In the decades between the world wars, women took to the skies as daring, record-breaking fliers.
Drawing on abundant sources, including letters, published and unpublished memoirs, newspaper reports, and archival material from more than a dozen museums and historical collections, O’Brien (Outside Short: Big Dreams, Hard Times, and One County’s Quest for Basketball Greatness, 2013) has fashioned a brisk, spirited history of early aviation focused on 5 irrepressible women. Amelia Earhart was the most famous among them, but the others were no less passionate and courageous: Louise McPhetridge Thaden, tall, stately, and, even as a child, “a follower of boyish pursuits,” according to her mother; Ruth Nichols, who chafed at a future as the socialite daughter of wealthy parents; Ruth Elder, determined to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic; and Florence Klingensmith, who trained as a mechanic so she could learn planes inside and out but whose first aviation job was as a stunt girl, standing on a wing in her bathing suit. In 1928, when women managed to get jobs in other male dominated fields, fewer than 12 had a pilot’s license, and those ambitious for prizes and recognition faced entrenched sexism from the men who ran air races, backed fliers, and financed the purchase of planes. They decided to organize: “For our own protection,” one of them said, “we must learn to think for ourselves, and do as much work as possible on our planes.” Although sometimes rivals in the air, they forged strong friendships and offered one another unabated encouragement. O’Brien vividly recounts the dangers of early flight: In shockingly rickety planes, pilots sat in open cockpits, often blinded by ice pellets or engine smoke; instruments were unreliable, if they worked at all; sudden changes in weather could be life threatening. Fliers regularly emerged from their planes covered in dust and grease. Crashes were common, with planes bursting into flames; but risking injury and even death failed to dampen the women’s passion to fly.
A vivid, suspenseful story of women determined to defy gravity—and
men—to fulfill their lofty dreams.