An award-winning journalist traces the lesser-known story of five women, including Amelia Earhart, who successfully fought to compete against men in the high-stakes national air races of the 1920s and 1930s. - (Baker & Taylor)
"High adventure and high ideals merge when a corps of intrepid female aviators battle to take part in the hugely popular air shows of the 1920s and 1930s. Ultimately, one of our heroines would win a race that earned her the right to be called America's best pilot"-- - (Baker & Taylor)
Traces the story of five women, including Amelia Earhart, who successfully fought to compete against men in the high-stakes national air races of the 1920s and 1930s. - (Baker & Taylor)
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
&;Exhilarating.&; &;New York Times Book Review
&;Keith O&;Brien has brought these women&;mostly long-hidden and forgotten&;back into the light where they belong. And he&;s done it with grace, sensitivity and a cinematic eye for detail that makes Fly Girls both exhilarating and heartbreaking.&; &;USA Today
The untold story of five women who fought to compete against men in the high-stakes national air races of the 1920s and 1930s &; and won
Between the world wars, no sport was more popular, or more dangerous, than airplane racing. Thousands of fans flocked to multi-day events, and cities vied with one another to host them. The pilots themselves were hailed as dashing heroes who cheerfully stared death in the face. Well, the men were hailed. Female pilots were more often ridiculed than praised for what the press portrayed as silly efforts to horn in on a manly, and deadly, pursuit. Fly Girls recounts how a cadre of women banded together to break the original glass ceiling: the entrenched prejudice that conspired to keep them out of the sky.
O&;Brien weaves together the stories of five remarkable women: Florence Klingensmith, a high-school dropout who worked for a dry cleaner in Fargo, North Dakota; Ruth Elder, an Alabama divorcee; Amelia Earhart, the most famous, but not necessarily the most skilled; Ruth Nichols, who chafed at the constraints of her blue-blood family&;s expectations; and Louise Thaden, the mother of two young kids who got her start selling coal in Wichita. Together, they fought for the chance to race against the men &; and in 1936 one of them would triumph in the toughest race of all.
Like Hidden Figures and Girls of Atomic City, Fly Girls celebrates a little-known slice of history in which tenacious, trail-blazing women braved all obstacles to achieve greatness.
The untold story of five women who fought to compete against men in the high-stakes national air races of the 1920s and 1930s&;and won
The Miracle of Witchita
The coal peddlers west of town, on the banks of the Arkansas River, took note of the new saleswoman from the moment she appeared outside the plate-glass window. It was hard not to notice Louise McPhetridge.
She was young, tall, and slender, with distinct features that made her memorable if not beautiful. She had a tangle of brown hair, high cheekbones, deep blue eyes, thin lips programmed to smirk, and surprising height for a woman. At five foot eight and a quarter inches&;?&;&;?
she took pride in that quarter inch&;?&;&;?McPhetridge was usually the tallest woman in the room and sometimes taller than the cowboys, drifters, cattlemen, and businessmen she passed on the sidewalks of Wichita, Kansas.
But it wasn&;t just how she looked that made her remarkable to the men selling coal near the river; it was the way she talked. McPhetridge was educated. She&;d had a couple years of college and spoke with perfect grammar. Perhaps more notable, she had a warm Southern accent, a hint that she wasn&;t from around Wichita. She was born in Arkansas, two hundred and fifty miles east, raised in tiny Bentonville, and different from most women in at least one other way: Louise was boyish. That&;s how her mother put it. Her daughter, she told others, &;was a follower of boyish pursuits&;&;?&;&;?and that wasn&;t meant as a compliment. It was, for the McPhetridges, cruel irony.
Louise&;s parents, Roy and Edna, had wanted a boy from the beginning. They prayed on it, making clear their desires before the Lord, and they believed their faith would be rewarded. &;Somehow,&; her mother said, &;we were sure our prayers would be answered.&; The McPhetridges had even chosen a boy&;s name for the baby. And then they got Louise.
Edna could doll her daughter up in white dresses as much as she wanted; Louise would inevitably find a way to slip into pants or overalls and scramble outside to get dirty. She rounded up stray dogs. She tinkered with the engine of her father&;s car, and sometimes she joined him on his trips selling Mentholatum products across the plains and rural South, work that had finally landed the McPhetridges here in Wichita in the summer of 1925 and placed Louise outside the coal company near the river.
It was a hard time to be a woman looking for work, with men doing almost all the hiring and setting all the standards. Even for menial jobs, like selling toiletries or cleaning houses, employers in Wichita advertised that they wanted &;attractive girls&; with pleasing personalities and good complexions. &;Write, stating age, height, weight and where last employed.&; The man who owned the coal company had different standards, however. Jack Turner had come from England around the turn of the century with nothing but a change of clothes and seven dollars in his pocket. He quickly lost the money. But Turner, bookish and bespectacled in round glasses, made it back over time by investing in horses and real estate and the city he came to love. &;Wichita,&; he said, &;is destined to become a metropolis of the plains.&;
By 1925, people went to him for just about everything: hay, alfalfa, bricks, stove wood, and advice. While others were still debating the worth of female employees, Turner argued as early as 1922 that workers should be paid what they were worth, no matter their gender. He predicted a future where men and women would be paid equally, based on skill&;?&;&;?where they would demand such a thing, in fact. And with his worldly experience, Turner weighed in on everything from war to politics. But he was known, most of all, for coal. &;Everything in Coal,&; his advertisements declared. In winter, when the stiff prairie winds howled across the barren landscape, the people of Wichita came to Turner for coal. In summer, they did too. It was never too early to begin stockpiling that vital fuel, he argued. &;Coal Is Scarce,&; Turner told customers in his ads. &;Fill Your Coal Bin Now.&;
He hired Louise McPhetridge not long after she arrived in town, and she was thankful for the work. For a while, McPhetridge, just nineteen, was able to stay focused on her job, selling the coal, selling fuel. But by the following summer, her mind was wandering, following Turner out the door, down the street, and into a brick building nearby, just half a block away. The sign outside was impossible to miss. travel air airplane mfg. co., it said. aerial transportation to all points. It was a humble place, squat and small, but the name, Travel Air, was almost magical, and the executive toiling away on the factory floor inside was the most unusual sort.
He was a pilot.
Walter Beech was just thirty-five that summer, but already he was losing his hair. His long, oval face was weathered from too much time spent in an open cockpit, baking in the prairie sun, and his years of hard living in a boarding house on South Water Street were beginning to show. He smoked. He drank. He flew. On weekends, he attended fights and wrestling matches at the Forum downtown. In the smoky crowd, shoulder to shoulder with mechanics and leather workers, there was the aviator Walter Beech, a long way from his native Tennessee but in Kansas for good. &;I want to stay in Wichita,&; he told people, &;if Wichita wants me to stay.&;
The reason was strictly professional. In town, there were two airplane factories, and Beech was the exact kind of employee they were looking to hire. He had learned all about engines while flying for the US Army in Texas. If Beech pronounced a plane safe, anyone would fly it. Better still, he&;d fly it himself, working with zeal; &;untiring zeal,&; one colleague said. And thanks to these skills&;?&;&;?a unique combination of flying experience, stunting talent, and personal drive&;?&;&;?Beech had managed to move up to vice president and general manager at Travel Air. He worked not only for Turner but for a man named Clyde Cessna, and Beech&;s job was mostly just to fly. He was supposed to sell Travel Air ships by winning races, especially the 1926 Ford Reliability Tour, a twenty-six-hundred-mile contest featuring twenty-five pilots flying to fourteen cities across the Midwest, with all of Wichita watching. &;Now&;?&;&;?right now&;?&;&;?is Wichita&;s chance,&; one newspaper declared on the eve of the race. &;Neglected, it will not come again&;?&;&;?forever.&;
Beech, flying with a young navigator named Brice &;Goldy&; Goldsborough, felt a similar urgency. The company had invested $12,000 in the Travel Air plane he was flying, a massive amount, equivalent to roughly $160,000 today. If he failed in the reliability race&;?&;&;?if he lost or, worse, crashed&;?&;&;?he would have to answer to Cessna and Turner, and he knew there were plenty of ways to fail. &;A loose nut,&; he said, &;or a similar seemingly inconsequential thing has lost many a race,&; and so he awoke early the day the contest began and went to the airfield in Detroit. Observers would have seen a quiet shadow near the starting line checking every bolt, instrument, and, of course, the engine: a $5,700 contraption, nearly half the price of the expensive plane.
&;Don&;t save this motor,&; the engine man advised Beech before he took off on the first leg of the journey, urging him to open it up. &;Let&;s win the race.&;
Beech pushed the throttle as far as it would go. He was first into Kalamazoo, first into Chicago. With Goldsborough&;s help, he flew without hesitation into the fog around St. Paul, coming so close to the ground and the lakes below that journalists reported that fish leaped out of the water at Beech&;s plane. While some pilots got lost or waited out the weather in Milwaukee, Beech won again, defeating the field by more than twenty minutes. He prevailed as well in Des Moines and Lincoln and, finally, the midway point in the race, Wichita, winning that leg by almost seven minutes despite a leaking carburetor.
&;It&;s certainly good to be back home again,&; Beech said to the crowd of five thousand people after stepping out of the cockpit.
Air races captivated the nation during the golden age of aviation in the 1920s and 1930s, and few participants drew more attention than the female pilots who challenged the male-dominated field. O'Brien focuses on five of those women: Ruth Elder, Ruth Nichols, Louise Thaden, Florence Klingensmith, and, of course, Amelia Earhart. In profiling these aviatrixes he explores their flying careers from the beginning, showing how varied their backgrounds and personal circumstance were and what attracted each of them to the sport of air racing. Drawing heavily from contemporaneous news reports, the author documents their achievements and setbacks as well as their sometimes complicated romantic relationships. The narrative flows easily from one subject to the next as O'Brien shifts between them, showing their competitive spirit and camaraderie even in the face of the trying circumstances of the first Women's Air Derby in 1929. Although Earhart's story has been recounted numerous times, the addition of the other female pilots makes for a more thorough and enjoyable read that should appeal to readers interested in history, aviation, and women's achievements. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
Library Journal Reviews
O'Brien, a finalist for the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing, profiles five women who joined in the national air races of the 1920s and 1930 despite resistance: high school dropout Florence Klingensmith, Alabama divorcee Ruth Elder, frustrated upper-cruster Ruth Nichols, mother-of-two Louise Thaden, and Amelia Earhart. With a 50,000-copy first printing.
Copyright 2018 Library Journal.
Library Journal Reviews
Journalist and author O'Brien's (Catching the Sky) latest offering takes on airplane racing in the 1920s and 1930s. Specifically, the author looks at women "fly girls" racing open cockpit airplanes. He describes these fly girls as "wives and mothers, divorcees and heiresses, teachers and bankers, daredevils and starlets." From this intriguing mix, he profiles five individuals who broke barriers to participate in the Bendix Trophy race: Ruth Elder, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols, Louise McPhetridge Thaden, and Florence Klingensmith. Of these women, only Thaden won the race, in 1936, flying from New York to Los Angeles. O'Brien details in crisp and engaging writing how his subjects came to love aviation, along with their struggles and victories with flying, the rampant sexism they experienced, and the hard choices they faced regarding work and family. Some of their stories ended abruptly with tragedy, while others detailed a long life. VERDICT Highly recommended for readers with an interest in aviation history, women's history, cultural history, and 20th-century history.—Crystal Goldman, Univ. of California, San Diego Lib.Movers and shakers in the margins; page-turning poems; the women who made aviation history
Copyright 2018 Library Journal.
Publishers Weekly Reviews
Journalist O'Brien (Outside Shot) tells the exciting story of aviators who, though they did not break the aviation industry's glass ceiling, put a large crack in it. He focuses mostly on five important fliers: Louise Thaden, a studious pilot, mother, and wife; Ruth Nichols, who was brave and willing to do anything to be the best; Amelia Earhart, the smartest of the bunch, with average flying ability, but the weight of powerful money behind her; Ruth Elder, gorgeous and bright, who went on to star in films; and Florence Klingensmith, a high school dropout and a naturally talented pilot and mechanic who could challenge the men head-to-head in speed racing. They fought against rudimentary technology, severe weather, and undermining men to accomplish their goals. Primary among their many antagonists in this account is Cliff Henderson, millionaire promoter and organizer of the national air races, who first manipulates women to promote his sport and then has them banned from competing in it. The women's victorious fight against his ban opens the door to even greater success and recognition as equals to men in the air. This fast-paced, meticulously researched history will appeal to a wide audience both as an entertaining tale of bravery and as an insightful look at early aviation. Agent: Richard Abate, 3 Arts Entertainment. (Aug.)
Copyright 2018 Publishers Weekly.
School Library Journal Reviews
Gr 8 Up—This is an excellent adaptation of O'Brien's original and exceptional Fly Girls, a history of five women pilots in the golden age of flight. The women faced enormous odds in a nascent, dangerous, and male-dominated profession during an era when society believed a woman's proper place was at home. There is enough detail to satisfy both curiosity and research needs for middle to high schoolers, but also not too much text. The fascinating personal and public stories, historical details, facts, and photos will enable teen readers to develop an interest and empathy for these young women in an earlier era fighting for the right to make their own choices, both at work and at home. Many chapters focus on one pilot as the book moves through time, weaving the narratives together. This format, coupled with a helpful glossary, extensive endnotes citing sources, and an index, make it an excellent research tool. VERDICT This compelling story will appeal to teen readers of all persuasions. There is something for everyone from civil science to the science of flight, to daring and death-defying exploits.—Gretchen Crowley, formerly at Alexandria City Public Libraries, VA
Copyright 2019 School Library Journal.