Sky Girls by Gene Nora Jessen Features Fearless Female Flyers of Historic 1929 Air Race
As a small boy I watched the RAF and the Luftwaffe fight it out in the skies above England. I was awed by their courage; would I be brave enough when my turn came? My father had his war, my grandfather had had his and it seemed predestined that my turn must come.
I was never put to the test. When I came to wear uniform I was rejected for aircrew because of my short-sight and I served my time in the control tower, watching other people fly. This was not without interest, since we were an experimental airfield, developing landing aids so that we could fly aircraft from the ground rather than leaving it to the pilots.
All this is to explain why, as a frustrated airman, I was an eager reader of Sky Girls (Sourcebooks, August 2018) by Gene Nora Jessen, even though I am not a girl. The non-fiction book tells the story of an air race held over eight days in 1929 from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio. Those were the days when pilots really flew their aircraft, and what flimsy craft they were! Most were still made of wire and canvas. If a pilot was forced to land in a field of cows, which happened quite often, there was a real danger that the cows would eat the aircraft—it seems they liked the taste of the glue! Most aircraft had open cockpits and it was tricky to unfold a map, lest it blow away in the slipstream. The maps were roadmaps and the pilots navigated by following the road network, or better still the ‘iron compass’ of the railroad.
But this was no ordinary air race; it was the first all-female cross-country air race. The press release for the book makes great play about ‘the moment when some of the first female pilots took their rightful place in the skies’. In practice, the 19 contestants, with one exception, were all very experienced, several were already famous, notably Amelia Earhart, and some had their own aviation businesses.
Women had been airborne for nearly 150 years. The first ‘manned’ flight had taken off from Paris on 21 November 1783 in a hot air balloon; the first women were in the air just six months later, when four aristocratic ladies made a private ascent from the garden of a Parisian mansion. The first public ascent by a woman took place in Lyon the following month. Over the next 125 years hundreds of women in Europe and America flew in balloons, solo or with male or female companions. Many added parachuting to their repertoire, voluntary and involuntary. A lot of female balloonists were actresses who saw ballooning as a form of show business and drew large crowds.
It is not surprising that with the advent of powered flight there were women eager to risk their lives in the new machines. Courage is no respecter of gender. The first woman to pilot an airship flew over Paris in 1903 and Baroness de Laroche became the first licensed female pilot in 1909. In the same year a group of Suffragettes flew an airship over London, scattering leaflets for their cause.
Why then is aviation now a male-dominated activity, even after the changes of the last 50 years? In 2017, only six per cent of US airline pilots were female, even less among the higher paid and more experienced pilots. The air race of 1929 (‘the powder puff derby’) ushered in a brief golden age for female pilots. Most contestants went on to win fame and sometimes fortune and often an early death. The era ended about the same time as Amelia Earhart’s disappearance over the Pacific in 1937. With the coming of the Second World War aviation ceased to be a sport and a spectacle and became first a weapon of mass destruction and then a huge commercial enterprise, in each case ruled by male military and corporate hierarchies. Tens of thousands of young men learned to fly during the war and after the war they provided a huge pool of experienced talent for the nascent commercial airlines. Women were barred from combat aircraft during the war (except in the Soviet Union) except as unarmed ferry pilots. It did not save them from being shot down, as Britain’s Amy Johnson discovered. Illogically women served with distinction as anti-aircraft gunners.
It was only in 1973 that the first female airline pilot in America received her license. Today in all Western countries there are hardly any formal barriers to women in any occupation and the notorious ‘glass ceilings’ are looking very cracked. Our societies are becoming progressively less ‘role segregated’ and this will happen in aviation as in other activities. However, nothing will recapture the romance of those early years of flight. Who dreams of a career on autopilot?
About the contributor: Edward James is one of the UK review editors for Historical Novels Review. He has published two historical novels, The Frozen Dream (Silverwood Books) and Freedom’s Pilgrim, A Tudor Odyssey (Endeavour Press) and is working on a third, Beyond the Big River.