Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women’s National Air Derby
Archetypal Images, Columbia, Md., 2010, $30.
You could say the First Women’s National Air Derby began as an “opener act,” meant to attract attention to the 1929 Cleveland Air Races. What quickly became known as the first “Powder Puff Derby” began in Santa Monica, Calif., and was timed to finish in Cleveland nine days later, during the men’s races. As Breaking Through the Clouds makes abundantly clear, the women hoped to show the world they could fly as well as men.
This two-hour DVD incorporates modern cinematography, archival newsreels, photos and artifacts, in addition to commentary by aerobatics experts Patti Wagstaff and Julie Clark, historians and the racers’ families and friends. We also get to hear racer Elinor Smith reminisce about her own experiences, and those of her fellow competitors (Smith, who went on to set multiple solo and endurance speed and altitude records, died in March 2010).
There were actually two races: Of the 19 women who took off on August 18 (plus one who didn’t get off the ground until the 19th), 14 flew planes classed as heavyweight and six flew lightweights. The mostly homegrown group included German Thea Rasche and Australian Jessie“Chubby” Keith-Miller.
Aircraft maintenance was part of the contest. In fact, Amelia Earhart and other competitors fought hard to change an original rule that would have put a mechanic in the cockpit with each flier. These women wanted to prove they could make their own repairs when necessary. Given the grueling schedule (in addition to days spent flying, they had to get dressed up and attend a“rubber chicken” banquet almost every time they landed), they got plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their mechanical expertise. Besides mechanical glitches and weather, they coped with navigation difficulties, accidents and illness—including one case of typhoid fever. Several aircraft were also sabotaged, necessitating additional security measures.
On the race’s second day, Marvel Crosson, who held the women’s altitude record, died when her Travel Air crashed in Arizona. The tragedy hit hard, occasioning talk of abandoning the contest, but in the end the fliers decided Crosson would have wanted them to continue. Louise Thaden came in first in a Travel Air in the heavyweight group. Phoebe Omlie, flying a Velie Monocoupe, claimed the lightweight trophy.
While Thaden—who dedicated her trophy to Crosson—would later be victorious in the Bendix Trophy Race and win the Harmon Trophy in 1936, she later described the first Women’s Air Derby as her proudest moment. Despite a few minor editing flaws, Breaking Through the Clouds shows why this first cross-country race for women was a watershed event in aviation as a whole.
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.