Greve was also a vocal advocate of allowing women (who at the time were largely viewed as inferior and even downright incompetent) to participate in air racing. For the 1929 National Air Races, to be held in Cleveland for the first time, Greve donated the trophy and purse for the first Cleveland Pneumatic Aerol Trophy Race, a two-class cross-country event to be held derby-style. It was to start in Santa Monica, California, at Clover Field, and end in Cleveland, Ohio. Over the years, the race has also become known as the 1929 Women’s Air Derby and the First Women’s National Air Derby.
With Phoebe Omlie's Monocoupe ready to go in the background, humorist
and aviation promoter Will Rogers (third from right) talks things over with
Ruth Elder. Could this have been that moment when he uttered his "powder-
On the day of the race's start, many Southern California celebrities came out to see the competitors off, and one celebrity in particular was chosen to be the event's Grand Marshal, aviation promoter and nationally-known humorist Will Rogers. As the pilots made their final preparations to climb into their aircraft, he commented that their female “genes” compelled them to take one final look at the mirror in their compacts, and apply one final dab of powder to their noses (some of the racers later would comment that it was Ruth Elder who was especially prone to this habit). With reporters standing around, he quipped, “Looks like a powder puff derby, to me.” The phrase was grabbed and repeated across the continent by the media, to the point that after the Women’s National Air Derbies were resumed in 1947 (they ran through 1977), they were officially known as “The Powder Puff Derby”.
|Close-up from the above image, showing Will Rogers|
conversing with Ruth Elder.
Twenty women in all started the race, 18 from the U.S. and one each from Australia (Jessie Keith-Miller) and Germany (Thea Rasche); to put it in contrast, there were only 100 women (some sources say 70) who held pilots licenses in America at that time, so nearly a fifth of them participated in this race (at that time, there was no FAA to issue licenses, instead they were issued by the French-based Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, or FAI, the organization that still to this day sactions and authenticates all world aviation records). Among the entrants was Amelia Earhart in her first competitive race, and the flamboyant Pancho Barnes. The rules stated that each entrant had to have at least 100 hours of flying time, including at least 25 hours of cross-country experience. The racers, and their aircraft, were:
Edith Foltz (#109)
Jessie Keith-Miller (#43)
Clair Fahey (#54)
Phoebe Omlie (#8)
Thea Rasche (#61)
Bobbi Trout (#100)
Travel Air (OX-5)
deHavilland Gypsy Moth
Golden Eagle Chief
Pancho Barnes (#2)
Marvel Crosson (#1)
Amelia Earhart (#6)
Ruth Elder (#66)
Mary Haizlip (#76)
Ruth Nichols (#16)
Blanche Noyes (#3)
Gladys O'Donnell (#105)
Margaret Perry (#11)
Louise Thaden (#4)
Mary von Mach (#5)
Vera Dawn Walker (#113)
Neva Paris (#23)
Opal Kunz (#18)
Curtiss Robin C-1
Vera Dawn Walker, a native of Los Angeles, named her Curtiss Robin C-1 Miss
Los Angeles. Here she gets the start flag.
On her way to Santa Monica, Phoebe Omlie had to make an off-airport landing, and was arrested and jailed by the local cops as a suspected dope smuggler. It was only when Amelia Earhart, Louise Thaden and Marvel Crosson showed up at the sheriff's office to vouch for her that the law decided that they had the wrong person.
The race was started according to class, with the airplanes lined up abreast and individually flagged to take off when the timers were ready. The initial gun-shot starting the race was fired in Cleveland, and transmitted by radio to Santa Monica.
|With a wave of the flag, Thea Rasche taxis her deHaviland Gypsy Moth|
across the start line. She would finish fourth and last in the light division.
Day 2, August 19, San Bernardino to Yuma to Phoenix: Claire Fahy, flying a Travel Air, had to make an emergency landing in Calexico because of broken flying wires, the bracings that held the bi-planes wings in shape. Rumors of sabotage had run rife before the race started (Edler’s fuel tank problems didn’t help this, either), and Fahy cried foul, alleging that her wires had been eaten away by acid in a deliberate attempt to cause her to crash. Thea Rasche had to make an off-airport landing when her engine quit, and found contamination throughout her fuel lines. Amelia’s Vega nosed over at Yuma, damaging the prop, and she was stuck there until a new one could be flown out later in the day. Mary Haizlip, Pancho Barnes and Bobbi Trout got lost and ended up in Mexico, but Trout’s problem was more serious than the others: she was out of gas and had landed in a soft dirt field, badly damaging her Golden Eagle. Some friendly locals helped her move the airplane across the border to Yuma’s airport, where it took three days to rebuild, putting her far behind. Sixteen aircraft arrived at Phoenix, and three of the other four were accounted for. Pancho was in first place in the heavy division, with Phoebe in first in the light.
Marvel Crosson, however, was missing. The next morning, her Travel Air was found destroyed in the rough territory of the Gila River Valley, four miles from Wellton, Az. She had crashed only twenty minutes from Yuma. Some of the media reports at the time claimed that she had bailed out and her chute failed to open, while others said that she was thrown from the plane on impact. Her body was found a couple hundred yards from the plane, with her partially deployed chute. There was evidence that she had vomited over the side of the cockpit, a typical symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning. For her to do that, she would have had to unbuckle and raise herself up off her seat in order to lean out over the cockpit rim. It would have been difficult for her to keep her hands on the controls at this point. Whether it was at this moment or whether she lost consciousness a short time later, she clearly lost control of the aircraft. Four witnesses (ranchers, who had no first-hand knowledge of piloting an aircraft) recounted that they had seen the plane spinning and diving at high speed. Virtually every bone in Marvel's body was broken, and she appeared to have died instantly. Her loss stunned the racers and the public who were following in the media. The media frenzy, of course, went into overdrive, with calls for the race to be cancelled, and allegations that this was “proof” that women had no business trying to fly. The racers, though, decided to carry on with the competition, knowing that Marvel would not have wanted her loss to result in the cancellation of the competition. Mary von Mach, in rallying her companions, declared, "Our pain shall become her tribute."
Day 3, August 20, Phoenix to Douglas: The women had to navigate the vast emptiness of the Arizona desert with nothing but a crude map and a bouncy, unreliable compass. Walker attempted to follow the railroad tracks out of Tucson, but picked the wrong set, and ended up far north of course, costing valuable time as she had to backtrack. In doing so, she also got caught up in a potentially fatal thunder storm. Her Monocoupe's enclosed cabin shielded her from the direct effects of the storm, and the altitude which she was at save her from hitting the ground when she became disoriented and lost control in the midst of the storm's violence. She landed in a cow pasture, only to meet up with some local men who were accompanying Jessie Keith-Miller, who had also made a forced landing. Others had to land as well: Opal Kunz ran out of gas, and Blanche Noyes landed near a farm house to try to find out where she was, only to discover that everyone there spoke only Spanish...because she was in Mexico. Pancho did the same thing.
By the time that the racers were in Douglas, Crosson's death was confirmed. Thaden strongly suspected the carbon monoxide poisoning that she herself had experienced in the Travel Air on the way to Santa Monica, and became concerned for the other racers flying that type.
Day 4, August 21, Douglas to El Paso to Midland: Pancho’s south-of-the-border detour the day before resulted in a big “MEXICO OR BUST” painted on the side of her Travel Air. The racers ended up stopping for the day in El Paso, which had been intended as a fuel stop only, as a dust storm between there and Midland precluded any further flying. The high winds naturally were directly across the runway, exceeding the crosswind limits of some of the planes, and making for very challenging landings. Louise Thaden and Phoebe Omlie were in the lead of their respective divisions. Since this was an unplanned overnight stop, there were no banquets to consume precious sleep time.
Day 5, August 22, El Paso to Pecos, Midland, Abilene and finally to Fort Worth: Blanche Noyes’ troubles continued, with a fire in her small baggage hold. She landed in the desert, pulled the smoldering, wooden floor out and put the fire out with sand. In the process, her landing gear was damaged and she had to stop and have it temporarily welded. Airports weren’t the same back then, and there was so much publicity about the event, that in Pecos, like other places, the crowds just drove out onto the designated landing field to get a closer look. Pancho Barnes’ Travel Air, like most big-engined tail-draggers then and now, had just about zero forward visibility in the landing attitude. As such, she hit a car as she was touching down, destroying her plane. Although Pancho herself was not hurt, there would be no more racing this year for her. Margaret Perry, flying a Spartan C-3, landed at Abilene, unable to go on, and was taken to the hospital with Typhoid fever. Continuing fears of carbon monoxide poisoning plagued the Travel Air pilots, and Walter Beech instructed mechanics from Travel Air to hurry to Fort Worth and modify all the remaining Travel Airs to prevent any further problems. Thaden was in first place in the heavies (by 21 minutes), and Omlie in first in the light division. Though some of the racers were hopelessly behind, the pressed on, if only to prove that they could complete the race.
Day 7, August 24, Wichita to Kansas City to East St. Louis: Thaden's race-leading performance had garnered much positive publicity for Travel Air, so Walter Beech approached her and offered to let her race their newest aircraft, the Model R - otherwise known as the Mystery Ship - in the Cleveland races. With that to look forward to, Thaden pressed on. Gladys O'Donnell's right main gear sunk into the soft sod on takeoff, causing her to nose over. A quick field repair to the dinged prop got her back in the air in short order, however. The media had a difficult time knowing how to handle the event. Some "news" stories were downright critical of the women and said that the stunt did nothing to further promote aviation in a legitimate way. Other reporters chose to focus on the fashion statements and general appearances of the women, something that they'd never do if it had been a male-only race. The women themselves, though, were unfazed, and started making plans to meet under the bleachers in Cleveland, to cement the relations they had built into a lasting organization to promote women in aviation. The destination, the airfield of Parks Air College in St. Louis, had a difficult approach with wires and trees at both ends, necessitating a sideslip approach on final. Both Blanche Noyes and Neva Paris ended up having to deliberately ground-loop in order to avoid running off the end of the runway, damaging the landing gear on their planes, but once again, field repairs had things in order before the next morning's takeoff.
Day 8, August 25, East St. Louis to Terre Haute, Cincinnati and Columbus: The Cleveland Aeronautical Exposition was opening this Sunday, and the excitement was growing about the arrival of the women, due in on Monday. The thick fog of early morning did nothing to dampen the spirits as the racers prepared for departure. Mary Haizlip's fuel contamination problems had continued, and so far in the race, she had made six emergency landings. Now, she had all the fuel lines completely drained and flushed, revealing quite a bit of foreign debris. To make matters worse, a mechanic working for Travel Air who was assigned to care for that company's planes in the race, reported that someone had tampered with Louise Thaden's magneto points. To forestall any further acts of sabotage to the race leader, he decided to sleep with the aircraft that night in Columbus. Bobbi Trout was catching up, and arrived at Parks just after the other racers had departed. Though she was no longer being officially timed, she quickly refueled and took off again, on her hunt to make up time. As the racers arrived at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati, they were greeted by a crowd twice as large as that which had turned out for Charles Lindbergh only two years before. Edith Foltz couldn't find the field, so pressed on to Columbus untimed. Meanwhile, Trout's problems continued, with engine failure. She barely was able to glide into an almost-too-small field, sideslipping between a line of poplar trees. She ground looped in an attempt to avoid a fence, but ripped open her aileron anyway. A tin can provided handy repair material, while an electrician from a nearby town managed to get her engine running again, and she was quickly back in the air. As an example of the excitement that the general public felt about the race, a local farmer between Cincinnati and Columbus plowed a giant arrow in to his field to help the racers along.
Day 9, August 26, Columbus to Cleveland: The final leg of the race was a mere 120 miles. Columbus had a new concrete runway that was still partially under construction, and the night before, the racers whose airplanes had metal tail skids (useful on sod runways) instead of tail wheels had caused a bit of a stir when the skids kicked up showers of sparks. The edges of the runway hadn't been finished, yet, leading to problems during the takeoff. Ruth Nichols, who sat comfortably in third place, had some work done on her Rearwin overnight, and so got up early to fly a brief test hop. On returning, she did not heed the warning to stay in the center of the new runway, and her plane clipped a tractor parked next to it, crashing. While she "miraculously" survived the wreck, she was out of the race. All the previous race takeoffs had taken place in reverse order of the standings, but from Columbus, the women left at one-minute intervals in the order that they held from the night before. Louise Thaden took off first, and after a 54-minute flight, spotted the Cleveland airfield, diving for the finish line, and crossing it at 170 mph. Her average speed for the race was 135.97 mph, and her total time was 20 hours, 2 minutes. As the winner of the heavy division, she also thus garnered the majority of the media attention. Addressing the crowd, Thaden said, "The sunburn derby is over, and I happen to come in first place. I'm sorry we all couldn't come in first, because they all deserve it as much as I. They're all great flyers." She dedicated her win to Crosson, and told the media that she was going to send the trophy to Marvel's family.
Second place went to Gladys O’Donnell (WACO 10, #105; 127.52mph, 20h:43m), third to Amelia Earhart (122.64mph, 22h:12m), with Blanche Noyes (Travel Air, #3; 110.88mph) in fourth and fifth went to Ruth Elder (Laird Swallow #66; 96.41mph)
In the light aircraft, or C Class, Phoebe Omlie took first place (Monocoupe #8; 108.19mph), Edith Foltz (Alexander Eaglerock Bullet #109; 65.44mph) came in second, followed by Jessie Keith-Miller (Fleet Model 2, #43; 51.98mph) with Thea Rasche (deHavilland Gypsy Moth, #61; 42.17mph) in fourth. Bobbi Trout finished the race technically in fifth place, although her time was not recorded.
Soon after the race, Louise Thaden, Amelia Earhart and Ruth Nichols met under the grandstand and together founded the Ninety-Nines, a women's aviation organization that is still active today.
There’s a tremendous amount of information that has been written about the 1929 race over the years, and this blog entry has really just barely scratched the surface. If you’d like to read more, here are a few sources to check out:
-Coverage on the Pancho Barnes history website, including a lot of contemporary media coverage
-Cleveland State University's web page on the history of Cleveland Airport
-A movie has been made about the race, and is available on DVD, and the movie's website has a wealth of information as well.