BORN TO FLY
They were the kinds of kids who jumped off the roofs of buildings.
Louise McPhetridge did it when she was just seven—climbed to the roof of her family’s barn in Bentonville, Arkansas, opened a giant umbrella, and leapt. Not the best idea, maybe, but she did aim for a haystack, and wasn’t badly hurt.
And besides, she had a perfectly good reason. She knew she was born to fly.
Ruth Elder balanced on top of a shed in Anniston, Alabama. She was about twelve. She called to her pony. It came charging. Anxious girls and boys gazed up as Ruth bent her knees, waited, waited—and sprang from the shed, landing with a smack on the back of the galloping horse.
Marvel Crosson was thirteen when she attempted her first flight. She and her younger brother, Joe, had been walking home from school that day in Sterling, Colorado, when they noticed people streaming into the county fairgrounds. Marvel and Joe had no money to get in. They found a hole in the fairground fence and peeked through.
There on the grass, right in front of their eyes, was a flying machine. Or was it?
This was 1913, just ten years after the Wright brothers made the world’s first powered flight. Airplanes were still very much a work in progress. Most Americans had never even seen one. The thing on the field looked like a chair with flimsy fly’s wings. Behind the seat was a chugging motor and a giant fan.
A man sat in the seat. He shouted something. The motor roared louder. The fan blades spun. The rickety contraption bounced down the field, gaining speed, and then, somehow, incredibly, defied gravity and lifted into the air. Marvel had to remind herself to breathe.
As the plane flew low buzzing circles over the crowd, Joe, who was ten, started jumping up and down and hollering, “I’m going to be an aviator! I’m going to be an aviator!”
With its propeller behind the pilot’s seat, this early aircraft design was called a “pusher.” And yes, it actually took off.
Marvel didn’t shout or jump. She didn’t say a word. She just quietly made a decision—flying was the only thing she would ever want to do.
Back at the family home, she grabbed an umbrella—not quite wings, but the closest thing she could find—and she and Joe scrambled to the roof of the garage. She opened the umbrella and inched to the edge of the roof and was about to take off when her mother sprinted out of the house, yelping and waving her arms.
The flight was canceled. Or, to be more precise, postponed.
Amelia Earhart didn’t jump off a roof. Not exactly.
When she was about eight, she realized the top of the shed in the yard of her family’s Kansas City, Kansas, home was the perfect starting spot for a roller coaster. She and her sister, Muriel—Amelia called her Pidge—hammered two-by-fours into tracks and leaned the ride against the roof. They greased the tracks with lard from the icebox and found a wooden crate to use as a car.
Amelia insisted on going first. She carried the crate to the roof and crammed herself in, knees against chest. Pidge and their friend Ralphie stood on the top rung of a ladder, holding the car in place.
“Let me go!”
The crate shot forward, much faster than expected. The track broke with a thunderous crack, catapulting car and rider into the air. Amelia soared across the yard, slammed into the grass, and tumbled to a stop.
Alarmed adults ran out from nearby houses.
Amelia leaped up, her dress torn, bleeding from her lip, eyes flaming with joy.
“Oh Pidge,” she shouted, “it’s just like flying!”
* * *
Amelia Earhart may as well have been speaking for all the pilots in this story. The goal was always to get in the air.
After thousands of years of gazing with envy at birds in the sky, humans could suddenly climb into a plane and fly. This is a story about young women who wanted in on the action. They were in a hurry to know how planes worked and to learn how to fly them. They were eager to test themselves against each other, to push planes faster and higher, to smash each other’s records in the sky. These are the pilots who would compete in the spectacular Women’s Air Derby of 1929, the first women’s cross-country air race—and the most controversial air race the country had ever seen.
Air racing was among America’s most popular sports in the 1920s, and cross-country races were the Super Bowls of their time. Aviation was new and incredibly dangerous, so when daring pilots set out to race unreliable planes over mountains and across deserts, it made for thrilling drama. These multi-day races featured fierce rivalries, back-and-forth battles for the lead, violent storms, and mechanical failures in the air. There were always crashes in these races. In almost every race, at least one pilot was killed.
The first Women’s Air Derby would be no exception.
The twenty pilots who would meet in the derby came from all over the country, each with her own story. But they had a lot in common. Besides jumping off roofs.
All were born in the last few years of the nineteenth century or the first few years of the twentieth. They were girls who loved tools and mechanical things, rough sports and risky adventures. They were the kinds of kids who got called “daredevils” and “tomboys.” Ruth Elder was typical of the group. She didn’t mind being different. She did mind that her school wouldn’t let her try out for football.
When Marvel Crosson’s parents spent their life savings on a new automobile, Marvel took the entire engine apart. She wanted to figure out how it worked—and make it go faster. Mr. Crosson walked into the garage and was horrified to find his children, Marvel and Joe, sitting on the floor surrounded by tiny pieces of his prized possession. The kids put the car back together. It wasn’t any faster, but it ran.
At age eleven, four years after her umbrella flight, Louise McPhetridge upgraded to a hot-air balloon. She and some boys from the neighborhood cut canvas from a porch awning, tied it with ropes into the shape of a big balloon, and heated the air inside with oil lamps.
It was time to fly. The boys were nervous.
“It’s not so awful big,” a kid named Richard said of their invention. “We better let Lou go up.”
Lou wouldn’t have it any other way. She climbed onto the roof of a shed with the entire contraption strapped to her back and was all set for a test flight when Richard’s mother looked out an upstairs window of her house and saw a girl with an oddly bloated backpack about to leap into the sky.
It was another canceled flight.
* * *
The winter after her roller-coaster experiment, Amelia Earhart got a new sled. And a stern warning: The correct way for girls to ride a sled was sitting up. Lying on your belly was faster, but not ladylike.
Amelia promptly climbed a steep and icy street, dropped belly-down onto her sled, and pushed off.
She was flying down the hill when a horse pulling a loaded cart stepped out from a side street and stood directly in her path. There was no time to turn, barely time to scream, before the sled sped between the horse’s front and back legs, under its massive belly, and on down the street.
Lucky she hadn’t been sitting up like a good girl. To Amelia, that was the lesson.
Her grandmother took a different view. “You don’t realize,” she lectured, “that when I was a small girl, I did nothing more strenuous than roll my hoop in the public square.”
Amelia made an effort. For a few days, she walked calmly through her grandmother’s front gate, instead of jumping over the fence.
Too boring. She went back to jumping.
As she’d later explain, “Some elders have to be shocked for everyone’s good now and then.”
That’s something else these future fliers had in common—they were constantly being told to behave more like “proper girls.” They were the kinds of kids who defied the command and went right on being themselves.
At her family’s home in Southern California, Florence Lowe, another future derby pilot, rode horses when she was supposed to be inside sipping tea. She tracked mud and manure through the formal living room, then used her frilly dresses to clean her riding boots. At school, she challenged the boys to spitting contests. Horrified, the Lowes shipped their daughter to a series of boarding schools, each stricter than the last, but harsh discipline and stiff uniforms proved no match for Florence. One day she brought her horse, Dobbins, into her dorm room. The principal called her to his office and demanded an explanation.
“Poor Dobbins,” she said with a straight face, “he must have been so lonesome that he came upstairs to look for me.”
* * *
They were kids who fell in love with planes at first sight. They were girls who were told that flying was not for them.
Evelyn Trout’s first vision of flight was similar to Marvel’s. Evelyn—known to friends as Bobbi—was twelve, walking home from school in Hamilton, Canada, where she was staying with relatives. She heard the sound of an engine. An engine in the sky. The grinding noise got louder and louder. She looked up, shading her eyes with her hand, and there it was.
She watched, frozen in place, until the plane slipped over the trees and out of sight. Bobbi sprinted home. She had to tell someone. She found her aunt Edna in the basement, arms full of jars of preserved vegetables.
“I loved school,” Amelia Earhart recalled, “though I never qualified as teacher’s pet.”
Marvel Crosson—looking ready to leap.
Bobbi Trout (second from left) with high school friends.
Florence Lowe, teen rebel.
Never one to take it slow, Louise McPhetridge left home for college at sixteen.
“Someday I’ll be up there!” Bobbi whooped. “Someday I’m going to fly an airplane!”
Aunt Edna smiled at her niece. The kid had always marched to her own drummer. At five years old, she’d announced she was done with dolls and wanted tools instead for Christmas. But flying airplanes? That was taking it too far.
Edna said, “Young ladies of good families do not fly airplanes.”
All the pilots in this story heard some version of that lecture.
These girls grew up at a time when life for women in the United States was very different from today. Until 1920, when the pilots were kids or teens, women in most states were not even allowed to vote. That finally changed with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution—but opportunities for American women were still severely limited.
In high school, Amelia Earhart started collecting articles about women working in fields she found interesting: medicine, law, engineering, film. These jobs were so completely dominated by men, the few women who broke into them made the news. As Amelia knew, women who wanted careers were expected to stick to traditionally female fields: teaching, nursing, social work. Important work, but what if that wasn’t what you wanted to do? What if your heart was set on the cutting-edge world of aviation?
The generations of women who had fought for and won the right to vote had faced resentment, angry opposition, even the threat of physical harm. This harsh and very recent history was painfully clear to the pioneering pilots of the Women’s Air Derby.
“In those days,” Marvel Crosson later explained, “flying was regarded as dangerous for men and impossible for women.”
Copyright © 2019 by Steve Sheinkin
Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Bijou Karman