Powder Puff Derby

The First Women’s Air Derby was a transcontinental race that began in Santa Monica, California, and culminated in Cleveland, Ohio, for the 1929 Cleveland National Air Races. Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, Louise Thaden, Bobbi Trout and other women aviators of the era brought international attention to women in aviation. That same year, The Ninety-Nines Women’s Aviation Organization was born… literally under the wing of an airplane in Cleveland.

Amelia Earhart

The history of The Ninety-Nines is deeply rooted in air racing. The Women’s Air Derby on August 13-20, 1929 gave women the opportunity to participate in an area of aviation that had been eluding them. Louise Thaden wrote:

“To us the successful completion of the Derby was of more import than life or death. Airplane and engine construction had advanced remarkably near the end of 1929. Scheduled air transportation was beginning to be a source of worry to the railroad. Nonetheless a pitiful minority were riding air lines. Commercial training schools needed more students. The public was sceptical of airplanes and air travel. We women of the Derby were out to prove that flying was safe; to sell aviation to the layman.”

Seventy women held U.S. Department of Commerce licenses in August 1929, but only 40 met the race requirements. Participants had to have 100 hours of solo flight including 25 hours of solo cross-country to points more than 40 miles from the starting airport. The pilot also had to hold a license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) and an annual sporting license issued by the contest committee of the National Aeronautics Association (NAA). Each participant also had to carry a gallon of water and a three-day food supply.

Twenty women entered the Derby. The course took eight days to fly and navigate using only dead reckoning and road maps. Undaunted by route changes, sabotage, and death, 14 women completed the Derby with Louise Thaden finishing first. Other women who completed the race in one of the two plane categories were Gladys O’Donnell, Amelia Earhart, Blanche Noyes, Ruth Elder, Neva Paris, Mary Haizlip, Opal Kunz, Mary von March, Vera Dawn Walker, Phoebe Omlie, Edith Foltz, Jessie Keith-Miller, and Thea Rasche. Though out of the competition with two forced landings, Bobbi Trout also completed the course.

Bobbi Trout

Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes went on to win the prestigious Bendix Trophy Race on September 4, 1936 landing at Mines Field in Los Angeles in a bright blue Beechcraft Staggerwing C-17R. This was the first time that women had won the coveted Bendix Trophy. Laura Ingallas in her Lockheed Orion crossed the finish line 45 minutes later to win second place. Amelia Earhart and Helen Richey finished fifth. This was the second year that women were allowed to participate in the race that was started in 1931.

Prior to the Bendix Trophy Race, air racing officials just would not believe that women were skilled enough to compete against men. Women were encouraged to hold their own competitions. From this came competitions such as the Women’s International Free-For-All. Occasionally, women were allowed to compete with the men, such as the National Air Race and Transcontinental Handicap Air Derby, but any accident gave race officials one more excuse to exclude women.

Such a situation occurred with Florence Klingensmith’s fatal crash in a Gee Bee Y during the 1933 Frank Phillips Trophy Race in Chicago. That crash was the reason given for keeping women out of the 1934 Bendix Race. Protesting the decision, Amelia Earhart refused to fly actress Mary Pickford to Cleveland to open that year’s races.

Although women were not allowed to compete in major races until the1930s, many air races created separate divisions for the women. The women’s divisions were mirror images of the men’s divisions, and it was soon noted that the women’s times and speeds were very close to the men’s.

One of the all-women races was the Dixie Derby from Washington, D.C. through the southern states and up to Chicago. Another was the Women’s National Air Meet held in August 1934 at Dayton, Ohio. This race drew 20 women pilots for 20- and 50-mile free-for-all races.

During the 1930s, one of the more interesting races that made up the National Air Races was the Ruth Catterton Air Sportsman Pilot Trophy Race. This race, started in 1935, was not a speed race but a test of precision flying. Winners were the pilots that could navigate and pilot their aircraft the most accurately. Ruth Chatterton was an actress and private pilot, and agreed to sponsor the contest.

Under the leadership of the new Ninety-Nines president Jeanette Lempke, who was elected immediately after World War II, one focus of the Ninety-Nines became the rejuvenation of the women’s air races. In 1947 Mardo Crane, a former WASP, was chairman of the first All Woman Air Race on behalf of the Ninety-Nines. The race ran 2,242 statute miles from Palm Springs, California to Tampa, Florida. The first year, the race had two contestants; and in 1948, seven contestants.

The 1948 and 1949 Jacqueline Cochran All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race marked the formal beginning of the All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race (AWTAR). Members of The Ninety-Nines Los Angeles chapter drafted the first real set of rules and regulations for air racing, and developed an official timekeeping system (the old system was honor based.) The AWTAR became affectionately known as the “Powder Puff Derby” using a reference to the 1929 Women’s Air Derby by Will Rogers.

In 1951 and 1952, in response to the Korean War, the AWTAR was called “Operation TAR” (Transcontinental Air Race) and was operated as a training mission to “provide stimulation as a refresher course in cross-country flying for women whose services as pilots might once again be needed by their country.”

The AWTAR became a major event with its own office and permanent executive secretary. A nine-women board of directors spent a full year preparing for each race. Safety was always a priority in the AWTAR, and gradually over the years, the message was clear to the public – women are good pilots.

During the 1960s, the prime interest and major commitment of The Ninety-Nines was air racing. In addition to the All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race, The Ninety-Nines embraced the All Woman’s International Air Race, or “Angel Derby.” The race was open to all women and The Ninety-Nines helped to organize and manage the race, aside from forming the largest core of enthusiastic contestants.

The last AWTAR was held in 1977. The end of the race was due to rising costs, diminished corporate sponsorship, and new levels of air traffic congestion.

Competition in the air is still important and continues with other races today. These races include the Palms to Pines Air Race, Air Race Classic, Sun ’n Fun, Great Southern Air Race, IlliNines Air Derby, U.S. Air Race and Rally, Garden State 300, Okie Derby, and the Mile High Derby. Another major event in recent years is the World Precision Flying Championship.