Born to Fly: The First Women’s Air Race Across America
Written by Steve Sheinkin. Illustrated by Bijou Karman. Roaring Book Press, 288 pages. 2019
“Young ladies of good families do not fly airplanes,” 12-year-old Evelyn “Bobbi” Trout’s Aunt Edna told her when she first expressed interest in becoming a pilot. It was an admonition the young girl wisely ignored. Within a few years, Trout would be a pioneering aviatrix during the golden age of flight, racking up an impressive list of achievements and setting a few early aviation records.
We learn the story of this unwanted advice in the first chapter of “Born to Fly,” which is both a history of the Women’s Transcontinental Air Derby in 1929, and of how the women who participated in it broke technological barriers in the sky and social barriers on the ground. Written by Steve Sheinkin, a veteran author of historical works for young adults, it’s a book that, though it only briefly touches on Alaska, will be enjoyed by readers of all ages in our aviation-obsessed state who savor fine writing and good airplane stories.
Sheinkin opens with brief accounts about some of the women who participated in that historic race across the United States. Louise Thaden, née McPhetridge, was just 7 when she climbed to the roof of her family’s house in Bentonville, Arkansas, opened an umbrella, and jumped. She didn’t fly, but she did walk away from her first attempt at it. Marvel Crosson was 10 when she was ordered down by her mother while on the brink of attempting the same trick from her home in Colorado. Amelia Earhart, who would go on to become America’s most famous woman pilot, was a daredevil on a sled as a child.
What all future contestants shared as children was an open disdain for the rules girls were told to follow in the first decades of 20th century America. All of them saw airplanes, a new and rapidly developing technology, and knew immediately what they wanted to spend their lives doing.
Sheinkin devotes the first third of this book to recounting how each of these women and several others managed to become pilots despite considerable resistance from society and, sometimes, their families. He also tracks their early successes in setting records and going where no women had gone before. It’s an enlightening read about what America was like a century ago, and of attitudes that unfortunately still persist today.
The women worked their way into industry jobs and other places that put them close to airplanes. They experienced being denied flight lessons or treated as interlopers. Yet still they persisted.
Marvel Crosson took perhaps the most interesting path. She and her equally obsessive younger brother Joe, who later became a legendary Alaska Bush pilot, bypassed a lot of hurdles by simply buying the parts and building their first plane in their parents’ yard. Joe was allowed lessons from a local airfield, but not his sister. So as soon as he obtained his license, he spun around and taught her. Each became a great aviator.
Sheinkin stresses that there was deep cultural opposition to female pilots in this period. But from other quarters support was strong. As the ’20s roared, these women began gaining national fame for their accomplishments. They kept outpacing each other for distance, endurance and elevation records. They were a competitive lot, so it was only natural that eventually a major race would be held to see who could traverse the country most quickly.
The Air Derby was a stage race. Beginning in Santa Monica on August 18, 1929, the 20 entrants flew across Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, before angling in a northeasterly direction over Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois and Indiana, concluding in Cleveland, Ohio. There were multiple stops along the way, with endless banquets (somehow these always featured chicken as the main course), extensive media coverage and a nationwide following.
Sheinkin does a great job of storytelling all the way through this book, but his recreation of the race itself is where he truly shines. He captures a sense of the competitive spirit between the women, which was tempered by a recognition from all of them that they weren’t just seeing who was the fastest, they were showing a highly sexist society that women were every bit as capable as men at piloting planes.
While much of the press coverage was glowing, there were loud voices of dissent. And after one of the women was killed in a crash, the opposition grew louder. Erle Halliburton, the Oklahoma oil tycoon whose business continues to this day, angrily stated that “Women have been dependent on men for guidance for so long, that when they are put to their own resources they are handicapped.”
Sheinkin notes that it was pointed out to critics that male-only races almost invariably ended with at least one death at the time, and no one objected. When men died pushing the limits of aviation, they were pioneers advancing a cause greater than themselves. Women, however, were rarely shown the same dignity.
They gave themselves the credit, however. And of the 20 women who departed Santa Monica, 15 made it all the way to Cleveland, and this despite mishaps, crashes, mechanical difficulties, illness, fatigue and quite likely sabotage to some of the planes (it’s never been conclusively proven, but the evidence is hard to refute). Notably in 1929, no men’s race across the country had seen 75% of the contestants go the distance, which put to silence the critics who said women couldn’t and shouldn’t be flying. In fact, less than a decade later, the winner of the 1929 Air Derby, along with her copilot who also was part of that competition, won the first cross-country race open to both men and women (take that, Halliburton).
“These modern girls think nothing is impossible,” declared one contestant’s’ mother after the race concluded. In an age when women astronauts are routine, “Born to Fly” is a fun and well-written reminder that those then modern girls were absolutely correct, and that they opened the skies for all.