as one could get. Her lack of experience was a problem, and after five years of unsuccessful effort at ranching, she traded it for a hotel and cafe in Lambert, Miss., south of Memphis. Sadly, Omlie proved equally inept in that business…or unlucky. Demand for hotel rooms in tiny Lambert was none too great in the late 1950s. She gave up the hotel in 1961 and returned once again to Memphis, this time broke and living off the bounty of friends much of the time. She remained interested in aviation and appalled at the ever-growing federal legislation restricting it.

Omlie had maintained a few press contacts and was able to find a small audience to address in many of mid-America's cities. For nine years she made sporadic trips to address meetings, usually railing against the CAA. But her audiences continually declined in size, and she made her last speaking trip in 1970 to Indianapolis.

Five years later, on July 17, 1975, Phoebe Omlie died, and her friends arranged for her to be buried beside Vernon at Forest Hill Cemetery, in south Memphis. She had spent her last years in an alcoholic haze in a seedy Indianapolis flophouse, in utter seclusion, refusing to see anyone for any reason, and suffering from lung cancer. She was not to know that the central tower at Memphis International Airport, erected in 1982, would be named to honor her and Vernon.

Ironically, while Phoebe Omlie was being buried in the quiet, green hills of Forest Hill, just a few miles to the southeast entrepreneurs were starting to build a corporation now known throughout the world as Federal Express. When you pass by Memphis International Airport and see all the orange and purple planes parked there, ready to fly around the world, remember Phoebe Omlie, who used to love dancing on aircraft's wings. Without the Omlies' contributions to the aviation industry, such a company might not exist today.

This article was written by George T. Wilson and originally published in the June 2002 issue of Aviation History. For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!

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