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Tomboy of the Air

By Richard Bauman
6/29/2017 • Aviation History Magazine

Blanche Scott, America’s first female stunt pilot, made a lasting mark in aviation.

The crowd watched as the fragile-looking biplane spiraled upward against the blue sky, its 35-hp engine straining as it climbed ever higher. At 4,000 feet the pilot suddenly nosed over and dived straight down. Spectators couldn’t tear their eyes away from the plummeting aircraft, as the high-pitched whine of its engine grew louder by the second. Everyone wondered the same thing: Would the daredevil flier manage to pull up in time? Just a few hundred feet above the ground the biplane leveled out, then shot over the crowd. Cheers filled the air as young Blanche Scott completed another of her signature “Death Dive” performances.

Scott was just 20 when she became America’s first woman stunt pilot in October 1910. By 1912 she was billed as the “most famous aviatrix in the world.”

Scott’s appetite for daredevil stunts started at an early age. As a preteen she broke a few bones and smashed up more than a few bicycles trying to become a trick cyclist. By the time she was 13, Scott was driving her father’s car around Rochester, N.Y.—closely observed by the police, though there was no minimum driving age at the time. Scott’s parents sent her to finishing schools in New York and Massachusetts, perhaps hoping to dissuade her from a career as a daredevil. If that was their plan, it didn’t work.

At 20 she started selling Overland automobiles in New York City. She soon persuaded the management to fund a trip from New York to San Francisco in a car she dubbed the “Lady Overland.” Although she ostensibly made the trip solo—the first woman to undertake such a venture—a woman journalist actually accompanied her. The trek was intended to give the car company publicity as well as demonstrate the feasibility of long-distance automobile travel. The idea was to show that cross-country travel was so easy and safe that even a woman could do it.

Of course, traveling by car was far from easy in 1910. Few paved roads existed, and often there was little more to follow than wagon-rut paths. Scott’s meandering 6,000- mile trip, which included visits to Overland dealers across the U.S., took from mid-May to late July to complete. She drove every mile of the journey, accompanied by reporter Gertrude Philips, who filed daily stories about their adventures along the way.

When they went through Dayton, Ohio, Scott visited an airshow, and instantly became infatuated with airplanes. Once she reached California, she wangled a ride, which only increased her fascination for flying machines.

Jerome Fanciulle of the Curtiss Exhibition Flying Team asked Scott if she wanted to learn to fly. Silly question. Her response was basically: where and when? At the time, Glenn Curtiss was eager to publicize aviation in general and his airplane company in particular, but he initially resisted allowing Scott to train as a pilot. He was concerned that if a woman learned to fly and was killed or injured in a crash, it would be a major setback for aviation. Curtiss eventually relented and agreed to give her flying lessons. Scott would be his first and last female student.

“I learned in just two days,” Scott told a reporter some years later.“The technique was for the instructor to say ‘goodbye and God bless you,’ and you were on your way.” Curtiss allowed her to “pilot” one of his single-engine pushers, but she was supposed to remain on the ground. She did a lot of “cutting the grass,” taxiing around the field at Hammondsport, N.Y.

To prevent her from flying before her time—which in his mind was never—Curtiss had put a small block of wood in the airplane’s throttle control, so it wouldn’t be able to develop enough power for takeoff. That worked for a while.

Exactly how Scott came to make her first flight is disputed. Some accounts claim she was trundling along on the ground when a strong gust lifted the plane into the air, and she reached an altitude of about 40 feet. Another version says that either Scott herself or a mechanic removed the throttle block, allowing the plane to briefly become airborne. There’s also disagreement about when she first soloed, ranging from late August 1910 to early October (a U.S. Air Force website pegs it at September 2). Regardless, Blanche Scott had become the first woman to pilot an airplane in America.

Curtiss was aghast, but once Scott got into the air and safely landed it was impossible to stop her from becoming a pilot. She turned out to be a quick learner, making her airshow debut on October 24 in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Scott’s skills convinced Curtiss to add her to his Curtiss Exhibition Flying Team, then performing across the country. Billed as the “Tomboy of the Air,” she became famous for a variety of stunts, including flying inverted beneath bridges and her Death Dive. After flying for one season with the Curtiss team, Scott moved on to the Glenn L. Martin Aerial Team. In 1913 she joined the Ward Exhibition Team, where she remained until the end of her flying career. Between airshow seasons she worked as a test pilot for Martin.

Scott survived two serious crashes during the course of her career as a stunt pilot. She admitted that the first was her fault, claiming she had been distracted because she was “in love.” Following her second smashup, in 1916, it took her nearly a year to recover from her injuries.

By early 1917, Scott’s body had mended but she had changed her mind about flying as a career. She was disenchanted with airshows, complaining, “Too often people paid money to see me risk my neck, more as a freak, a woman pilot, than as a skilled aviator.” Aviation’s male-dominated hierarchy bothered her too. “There seemed to be no place for a woman engineer, mechanic or pilot,”she said.

The former Tomboy of the Air moved to Hollywood, where she became a screenwriter. She also wrote radio dramas and even starred in a show, Roberta, that she had scripted.

Though Scott resented the scarcity of opportunities for women in aviation, she never completely gave up her interest in flying. In 1948 she made aviation history one more time when Chuck Yeager took her for a ride in a TF-80C, the trainer version of the Lockheed Shooting Star, treating her to some snap rolls and a 14,000-foot dive. Scott thus became the first American woman jet passenger.

In 1954 she became a special consultant to the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. She apparently had a rare knack for persuading individuals and companies to make donations to the museum. After two years, she jokingly said of her efforts: “I got the museum $1.25 million worth of precious historical material. I’m one of the world’s best chiselers.”

Blanche Scott died in January 1970 at age 80. She received numerous accolades during her lifetime, as well as posthumous honors, including having her likeness appear on a 28- cent U.S. Postal Service airmail stamp in 1980—the first woman stunt pilot to achieve that honor. It was a grand tribute to a woman who became famous as a flying daredevil. Looking back on her teens and early 20s, Scott once said that she had been “a screwball then,” adding, “I was a cocky kid…and the whole thing was a lark.” She might well have added: It was a grand flight.

 

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.

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