IN THE 1920s, when civilian aviation was organizing itself and aviators were setting benchmark upon benchmark, air races were a popular spectator sport. The All Women’s Air Derby, as it was known officially, drew crowds to see and meet record setters, nonconformists, and all bands between. At the extremes flew unassuming Amelia Earhart, a demure daredevil from Atchison, Kansas, and bohemian Florence “Pancho” Barnes, a Union Army balloonist’s granddaughter who declared, “Flying makes me feel like a sex maniac in a whorehouse with a stack of $20 bills.” Endurance flier Evelyn “Bobbi” Trout was known for flying by night—and living to tell the tale. Ruth Elder financed flying lessons with her beauty contest winnings. Feminist Opal Kunz’s husband, George, was chief mineralogist at Tiffany’s and well able to keep her in planes. Blanche Noyes flew for the air mail service. Stylish Alabamian Ruth Elder had failed in 1927 to become the first woman to fly from Long Island to Paris, France (she was forced to ditch in the Atlantic), but the attempt had earned her dinner at the White House and a Manhattan ticker tape parade. These and fellow competitors—pint-size Vera Dawn Walker, banker’s daughter Neva Paris, test pilot’s wife Claire Mae Fahy, and more—took off from Clover Field—now Santa Monica, California, Municipal Airport—on August 19, 1929, aiming to log the fewest air hours reaching Cleveland, Ohio. That nine-day journey killed one racer, made the survivors famous, and signaled American women’s full-fledged entry into aviation.
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