How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History
The untold story of five women who fought to compete against men in the high-stakes national air races of the 1920s and 1930s—and won
Between the world wars, no sport was more popular, or more dangerous, than airplane racing. Thousands of fans flocked to multi‑day events, and cities vied with one another to host them. The pilots themselves were hailed as dashing heroes who cheerfully stared death in the face. Well, the men were hailed. Female pilots were more often ridiculed than praised for what the press portrayed as silly efforts to horn in on a manly,
The untold story of five women who fought to compete against men in the high-stakes national air races of the 1920s and 1930s—and won
Between the world wars, no sport was more popular, or more dangerous, than airplane racing. Thousands of fans flocked to multi‑day events, and cities vied with one another to host them. The pilots themselves were hailed as dashing heroes who cheerfully stared death in the face. Well, the men were hailed. Female pilots were more often ridiculed than praised for what the press portrayed as silly efforts to horn in on a manly, and deadly, pursuit. Fly Girls recounts how a cadre of women banded together to break the original glass ceiling: the entrenched prejudice that conspired to keep them out of the sky.
O’Brien weaves together the stories of five remarkable women who fought for the chance to race against the men — and in 1936 one of them would triumph in the toughest race of all.
Like Hidden Figures and Girls of Atomic City, Fly Girls celebrates a little-known slice of history wherein tenacious, trail-blazing women braved all obstacles to achieve greatness.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- August 2018
- 352 Pages
One of iBooks “Summer’s Most Anticipated Books”
“Fly Girls reads like a heart-stopping novel, but this story is all true—and thoroughly inspiring.”—Karen Abbott, author of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
“A thrilling story of courage, competition, skill, and triumph.”—Liza Mundy, author of Code Girls
“Journalist O’Brien tells the exciting story of aviators who, though they did not break the aviation industry’s glass ceiling, put a large crack in it….This fast-paced, meticulously researched history will appeal to a wide audience both as an entertaining tale of bravery and as an insightful look at early aviation.”—Publishers Weekly
1. On page xiii, the author states, “In the late 1920s, newspapers and magazines routinely published articles questioning whether a woman should be allowed to fly anywhere, much less in these races. That such questions could be posed—and taken seriously—might strike us today as outlandish.” Does this strike you as outlandish? Do people still question or challenge females due to their gender today?
2. The author defines the term “fly girls” on page xiii. Was this a complimentary or condescending term?
3. The book is, “A story that plays out over one tumultuous decade when gender roles were shifting, cultural norms were evolving, and the Great Depression had people questioning almost everything in America.” How do you think the time period, and the stress of the Great Depression, affected people’s reactions to women leaving their traditional posts?
4. There is a huge cast of characters in this book. What male character is most memorable to you and why? What female character?
5. At the end of the introduction, the five main women of the book are described. After reading the book, do you agree with how they are introduced? “Ruth Elder; a charming wife from Alabama who paid the price for going first; Amelia Earhart; a lost soul living with her mother on the outskirts of Boston and desperate for a way out; Ruth Nichols, a daughter of Wall Street wealth in New York, hungry to make a name of her own; Louise McPhetridge Thaden, a small-town dreamer from rural Arkansas who wanted it all—a job, a family, fame—but in the end would have to make a difficult choice; and Florence Klingensmith, a young pilot from the northern plains who great gamble in the sky would alter history on the ground.”
6. Most readers will be most familiar with Amelia Earhart. What new information did you learn about Amelia that changes the narrative you already had of her?
7. There are examples on page 99 of how the women support each other in the “Powder Puff Derby” – they wait for Earhart’s propeller, Earhart carries extra luggage, they waggle wings to say hello when they pass each other, etc. What does this show about their relationships with each other, and about their shared ideas about what female aviation can look like? How does it differ from men?
8. Page 125-126 describes Amelia’s decision to marry GPP. What do you think about this decision and what does her letter show about her personality?
9. It seems like there are multiple times when women feel like they have proven they belong in aviation (ex: Earhart successfully crossing the Atlantic) only to have to start all over again. Why does it take so long for the women to prove their merit without question?
10. If all five of the main female characters had been as financially secure or backed as Earhart, how do you think that would have changed the characters’ outcomes? Would that have encouraged Thaden to fly? Would that have allowed Nichols to finally have her victory?
11. The book is written in 3 parts. What actions or time periods create these divisions?
12. On page 243, Henderson tells Thaden, “I’m afraid you’ve won the Bendix.” What does this say about Henderson’s character and what he is afraid of?
13. “Earhart, always the most outspoken of the women on the subject of her gender’s air-worthiness, predicted a day in the near future when men and women would stand as equals, judged not by their gender, but by their abilities. ‘If a woman wishes to enter important competitions,’ Earhart told reporters, ‘the question will be, “Is she a good enough flier?” instead of primarily a matter of whether she wears skirts or trousers.’ That’s all the women had ever wanted, and now they had proof they could compete if only they had the chance” (p 245). How did Earhart see the future so differently than so many men and women? What do you think of people who feel they have the responsibility to create such important change?
14. “Thaden’s win in the race paved the way for other women…As Earhart said once, the woman had to keep fighting, keep knocking on the door, if they ever wanted to be accepted in this male-dominated world. ‘As more knock,’ Earhart explained, ‘more will enter’” (p 246). How do you see this statement continuing to be accurate throughout history and even today?
15. On page 247, Thaden begs Earhart not to do the flight around the world. Why doesn’t she agree with Earhart’s decision?
16. In Earhart’s letter to Putnam on 247, she explains that women must try things men have tried, and that their failures should become a challenge to others. What do you think of this sentiment, and almost call to arms for the entire female gender?
17. On page 254, the author shares that the story of Earhart’s unsuccessful worldwide flight was so impossible and tragic that it dwarfs the “bravery, the sacrifices, and the achievements of the women who flew with Earhart in that exciting decade between 1927 and 1937, a time later remembered as the golden age of flying. They outlived Earhart, these women, but each was forgotten in her own way.” This echoes his statement at the end of the introduction: “In the decades to follow, only one of these five women would be remembered.” Why do you think history latched onto Amelia Earhart more than anyone else? Why do you think this has not changed even with all of the information we have today such as this book?
The Miracle of Witchita
The coal peddlers west of town, on the banks of the Arkansas River, took note of the new saleswoman from the moment she appeared outside the plate-glass window. It was hard not to notice Louise McPhetridge.
She was young, tall, and slender, with distinct features that made her memorable if not beautiful. She had a tangle of brown hair, high cheekbones, deep blue eyes, thin lips programmed to smirk, and surprising height for a woman. At five foot eight and a quarter inches??—??
she took pride in that quarter inch??—??McPhetridge was usually the tallest woman in the room and sometimes taller than the cowboys, drifters, cattlemen, and businessmen she passed on the sidewalks of Wichita, Kansas.
But it wasn’t just how she looked that made her remarkable to the men selling coal near the river; it was the way she talked. McPhetridge was educated. She’d had a couple years of college and spoke with perfect grammar. Perhaps more notable, she had a warm Southern accent, a hint that she wasn’t from around Wichita. She was born in Arkansas, two hundred and fifty miles east, raised in tiny Bentonville, and different from most women in at least one other way: Louise was boyish. That’s how her mother put it. Her daughter, she told others, “was a follower of boyish pursuits”??—??and that wasn’t meant as a compliment. It was, for the McPhetridges, cruel irony.
Louise’s parents, Roy and Edna, had wanted a boy from the beginning. They prayed on it, making clear their desires before the Lord, and they believed their faith would be rewarded. “Somehow,” her mother said, “we were sure our prayers would be answered.” The McPhetridges had even chosen a boy’s name for the baby. And then they got Louise.
Edna could doll her daughter up in white dresses as much as she wanted; Louise would inevitably find a way to slip into pants or overalls and scramble outside to get dirty. She rounded up stray dogs. She tinkered with the engine of her father’s car, and sometimes she joined him on his trips selling Mentholatum products across the plains and rural South, work that had finally landed the McPhetridges here in Wichita in the summer of 1925 and placed Louise outside the coal company near the river.
It was a hard time to be a woman looking for work, with men doing almost all the hiring and setting all the standards. Even for menial jobs, like selling toiletries or cleaning houses, employers in Wichita advertised that they wanted “attractive girls” with pleasing personalities and good complexions. “Write, stating age, height, weight and where last employed.” The man who owned the coal company had different standards, however. Jack Turner had come from England around the turn of the century with nothing but a change of clothes and seven dollars in his pocket. He quickly lost the money. But Turner, bookish and bespectacled in round glasses, made it back over time by investing in horses and real estate and the city he came to love. “Wichita,” he said, “is destined to become a metropolis of the plains.”
By 1925, people went to him for just about everything: hay, alfalfa, bricks, stove wood, and advice. While others were still debating the worth of female employees, Turner argued as early as 1922 that workers should be paid what they were worth, no matter their gender. He predicted a future where men and women would be paid equally, based on skill??—??where they would demand such a thing, in fact. And with his worldly experience, Turner weighed in on everything from war to politics. But he was known, most of all, for coal. “Everything in Coal,” his advertisements declared. In winter, when the stiff prairie winds howled across the barren landscape, the people of Wichita came to Turner for coal. In summer, they did too. It was never too early to begin stockpiling that vital fuel, he argued. “Coal Is Scarce,” Turner told customers in his ads. “Fill Your Coal Bin Now.”
He hired Louise McPhetridge not long after she arrived in town, and she was thankful for the work. For a while, McPhetridge, just nineteen, was able to stay focused on her job, selling the coal, selling fuel. But by the following summer, her mind was wandering, following Turner out the door, down the street, and into a brick building nearby, just half a block away. The sign outside was impossible to miss. travel air airplane mfg. co., it said. aerial transportation to all points. It was a humble place, squat and small, but the name, Travel Air, was almost magical, and the executive toiling away on the factory floor inside was the most unusual sort.
He was a pilot.
Walter Beech was just thirty-five that summer, but already he was losing his hair. His long, oval face was weathered from too much time spent in an open cockpit, baking in the prairie sun, and his years of hard living in a boarding house on South Water Street were beginning to show. He smoked. He drank. He flew. On weekends, he attended fights and wrestling matches at the Forum downtown. In the smoky crowd, shoulder to shoulder with mechanics and leather workers, there was the aviator Walter Beech, a long way from his native Tennessee but in Kansas for good. “I want to stay in Wichita,” he told people, “if Wichita wants me to stay.”
The reason was strictly professional. In town, there were two airplane factories, and Beech was the exact kind of employee they were looking to hire. He had learned all about engines while flying for the US Army in Texas. If Beech pronounced a plane safe, anyone would fly it. Better still, he’d fly it himself, working with zeal; “untiring zeal,” one colleague said. And thanks to these skills??—??a unique combination of flying experience, stunting talent, and personal drive??—??Beech had managed to move up to vice president and general manager at Travel Air. He worked not only for Turner but for a man named Clyde Cessna, and Beech’s job was mostly just to fly. He was supposed to sell Travel Air ships by winning races, especially the 1926 Ford Reliability Tour, a twenty-six-hundred-mile contest featuring twenty-five pilots flying to fourteen cities across the Midwest, with all of Wichita watching. “Now??—??right now??—??is Wichita’s chance,” one newspaper declared on the eve of the race. “Neglected, it will not come again??—??forever.”
Beech, flying with a young navigator named Brice “Goldy” Goldsborough, felt a similar urgency. The company had invested $12,000 in the Travel Air plane he was flying, a massive amount, equivalent to roughly $160,000 today. If he failed in the reliability race??—??if he lost or, worse, crashed??—??he would have to answer to Cessna and Turner, and he knew there were plenty of ways to fail. “A loose nut,” he said, “or a similar seemingly inconsequential thing has lost many a race,” and so he awoke early the day the contest began and went to the airfield in Detroit. Observers would have seen a quiet shadow near the starting line checking every bolt, instrument, and, of course, the engine: a $5,700 contraption, nearly half the price of the expensive plane.
“Don’t save this motor,” the engine man advised Beech before he took off on the first leg of the journey, urging him to open it up. “Let’s win the race.”
Beech pushed the throttle as far as it would go. He was first into Kalamazoo, first into Chicago. With Goldsborough’s help, he flew without hesitation into the fog around St. Paul, coming so close to the ground and the lakes below that journalists reported that fish leaped out of the water at Beech’s plane. While some pilots got lost or waited out the weather in Milwaukee, Beech won again, defeating the field by more than twenty minutes. He prevailed as well in Des Moines and Lincoln and, finally, the midway point in the race, Wichita, winning that leg by almost seven minutes despite a leaking carburetor.
“It’s certainly good to be back home again,” Beech said to the crowd of five thousand people after stepping out of the cockpit.