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The short, brilliant career of Alaska's first woman pilot

  • Author: Colleen Mondor
  • Updated: June 27, 2016
  • Published June 19, 2016

Marvel Crosson posing with the Travel Air Speedwing Chaparral she planned to fly in the first Women’s Air Derby, August 1929. (Courtesy of the Crosson family)

Shortly after noon on Aug. 19, 1929, a 6-year old girl watched an airplane fly low past her home near Wellton, Arizona. As reported by the Arizona Republic, the child called out to her grandmother that the plane was landing as it dropped below the tree line.

The next morning, a group of searchers, following the child's directions, discovered the aircraft's wreckage in a ravine near the Gila River. About 100 feet away was the broken body of the pilot, Marvel Crosson, wrapped in her partially opened parachute. The aviator, who was participating in the Women's Air Derby at the time of her death, was 29 years old and Alaska's first female pilot.

As the search for Marvel began, four others came forward recounting their sightings of the aircraft, flying at less than 1,000 feet, and the sound of possible engine trouble. None of the witnesses saw Marvel bail out, leading to speculation that she jumped below the tree line, too low to save herself. After viewing the wreckage, pilot C.F. Lienesch, who was flying along the route on behalf of Marvel's sponsor, Union Oil, was certain the crash was due to engine trouble combined with her own unsuccessful attempt to land on a sandbar. Within hours, her death was front-page news across the country and charges of sabotage were being raised by some of her fellow pilots, threatening the race.

Seven days later, however, Louise Thaden would be the first pilot into Cleveland, the finish line of the 2,700-mile race, and most questions surrounding Marvel's death and allegations of potential tampering against her aircraft and others began fading away. Marvel's name was then relegated into the dustiest reaches of aviation history, even in Alaska.

But none of that changes the fact that before she died, Marvel was hugely famous, and the dream of what might have been is the stuff of lost legends.

Early interest in flying

When her aviation exploits made her one of America's public sweethearts, Marvel Crosson's love of flying became well documented. She widely shared the family story of first seeing an aircraft fly with her younger brother Joe at the Logan State Fair in Sterling, Colorado, when she was 13. The two of them were overwhelmed by the sight and promptly inspired to somehow get up in the air themselves.

Marvel and Joe Crosson in the modified Curtiss Jenny they rebuilt in California, circa 1924. (Courtesy of the Crosson family)

It was six years before they were able to fly, however, during a family trip to San Diego. After that day at Dutch Flats Flying Field, the siblings resolved to become pilots and convinced their parents to move the family (including younger sister Zelma), to California so they could pursue their passion in a place that actively supported aviation.

As Zelma later recalled in a short biography of her sister, Marvel Crosson's financial support was crucial in this period.

"Marvel worked and earned money to finance Joe's instructions, doing more than her share in their partnership," she wrote. "Joe soloed in June 1924 and at the same time he and Marvel were able to purchase the unassembled parts of their aeroplane."

That aircraft, an N-9 seaplane, was the U.S. Navy version of the Curtiss Jenny, a two-seater used for training during World War I. Having been stored for years in pieces, the siblings had to convert it from floats to wheeled landing gear, track down and mount an engine and completely re-cover the wings and fuselage. Eventually, Joe taught Marvel how to fly the N-9, and she soloed a year after him, on June 20, 1925.

Only in the golden age of flight could two fledgling pilots purchase a dismantled aircraft, repair and rebuild it themselves and then fly it.

Everyone was airplane-mad in the 1920s and '30s, and the line between amateur and professional was often as slight as a few logged hours or participation in a local air race. The Crossons had put themselves in the right place at the right time to be part of aviation's future.

Alaska Adventures

In 1926, Joe was contacted by A.A. Bennett, the former manager of the San Diego Airport. Now flying for the Fairbanks Airplane Corp., he alerted his friend to a job opening for a commercial pilot. Joe immediately packed up and left for Alaska. Marvel remained with the N-9, planning to join her brother soon.

Joe became immersed in the Interior Alaska flying scene, making friends with other early pilots such as Ben Eielson, Noel Wien and Russ Merrill. In March 1927, he became the second pilot (after Eielson) to fly to Barrow, accompanying Eielson and George Wilkins as they staged supplies for an attempt at the first trans-Arctic airplane flight from Alaska to Spitsbergen, Norway. (They would eventually succeed in 1928.) He remained in contact with Marvel throughout his time in Fairbanks, often relying on her to find much-needed parts unavailable in Alaska.

Marvel Crosson (right) and Lily Osborne, Fairbanks, 1928. (Courtesy of the Crosson family)

Erroneous reports of Marvel's intentions to move to Alaska appeared in local newspapers at this time. She was still known then as much for her good looks as her flying ability, but she and Joe were serious about what they wanted to accomplish and the notion of going to Alaska for anything less than a stellar opportunity wasn't appealing.

In an April letter to her former schoolteacher and friend, Miss Hagen (the letters didn't include her first name), Marvel derisively mentioned those news reports, planted by her brother and his boss, who had visited her in San Diego. While she wrote in the letter extensively of Joe's career, noting he had flown 500 hours covering more than 34,000 miles in six months, it was clear she did not want to go north and simply be Joe Crosson's sister.

"… I'll do the best I can by myself from now on," she stressed.

Her plans included a road trip north to "anywhere I can drive the Ford." It was different when Joe came to see her himself, however, and by Oct. 15, 1927, the N-9 was sold and the siblings were aboard a steamer bound for the Last Frontier.

In a long letter to Miss Hagen the following February, Marvel detailed their trip. This travelogue is full of details about Alaska — from the weather to the scenery to the warm reception she received from Joe's friends.

Almost immediately she began flying with Joe, and it wasn't easy.

"It takes hours to get your planes warmed up and then the daylight is all gone nearly," she wrote. "Even the hangars and sheds are cold (and) you have to work in mittens or your hands would freeze fast to the metal parts."

Marvel logged time as pilot-in-command and sometimes flew as a passenger in aircraft operated by Bush pilots Noel Wien, Russ Merrill and Harold Gillam.

After having to delay because of her move north, she finally took a Department of Commerce check ride with Eielson for a limited commercial license on March 17. That allowed her to haul freight and mail for hire. Her license was the 2,346th issued in the U.S.

With it, Marvel Crosson officially became the first licensed female pilot in Alaska in addition to being the first female pilot to fly in the territory. At the time, there were fewer than 70 female pilots in the entire U.S. The fact that Marvel had flown in Alaska made her unique even in that small specialized group of female fliers.

Lower 48 newspapers loved this new chapter in her life, covering "Alaska's Aviation Grocery Girl" and the "Pollyanna of the North," who "dares death to spread sunshine and scatter watermelons over the Yukon's white wastes."

Her Alaska experience would be recounted in all media coverage of her career. And when she crashed, there was speculation that her Alaska training might have persuaded her to stay too long with the aircraft in a misguided attempt to reach a sandbar.

In 1928, Wilkins and Eielson prepared to be the first to fly across Antarctica and again Joe Crosson was hired to join them. On August 22, Wilkins wired Joe in Canada that the expedition's Lockheed Vega was ready for pickup at the factory. He promptly asked Marvel to meet him in Seattle and the siblings then continued on to Los Angeles and flew the aircraft cross country. In New York, Joe boarded a ship for Antarctica and Marvel bought a train ticket for the West Coast. She was not planning to return to Alaska; the next steps in her career meant she had to be back in California.

Record-setting aviator

In December 1928, Louise Thaden of Pittsburgh set a new women's altitude record of 20,270 feet and Marvel quickly lined up sponsorship to challenge Thaden's achievement. Union Oil Co. provided her with an open-cockpit 300-horsepower Beechcraft Travel Air and the National Aeronautic Association supplied the calibrated and sealed barograph (altimeter) to be carried on board as she pursued the record. Her first flights with the equipment were in February 1929, when she also wore a parachute for the first time.

As Marvel wrote to Hagen three months later, the altitude attempts were especially tough. Even though she had flown at 20 and 30 below in Alaska, the cold she encountered at high altitude was just part of the problem.

"On Feb. 10, I took care in getting equipment ready and tried again. The southern part of California was covered with a low pressure area and it makes a very low ceiling for any type of plane, and with a sealed Barograph, I tried for two hours to get higher than 20,000 feet, but finally the gasoline began to ice up in the carburetor and the motor began to lose its heat, so I had to come on back," she wrote.

The press avidly followed Marvel's attempts, publishing front-page photos of her wearing her fur-lined flight suit. Articles appeared in newspapers across the country with Marvel mentioned in the same breath as other famous female fliers such as Amelia Earhart. Her fame grew even more when she won the NAA's first officially sanctioned Women's Air Race between Palo Alto and Oakland, California, on April 20. Heralded as the "pretty Los Angeles aviatrix," Marvel took home $150 in prize money.

Finally, on May 28, flying Union Oil's new Ryan Brougham cabin monoplane, Marvel shattered the altitude record. Reaching 23,996 feet, she became the new face of women's aviation, splashed across newspapers, appearing in newsreels and even making the cover of the New York Times Mid-Week Pictorial, which dubbed her the "New Star of the Clouds." Soon after, it was announced that Marvel Crosson was the first entrant in the inaugural Women's Air Derby.

It was also in California that Marvel became close with Emory Bronte, the navigator and future pilot who, with pilot Ernie Smith, flew the first civilian flight from California to Hawaii in 1927. In her logbook Marvel mentions flying with Bronte in early 1929 and at some point prior to the derby, the two of them became quietly engaged.

Along with Joe, Emory Bronte planned to be waiting for Marvel at the race's finish line in Cleveland.

"I have plans of being able to do some flying this summer and fall," she had written Hagen in March, "but as to the exact nature of the flying and all, I am unable to state here really."

Tragedy during Women's Air Derby

In August, 19 female pilots left Santa Monica after proving they had proper certificates and at least 100 hours of flight time. The lineup included some of the world's most famous fliers: Amelia Earhart, Florence "Pancho" Barnes, Jessie "Chubbie" Miller (the first woman to fly — as co-pilot — from England to Australia), Ruth Elder, (who with her co-pilot set a new endurance-over-water record in 1927), Louise Thaden and Marvel, listed as "Alaska's first female pilot."

More than 100,000 spectators watched the planes depart.

Marvel was flying a new Travel Air Speedwing Chaparral, provided by Earle Brewster, Arizona's Union Oil district manager. Joe had met her in Wichita, Kansas, to pick up the plane and fly it to California. They suffered some engine trouble along the way and there was talk of replacing the engine in Santa Monica, but it was deemed fine after repairs. The Speedwing offered the highest airspeed of any aircraft in the competition, allowing Marvel to attain a cruising speed of 160 mph. As Thaden acknowledged in post-race interviews, she was the pilot to beat.

The Arizona Republic later reported that when she arrived in Yuma, Arizona, on the 19th, Marvel told Brewster, the last person to see her alive, that she had no complaints about the engine. He told investigators he waved her off the starting line exactly at 11:54 a.m. Twenty minutes later, she would be dead.

With rumors of sabotage in the race already swirling, the crash was viewed by many as proof that poor airfield security the night before in San Bernardino resulted in catastrophic tampering of Marvel's aircraft. Competitor Claire Fahy had made an emergency landing earlier that morning in Calexico and announced that acid had eaten through critical wing wires and compromised her aircraft. And after flying off course, Bobby Trout was forced down with engine trouble near Algodones, Mexico, and she claimed her "altitude meter" had been tampered with.

Thea Rasche was forced down near Holtville, California, and said foreign matter had been found in her gas tank clogging the lines. Ruth Elder told reporters that the ground crew in San Bernardino put oil in her gas tank by mistake, delaying her departure. Immediate demands were made for an investigation into the sabotage rumors, but the San Bernardino airport manager insisted that security had been tight. The police were called in, however, and formal interviews conducted with airport personnel.

It was never suggested or considered that pilots (or their friends) sabotaged the aircraft of their competitors. Even though no one accused anyone of tampering with the aircraft, it was believed that spectators — there was a strong anti-female pilot sentiment among some in the country at the time — may have been involved.

As the remaining pilots continued resolutely on to Cleveland, the investigation in California ended 24 hours after it began with no charges filed and Fahy, who withdrew from the race over safety concerns, was left standing alone.

In Arizona, the evidence collected after Marvel's crash received only cursory examination. A coroner's jury in Wellton viewed her remains hours after she was found and determined the cause of death was accidental. There is no evidence that an autopsy was conducted or that Marvel's blood was ever tested for carbon monoxide levels. Louise Thaden had suffered carbon monoxide poisoning in her Travel Air a week earlier when flying from Wichita to Santa Monica for the race start, prompting a quick redesign of her cockpit. Rumors have persisted since the crash that Marvel lost consciousness because of carbon monoxide in her aircraft and that is why she did not bail out in time to open her parachute. But there is no way to know.

The day after she died, Emory Bronte received her body on behalf of the family and took her home to be laid to rest in San Diego.

Entries from Marvel Crosson’s logbook, includes flights with Joe to New York in the aircraft he took to Antarctica and her victory in the first women’s air race in Oakland. (Colleen Mondor)

Department of Commerce inspector J.W. Noel arrived in Yuma on the evening of Aug. 21 and released a statement on the accident the next day after viewing the wreckage. Noel said there was "nothing that would indicate either motor or plane failed before striking the ground." He concluded that Marvel "became suddenly ill from the intense heat and lost control of the plane."

By Aug. 22, newspapers were reporting that Marvel fainted in flight. There was never any further investigation into the accident's cause and by the time Thaden won on Aug. 26, the remaining competitors were overjoyed at their accomplishments and the positive press coverage it brought. Consequently, the sabotage discussion ended.

Marvel's legacy

For 80 years, the Crosson family has faithfully preserved Marvel's memory. There are scrapbooks of her newspaper clippings, dozens of photographs and even the tattered book, "Marvel" that her mother was reading while pregnant, which inspired the pilot's unusual name.

In a wooden chest embossed with her name that was handmade by her uncle Charlie is more history — her four pilot licenses, her logbooks, the letters sent to Hagen that were later given to the family and the last note from Emory:

Sweetheart: Good by and good luck. I know everything will be alright and that you are going to win. I will be with you every minute and waiting for you at Cleveland. Love, Emory

In February of 1930, Zelma Crosson wrote a letter to Hagen. By then Joe had returned to Alaska and was deeply involved in the monthslong search for Ben Eielson and his mechanic Earl Borland in Siberia. They had not heard from Joe, other than a brief wire, since Eielson's crash site was found.

He was still searching for the bodies and refused to leave without them. "We are, of course, quite concerned with how he is feeling after all his unhappy experiences," wrote Zelma to Miss Hagen, "and wish that he would come home as soon as he can leave up there."

As for Zelma herself, a nurse who never learned to fly, the loss of her sister and separation from her brother was nearly insurmountable. "… (I want) to quit trying — give up the struggle, but I have Marvel and Joe to live up to and Mom has Joe and I to work for yet so we go on somehow and remember to be thankful that we had her for a while and knew her better than anyone else."

Several years later Joe and Lillian Crosson would celebrate the birth of their only daughter; they named her Sue Marvel Crosson.

A week before the Women's Air Derby began, a reporter for the Santa Monica Morning Outlook asked the pilots why they flew airplanes. Gladys O'Donnell said she learned to fly after her husband so they could be partners in aviation, as in life. Bobbi Trout said it was because she was better at flying than anything else, and Florence Barnes said she flew to "keep from exploding," and because it was a "panacea for too many social duties."

For Marvel, the answer was decidedly modern, and likely the same thing her brother Joe would have said. She told the reporter that she flew, "because it is my profession, my way of earning a living and because I love it."

No one knows what Marvel Crosson might have accomplished if she had not died in Arizona. She might have broken more records, entered more races, returned to Alaska or established a flying business in San Diego. She might be so famous now that schoolchildren would know of her feats, just as they do of Amelia Earhart's. Marvel Crosson would be Alaska's famous first female pilot and the whole country would know her name.

Colleen Mondor's interest in Alaska commercial aviation developed after working for years as lead dispatcher for a Fairbanks-based Bush commuter. In 2011 her memoir based on those years, "The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska," was published. She currently resides in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest and owns and operates an aircraft leasing business with her husband, a longtime Alaska pilot.

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