A collection of interviews with female fliers from the early years of aviation history.
This big, satisfying book from Broughton (The Levees that Break in the Heart, 2016, etc.) consists of 29 interviews that he conducted over the past four decades, with women who were, in their youth, rough-and-ready trailblazers in the realm of domestic aviation. These women broke barriers by being barnstormers, aerial acrobats, bush pilots, flight instructors, and participants in cross-country aerial races. One is the legendary stunt pilot Dorothy Hester Stenzel, “a record holder in aerobatic flying, holding early world records in loops and several other categories,” who was born in 1910; another is Kimberley Olson, who entered the U.S. Air Force in 1979 and went on to become one of its eight female flying squadron commanders. Olson recalls that, as a little girl, she looked at contrails crossing the Iowa sky and told her mother that she’d like to be a pilot someday. In all of these interviews, Broughton offers minimal exposition, setting up each segment with basic biographical information—most begin with a photo of the subject and occasional references to books they’ve written—and then launching straight into a series of questions that reveal his in-depth knowledge of each woman’s life and career. Throughout the collection of Q-and-A’s, he wisely steps back and lets his subjects do most of the talking, showcasing their enormous personalities and often caustic wit.
The result is absolutely delightful. At one point, for example, Broughton asks pioneering flight academy owner Claire Walters when she first got into flying; she laughs and answers, “I think it started when I fell out of my crib, the first time I fell on my head. No, I was born this way, wanting to fly. I never planned to do anything else.” National aerobatic champion Patty Wagstaff recalls reading the flight-history novels of Ernest K. Gann and noting ironically, “It’s funny because [he] was pretty sexist.…the women in his books are flight attendants or babes.” Veteran flight instructor Louise Prugh, born in 1916, responds to the interviewer calling her a pioneer with a simple humility of a kind that runs through most of the interviews here: “I just wanted to do it because I liked the world from the sky.” Broughton often showcases his subjects’ skills; when he mentions to flight instructor Amelia Reid that she must have come close to power lines during some of her woollier flights, for instance, she notes that she sometimes flew under them. Over the course of these interviews, Broughton uses playful tact and careful diligence to effectively bring the worlds of the various women to vivid life. A bit more interstitial narrative might have made for a smoother, more informative reading experience, along the lines of Keith O’Brien’s excellent 2018 book Fly Girls. However, the subjects here make such lively, funny, and wise company that readers will scarcely miss additional context.
An often gripping account of some fascinating women of the air.