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'Fly Girls' Author Celebrates 5 Remarkable Women Pilots Who Broke Barriers During Great Depression

Keith O'Brien is the author of "Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History."
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Ninety years ago, daring air races across the U.S. routinely attracted crowds that would dwarf attendance at spectacles such as the Super Bowl today.

“I’m talking about a half million people – paying customers – during the Great Depression coming out to watch races over the course of a weekend,” Keith O’Brien said during Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “An additional half million would watch for free from the hoods of their automobiles parked on nearby highways … in this little window of time, air racing was one of the most popular sports in America.”

The pilots vying for the prize were usually men, and the few women pilots were often ridiculed – until they combined forces to break down barriers and make aviation history.

It’s a little-known tale that O’Brien explores in his book “Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History.” It was named a New York Times Book Review “Best Book of 2018” and is also now available as a young-readers edition.

While visiting St. Louis for an author event Friday evening at the Novel Neighbor, O’Brien discussed its subject with host Don Marsh, who noted the appropriateness of Friday being International Women’s Day and March celebrated as Women’s History Month.

The book recounts the accomplishments of five women – Florence Klingensmith, Ruth Elder, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols and Louise Thaden – who came from wildly different backgrounds but banded together “for the right to fly and race airplanes,” O’Brien said.

“At a time when parents, and in particular fathers, could tell a young girl, a teenage girl, who she will or will not marry, where she will or will not work,” the author noted, “these parents let these girls find their own path, choose their own destiny. And they did that.”

The races were unpredictable events where anything could happen – including fatal crashes. And when a male pilot died, he was frequently hailed as a hero.

“There were actually times when they would hold the funerals that very weekend on the airfield floor, with moments of silence and flybys and ashes scattered from the sky by a plane, literally,” O’Brien said. But it was a whole different story when the newly deceased pilot was a woman.

“They not only faced criticism when they crashed and died – they would often be blamed for the crash when indeed it was just the fault of a mechanical failure or the plane itself,” O’Brien explained.

This proved to be the case for Klingensmith, one of the most accomplished pilots of her day, when she was invited to participate in a 1933 race against male pilots in Chicago.

She had a strong shot at taking the lead during the race when suddenly the right wing of her Gee Bee plane began to disintegrate, “buckling under the speed,” O’Brien said. She died in the crash, and her critics were unsparing in their reaction.

“Most shocking to me [is that] not only [was] she blamed for it, but male aviators suggest[ed] that she [had] crashed this plane because she was on her period at that time,” O’Brien said, adding that in the early 1930s, the U.S. Department of Commerce had written into the rules of aviation a regulation “that women were not to fly within three days of their period.”

Officials banned women from air racing after Klingensmith’s death – but within another two years, fellow women pilots “knocked down the door fighting their way back in,” O’Brien said.

He noted that St. Louis is synonymous with celebrated male pilot Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis but “the local history here has much gender diversity as well.”

Thaden, for example, who was a mother as well as a pilot, broke a female piloting record in 1937 when her plane reached a speed of 197 miles per hour as she flew it over the city of St. Louis.

Related Event
What: The Novel Neighbor Presents Author Keith O’Brien
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday, March 8, 2019
Where: The Novel Neighbor (7905 Big Bend Blvd., Webster Groves, MO 63119)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Jon Lewis give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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