Retracing Steps of the Women in the 1929 Derby while Traveling in California

I recently spent a week in California screening and giving presentations related to my documentary Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women’s National Air Derby (BTTC). As I was doing so, I realized I was also retracing some of the women’s steps and following yet another piece of their legacy.

I began my trip in Oakland, California, the same place where (derby contestant) Louise Thaden began her flying career. Louise spent two years in the area working for a distributor of Walter Beach’s airplanes while learning to fly, obtaining her private and transport license, and establishing several world records. Using clips from BTTC, I gave a presentation at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos and talked about some of the women in the derby. It was a powerful experience to speak there as the airplane Louise flew setting the solo endurance record was hanging just around the corner. In addition, the plane Louise’s husband, Herb, designed was hanging directly above me during my talk. A member of the Museum staff also brought up derby contestant Bobbi Trout’s name. Bobbi used to visit the museum, driving up in her red Porsche (even in her nineties), to share her adventures as a pilot.

Producer Heather Taylor underneath Travel Air Plane Louise Thaden set endurance record in Oakland, Ca

Producer Heather Taylor underneath Louise Thaden’s Travel Air Plane  used to set a solo endurance record.

Later that day, I traveled to Merced, California and spoke to engineering students at the University. The local chapter of AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) joined forces with other student organizations to sponsor my talk. Their purpose was to encourage more women to join the engineering program as well as support the few young women who were already enrolled in engineering. This was spearheaded in large part by several of the young men on campus wanting to see more equality emerge! I cannot say enough good things about my experience with this group of students. They were prepared when I arrived, very tech savvy, polite, enthusiastic, and engaged with the material presented. I enjoyed talking to them about their studies, interests, dreams and aspirations. It was truly exciting to see how this younger generation was inspired by the women’s achievements and how they want to continue building upon the success of the women flying in 1929.

On Monday, April 27th, I flew to San Diego, California and immediately went to pay my respects to Marvel Crosson at her final resting place. Marvel was one of the most experienced pilots in the 1929 derby which makes her crash and death all the more tragic. Marvel’s crypt has a beautiful wing decoration in the center, the only one I saw in the entire place.

Marvel Crosson's Final Wings

Marvel Crosson’s Final Wings

By happenstance the day I visited Marvel, April 27th was her birthday. Making the moment even more powerful was visiting the site with a couple who learned of Marvel’s story and ended up naming their daughter Marvel. Both parents are pilots and say the two-year old Marvel loves to fly.

Joe Crosson Drive

Joe Crosson Drive

While in San Diego, I drove on Joe Crosson Drive, named for Marvel’s brother, Joe, who was a famous pilot in his own right.

I spent several days in San Diego continuing my research regarding the women from the derby. At least two more people mentioned Bobbi Trout driving her red Porsche around in that area. Whether by plane or car, Bobbi sure got around in style!

I was honored to meet an 86-year-old retired pilot (and Quiet Birdman or QB) who knew Pancho Barnes. He had been to her Happy Bottom Riding Club Bar and said that while Pancho’s reputation preceded her in regards to her language and antics, she truly was a great pilot. He emphasized that Pancho really understood the challenges the test pilots of the supersonic age were going through and was able to talk to them in a language they understood.

When I spent a couple of hours in Long Beach, I passed by the impressive airport and thought of the legacy Gladys O’Donnell created there as a representative of Long Beach in the derby.

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                  Santa Monica Airport

Later in the week, I walked on the grounds of the Santa Monica airport. This is where the women began their journey for the first Women’s National Air Derby. As I stood there, I imagined what it was like eighty-six years earlier on that hot August day. I imagined the celebrities talking to the pilots while the general public swarmed to catch sight of a recognizable face. I could almost feel the carnival atmosphere with the music playing, popcorn being sold, kids climbing on the airplanes, and the excitement as the time neared to line up the planes and take off. I could hear echoes of radial engines starting up and the giggling of pilots Ruth Elder, Blanche Noyes, and Bobbi Trout as they looked at the trophies they were vying for. I could imagine the buzz of conversation between Louise, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols, Phoebe Omlie, Pancho Barnes and all the other women as they planned for their grand adventure. I looked down the runway and wondered at the sight of twenty women lifting those biplanes and cabin planes into the air, establishing their legacy as pioneers in aviation.

Tony Bill, director/actor/producer.

Tony Bill, director/actor/producer.

While at the airport, I had my own celebrity run in! I was so excited to meet actor, producer, director Tony Bill who had seen my film and was incredibly complimentary, generous, encourage and kind. His words touched and inspired me.

That night I screened BTTC at the Santa Monica library to an incredibly receptive and very interesting audiences. There were at least three academy award winners in attendance, including one of the editors of the Right Stuff (which featured Pancho Barnes in her bar)! Lou D’Elia, interviewed in BTTC, was also at the screening as were many pilots (male and female), proponents of the Santa Monica Airport, as well as a variety of independent artists. There was such a feeling of camaraderie and mutual admiration in that room that I was inspired by the audience members as much as they were inspired by the women of the derby.

My respect for the women who flew in the 1929 National Women’s Air Derby continues to grow as I learn new pieces of their history and meet inspiring people today due to these pioneering women following a passion and breaking through the clouds.

Written by Heather Taylor, producer/director/writer of the award-winning documentary, Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women’s National Air Derby

Breaking Through the Clouds: From Grass-Roots to Nation Wide

I never knew for sure if this day would get here. The day when I could say a film I worked so hard to create and produce about legendary and inspiring pioneers would finally be “on air.” In many ways, it’s a miracle that my film, Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women’s National Air Derby (BTTC) ever happened. I have had more obstacles than a golfer on a course designed by gophers.

Some of my obstacles included leaving my job at Discovery only to have the biggest financial meltdown since the depression happen immediately afterwards, contacting derby contestant Bobbi Trout after she had just entered the hospital, days before she passed away, my cameraman landing in the emergency room right before the aerial recreation shoot, dealing with the snow blizzard of the century when trying to get to the post production house, having power go out on the final day of off-line editing, severe flooding in Nashville where the composer of the film was working to get the final music to me and much more. In fact, this is just the tip of the iceberg of obstacles I have had and continue to face in regards to the film.

One of the hardest parts of the whole process, however, was finding the people who shared my vision for the film, understood the importance of the women’s air race and what it represents. For example, I had one editor who insisted that aviation legend Elinor Smith Sullivan should be cut from the film because nobody talks the way she does anymore. I cut the editor instead.

Elinor Sullivan Smith in her last on-camera interview. Filmed for Breaking Through the Clouds

Elinor Sullivan Smith in her last on-camera interview. Filmed for Breaking Through the Clouds

Through all of turmoil, however, I ended up finding all the right people to help bring this story forward. Nearly everyone who has been involved with BTTC has become an important part of my community from family members of the derby contestants, to creative artists, excellent pilots and people of integrity who believe in the message behind the derby.

What these obstacles helped to clarify for me is that the derby was and continues to be about community, relationship, and the human spirit. There is no doubt this film has only made it as far as it has because of the grass-roots support from individuals much like the race in 1929 happened in large part because of the contributions of fans across the county.

My community has now extended to viewers across the country as well as BTTC began airing on PBS stations nationwide in March of this year (2015). So far BTTC has aired in 20 states with nearly 100 broadcast. New dates, stations and times are being added daily including one in Washington DC this weekend (dates for this week listed below and also posted on the website: http://breakingthroughtheclouds.homestead.com/PBS-AIrings.html).

I have received some lovely letters and emails from this expanded community with viewers letting me know how inspired they are by the women’s story. I’ve listed some of those comments below as well.

Thanks to everyone who has stuck with me from the very beginning, to those who are just tuning in and others who have walked beside me in this journey. I think the women of the derby might be pleased to know that following their passion to fly in an air race over eight decades ago is still inspiring people today and helping build community “from the ground UP to the skies.”

Heather Taylor

Pilots who helped in the aerial recreations in Breaking Through the Clouds.

Pilots who are part of the aviation community that helped in the aerial recreations for Breaking Through the Clouds along with producer Heather Taylor

 UPCOMING AIR DATES

The BTTC website, Facebook page and twitter account are updated frequently with air dates and listings. Listed here are some of the upcoming broadcasts:

APRIL 13th, 2015 (Monday), 11pm

Kentucky, WKYU, Bowling Green area

APRIL 17th, 2015 (Friday), 11pm                                                 

New York City, Connecticut Area, Rhode Island including: Fairfield, CT: WEDWDT3; Hartford, CT WEDHDT3; New Haven, CT: WEDYDT3, Providence/New Bedford/Norwich CT: WEDNDT3

APRIL 18th (Saturday), 11am

Washington DC, WHUT and WHUTDT2

April 18th (Saturday) 9pm

Minneapolis: St Paul and Brainerd, MN: KAWB, KAWE

APRIL 19th (Sunday), 9pm

Minneapolis: St Paul, Brainerd MN, KAWBDT5 & KAWEDT5

April 22 (Wednesday) 9:30pm         

New York/Fairfield, CT., WEDWDT3; Hartford, CT: WEDHDT3, New Haven, CT: WEDYDT3; Providence/New Bedford/Norwich, CT: WEDNDT3

April 26th (Sunday), 10pm

New York/Fairfield, CT: WEDWDT3; Hartford, CT: WEDHDT3; New Haven, CT: WEDYDT3; Providence/New Bedford/Norwich, CT: WEDNDT3

NOTE: An extended version of Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women’s National Air Derby is available through this website: http://breakingthroughtheclouds.com/noframes.asp?f=DVDs_Testimonials.html

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RECENT COMMENTS FROM VIEWERS ABOUT BREAKING THROUGH THE CLOUDS 

 I finally got a chance to watch your film Breaking Through The Clouds and WE LOVED IT! I watched it with my 11-year-old daughter and my mother. I am so glad you included so much detail and in-depth interviews, etc.  Makes it so interesting. I am an aviation nerd and I learned a lot from the show.  I did not know a great deal about that era nor about several of those individual pilots. We really enjoyed it and liked how you took each one and explained their lives and brought them to life.

 Those women are so admirable and daring.  And they looked like they just LOVED to fly, that’s what makes it so neat. You did a brilliant job. My daughter’s “heroes” are mostly celebs, well except for Hope Solo. Now she really thinks Louis Thaden and Ruth Elder are cool.  Thanks for that.

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I watched Breaking Through the Clouds and LOVED every minute of it!  To witness these women being so courageous and gutsy made me reflect and say to myself “What can I pioneer, what new ground I break for not just women but for humanity?”  It really got me thinking and I’ve recommended it to several of my friends. Very inspirational…thank you, thank you for telling their stories and keeping this part of our history alive!

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I was blown away by your film. I could never have imagined that someone could recreate an event 85 years old and make it seem like just yesterday. … Your hard work has preserved these beautiful, talented and brave women for all history, and now they shall not be forgotten.

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Well I usually am not the most interested person when it comes to historical films. But with this, I was not at all bored. In fact, I couldn’t wait to hear about what the next day would bring and who would eventually win. The back and forth between the old footage, new images, and the people interviewed was what kept such interest! Very nice work!

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Breaking Through the Clouds

Heather:

Thanks to @womanaviators for this lovely blog on my film, Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women’s National Air Derby.

Originally posted on Woman Aviators:

The First Women’s National Air Derby! What a wonderful documentary video of this exciting breakthrough aviation event.  From the opening music, “Blue Skies Smiling at Me”, to the ending line up of each of the participating lovely lady pilots this video is pure pleasure.

This is truly an inspiring story of the 20 women who raced airplanes across America in 1929.  At a time when women had recently received the right to vote (1920) and the most common job for a woman was being a waitress, working on the farm or being a school teacher, these women climbed into their cockpits and adjusted their goggles for nine amazing and often grueling days flying from Santa Monica, CA to Cleveland, OH.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 9.29.12 PM Louise Thaden, Gladys O’Donnell and Ruth Nichols http://www.thaden.org

Very good original footage of interviews with Louise Thaden (holder of the woman’s altitude record of 20,260 feet in 1928), Ruth Elder…

View original 358 more words

On Purpose Women & Breaking Through the Clouds

An article I wrote for On Purpose Woman Magazine was just published. In it, I focus on how the women of the First Women’s National Air Derby (featured in Breaking Through the Clouds) model following one’s passion. As I state in the article, if you know what energizes you, share that with others. Your enthusiasm is contagious. For those of us still searching, role models, especially outside of the mainstream, are essential. There is no question that the women of the derby including Amelia Earhart, Louise Thaden, Pancho Barnes, Bobbi Trout, Phoebe Omlie and the rest of the contestants were On Purpose Women and Broke Through the Clouds.

Here’s a link to the PDF of the magazine

3-15 Cover

Blue Skies,

Heather Taylor

Producer of the award winning documentary Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women’s National Air Derby.

Now Available on PBS Stations across the United States. An extended version of the film is available on BreakingThroughTheClouds.com

PATHS FROM HISTORY INTERSECTING: AIR RACERS, WASPS, ASTRONAUTS AND ME

 In my last post, I published a picture of me with the last astronaut to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan (scroll down to last blog entry to see this picture). This was taken at the NBAA Conference in Las Vegas when Cernan and other aviation legends of today presented me with the National Aviation Hall of Fame’s Combs Gates Award.*  The honor still ranks up there as one of the proudest moments in my careers.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered I had witnessed Cernan’s launch into space!

I remembered going to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida as a child and watching a rocket launch into space but I did not remember any of the details. Recently I was sorting through some family memorabilia and stumbled across souvenirs from the event. It was the Apollo 17 launch. I found a picture of the three astronauts who flew this mission. They were Harrison Schmitt, Ron Evans and Gene Cernan! Now that caught my attention.

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Astronauts Harrison Schmitt, Ron Evans, and Gene Cernan

It’s funny how history works. We can cross paths and never even know it years later. Similarly, we can influence or be influenced by someone in ways unimaginable to us at the here and now.

A case in point is Phoebe Omlie, one of the women in the 1929 women’s national air derby. She taught a young woman, Dorothy Swain Lewis to become a flight instructor. Mrs. Lewis went on to fly in World War II (known as a WASP). I was fortunate to meet Mrs. Lewis and ask her about Phoebe. She said everyone admired her. She also said Phoebe was adamant about women becoming flight instructors.  One quip Mrs. Lewis said Phoebe used to make was, “we taught them to walk, we can teach them to fly.”No question the women of the derby paved the way for the next generation, including the WASPS, who in turn, have inspired many women flying in today’s military; an example of how history becomes relevant to the present.

The surviving WASPS, by the way, are not just sitting on their laurels and reliving old stories. Their latest ride to adventure is to be in next year’s Rose Bowl Parade. They are currently trying to raise $50,000 to obtain this goal. If you would like to help, you can learn more by visiting their website at: http://www.fifinella.com/roseparade.htm (they are also on Facebook).

I can’t help but reflect on how my father shared his passion for aviation with his children by taking us to events such as the Apollo 17 launch and what an impression that made. Maybe one of you will take your children to the Rose Bowl Parade next year to see the amazing women pilots from WW11 float by and influence the next generation in ways never imagined. Just like an astronaut named Eugene Cernan and a certain filmmaker decades later, you never know when, where or how paths may cross again.

*The award was for my film, Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women’s National Air Derby.

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. ~Aesop

It’s easy to get caught up in daily life and only remember those who have criticized or hurt you along the way. The human condition seems to focus on the negative experience and perseverate on them, often forgetting simple acts of kindness along the way and how they add up to build a net of support.

Recently, pilot Laura Smith generated a survey on “kindness in aviation.” Laura publishes an “ezine” called Aviatrix Aerogram which I occasionally contribute to with articles and comments. The survey gave me a chance to sit back and reflect  about the kindness shown to me through the journey of producing BTTC. I found the experience humbling. There are the people who agreed to be interviewed for the story, the audiences who showed up at the screening and took time to talk about the film’s impact, those who purchased the DVD to share with others, the man who unexpectedly gave me a $100 donation, the pilots who took time to fly their vintage planes for the recreation shoot, the crew who helped me produce the film, those who believed in and supported my vision and on and on.

Heather Taylor meeting Eugene Cernan, last astronaut to walk on the moon.

Experiencing acts of kindness from others provides a model and motivation to pass that kindness on. The women of the derby offered great examples of this throughout the race as well as afterwards. For example, Ruth Nichols gave Louise Thaden some cans of tomatoes to carry in her plane for emergencies during the race. Bobbi Trout helped Vera Dawn Walker find a plane so Vera could compete in the derby. When Mary Haizlip’s plane did not make it to the starting line in time, the women signed a petition stating it was ok for Mary to start the race a day late. In Yuma, Arizona, the women voted to wait until Amelia Earhart’s propeller was fixed before resuming the race. There are many more examples during the race of kindness being exhibited, from spectators to sponsors to organizers. The passion the women had to fly seemed to be contagious and helped to create a generous spirit throughout the entire event.

Amelia Earhart and Ruth Nichols

We are in an age today where it’s so easy to post negative comments and criticism without holding any accountability. As a result, it’s even more important to remember and treasure the positive and random acts of kindness that do come our way as well as perpetuate kindness to others.

Do you have a random act of kindness you’d like to share? Please post below if you do. Thank you as always for being a part of my community.

Did You Notice? Details in BTTC

Did you notice?

When producing a film, millions of decisions go into the process. Because film is a visual field, an image needs to be on the screen the entire time. There’s a lot that goes into those images from obtaining the image in the first place, deciding what to put where, how to present it, how long it stays on screen and how it matches the storyline.

Besides the visual field, sound design, music, color correcting, graphics, animation, lighting, camera angles and overall atmospheric decisions must go into the film as well as finding the right voice to narrate. The hope is the audience will be pulled into the story and not actually notice all the individual effects.

For me, it was important to pay attention to detail, making the film as accurate as I could. For example in the beginning of the film there is a montage of airplanes filmed in progression from early 1900s until 1929. Can you identify the planes used in that montage?

Below are some other examples of decisions that went into producing BTTC.

The interviews

When interviewing someone on camera, decisions must be made on who to interview, where to hold the interview (along with getting permission from the site where the interview is held), what to talk about, where to set up the camera, what to include in the shot and much more.

We decided to interview Dorothy Cochrane, curator at the National Air & Space Museum (NASM), in front of the red Lockheed Vega similar to what Amelia Earhart flew in the 1929 derby. Filming at NASM is very strict (and expensive). When it was time to interview Dorothy, we realized we did not have a chair and were not allowed to look for or use one within the museum. Thankfully cameraman Jonathan Donnelly had a fold up chair with him. While less than ideal, it was all we had. The chair was a neon blue that looked like something from Pee Wee Herman’s show. Thank goodness for the fantastic colorist Ted Smea as he was able to tone down the color in post production (not without it’s challenge though).

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 Producer Heather Taylor at NASM in front of Amelia’s Lockheed Vega

While you may have noticed aviation expert Andrew King sitting beside a motor, you may not have realized it was a Warner motor just like the one that Phoebe Omlie would have had in her monocoupe during the derby. From technical to artsy, I particularly liked the backdrop of propellers used for author Margaret Blair’s interview. It was like a sculpture. As much as I loved the visual in Margaret’s interview, we had lots of issues with noise. Fortunately audio mixer and sound designer Brian Callahan was able to pull off a few miracles to make the audio usable.

Andrew, beside the Warner motor, being interviewed by an intense looking Heather

When interviewing aviation legend Elinor Smith, I had flowers delivered. We decided to use the flowers in the interview and happily the color scheme in the flowers picked up the colors in Elinor’s jacket, adding a softness to the interview.

I think my favorite interview set up overall, however, was with Floyd Culver as he was in front of a gorgeous red Travel Air sitting beside one of Louise Thaden’s trophies from the race. I loved the lighting and effect from that shoot.

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Heather holding Louise Thaden’s Trophy with Cameraman Jonathan Donnelly & Grip Steve Spallone in front of Travel Air

Sound

Working with Brian Callahan on sound design may have been one of the least stressful and most fun parts of post production. I had the preconception that sound design was hokey. Brian, however, made the sounds believable to the point that even I am fooled upon occasion when watching the film. One thing we took into careful consideration was trying to have the correct motor underneath the plane as it was taking off. For example, if it were a Travel Air, we tried to make sure it was a Travel Air motor underneath. Some of this audio was available on the actual footage. Other times we had to add, enhance or manipulate it.

At the starting line up on opening day, a man yells “Flag is Up” right before Phoebe takes off. Brian amplified that. He also added wind blowing at certain points, crowds cheering, the gun shot that started the race, and a phone ringing in the background when the women were called the first night with a warning about their planes being mismanaged. After we were almost done with audio, I noticed that I had narrator Molly Moores read an incorrect word in the script. I had written down “shirt” when it should have been “skirt”. I couldn’t afford to pay for another narration session and bring Molly back so Brian was able to piece together other words Molly had said during the first narration session and manipulate it to where it sounded like Molly said “skirt.” If you listen carefully, you can tell but if you are not aware of it, it comes off perfectly.

Music

I really enjoy the original music composer Nanette Malher created for the film. We worked together on defining the mood that needed to be conveyed and creating an atmosphere appropriate to the situation. She was masterful in producing wonderful pieces in a short amount of time. Besides her original compositions, we were able to find two pieces of music that would have actually been played during the derby.

One was “On Wings of Love,” a song Cliff Henderson, managing director of the National Air Races wrote the lyrics to specifically for the 1929 Air Races. Obviously the lyrics were not in the film but the song itself was played under the section of the film about the National Air Races.

In addition, “The Spirit of Aviation Fox Trot Song” was written by Alice Huber (music) and Opal Hemler (Lyrics) specifically for the women of the derby. It was played at the banquet in Cleveland after the race. Nanette played this music underneath that segment in the film. I was thrilled when Alice Huber’s son contacted me about the piece and allowed me to include it in the film!

Graphics & Animation 
Every single picture used in the film (hundreds) had to be cleaned up and some type of movement put on them. In addition, graphics were used to enhance some of the segments.

For example, I produced little back stories on some of the women so the audience could get to know their personalities. I decided to use the women’s actual pilot’s license as a template in opening each segment. Animator Keith Kolder did an excellent job in creating this movement. If you notice, each license is signed by Orville Wright and has information about the woman on the license. I was fortunate in actually seeing several of the women’s license in person so this was something I wished to share on screen. At the bottom of the screen during these segments, we used the actual signature of the woman being featured. At the end of the segment, the aviation license book was closed – with the exception of Marvel Crosson’s. I purposely did not close Marvel’s license as a way to honor her.

In addition, the actual sign up page from the race was used, along side a picture of the woman after her story of being eliminated from the derby was told. Her signature and picture would fade into black to signify she was out of the race.

The above is just a small sampling of the decisions that went into the making of BTTC. Of course, there was the occasional instance where something happened that I didn’t plan for and discovered only later. One example is when I realized there was a car honking loudly as Pancho Barnes was taking off in Santa Monica. When I noticed it, I laughed out loud and wondered, was this foreshadowing?



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