Fly Girls by Keith O’Brien (Historical Biography, 2018)

This excellently researched and beautifully written book was a hardcover Bestseller last year and is now available in all the usual formats. It’s the riveting yet thoughtful account of a mostly forgotten period in early aviation history and of the struggles, triumphs and tragedies of the comparatively few women pilots who had to overcome society’s narrow view of a “woman’s place” to earn spots in the cockpits of that era’s often unreliable aircraft.

For a brief period of time (roughly from 1925-1936), the five pioneers O’Brien focuses on were quite famous. Yet only Amelia Earhart is commonly known today, and even her story revolves more around the mystery of her last flight, when her round-the-world flight ended in disappearance somewhere in the south Pacific, than in her impressive overall career.

While some of Earhart’s colleagues/rivals’ achievements equaled hers, they lacked the PR support Amelia got from her husband, publisher and relentless promoter George Putnam. In particular, Earhart’s closest friends, Ruth Nichols and Louise Thaden, had resumes full of major firsts and dramatically overcoming long odds. In their time, they were as famed as Amelia, proving Earhart was far from the only notable “Fly Girl” of the time.

In fact, while women aviators were uncommon compared to men, they realized they had better stick together and formed an all-female association for mutual support. That group took its name (The 99s) from the number of fliers who joined in the organization’s first year.

The ’20s and ’30s were a time when flying records (for speed, height and distance) were being set and broken with dizzying regularity and the women O’Brien profiles were very much part of all that. It was also a time when flying races, whether cross-country endurance events or the hyper-dangerous pylon contests, were a new and massively supported type of sporting event. Tens of thousands of onlookers paid to watch, and women nd pilots struggled to get in on the action, both alongside often scornful male pilots and in female-only races, soon dubbed “powder-puff derbies” by mocking critics.

Florence Klingensmith was a high school dropout from North Dakota who fearlessly pushed the fragile aircraft of her time to their limits and died tragically (like plenty male pilots) as a result. Ruth Elder was a strikingly beautiful Alabama divorcee, whose looks and backstory over shadowed her considerable skills. Earhart was a lost soul who found herself when airborne, the one who is still widely remembered, but wasn’t by any means alone in her abilities or courage. Ruth Nichols was a child of old money privilege who chafed and rebelled against her family’s expectations. Louise Thaden was a young mother who fought like the others to fly and race airplanes, ultimately winning the toughest endurance race of all (beating an array of top male competitors).

Each of these women had their own, different stories and fates. O’Brien has woven each together into a marvelous book on a piece of aviation and social history that richly deserves to be better known and more widely appreciated.

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