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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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