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:

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


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:



 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.


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!


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.


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!


Breaking Through the Clouds


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

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


 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.


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: (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).


 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.


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


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.


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?

How Mama Bird Gave Me Wings: A Tribute to Aviation Legend Evelyn Bryan Johnson

One never knows when life will take a dramatic turn or who may be the catalyst. October 25, 1997, was one such turning point in my life when I interviewed aviation legend Evelyn Bryan Johnson at a small town airport in Morristown, Tennessee. Evelyn probably never understood the impact her story made on me during our casual conversation. I’m not sure I did until years later. On May 10, 2012, Evelyn made her final flight at age 102. I’ve written an account below of how this legendary pilot known as Mama Bird gave me wings.

I was obtaining my masters in producing film and video and thought if only I had a good story, I know I can make a film. I recall shortly afterwards thinking that I should interview Evelyn Bryan Johnson, a legendary pilot in East Tennessee. I had often heard Evelyn ‘s name mentioned at the local airports where I accompanied my father and brothers. Even the hard to impress old school male pilots shook their head in wonder with the mention of Mama Bird’s impressive achievements. Her check rides were the stuff of legends. Senator Howard Baker, who flunked his first check ride with Evelyn, said “she’s the sweetest, kindest lady you would ever want to meet except when she’s doing a check ride. Then she’s a pure devil.”

Evelyn (Stone) was born in Corbin, Kentucky in 1909. After high school, she graduated with honors from Tennessee Wesleyan College in 1929. That same year, Evelyn saw her first airplane, an American Standard. She took a ride in the open cockpit plane and thought it was a “great adventure.”* Later she attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and graduated in 1932 with a degree in English. She married W.J. Bryan and they moved to Jefferson City, TN, where they established College Cleaners.

In 1944, Evelyn saw an ad in a local paper for flying lesson. George Prince, author of Mama Bird, Biography of Evelyn Bryan Johnson, A Flight Instructor wrote the following: ‘On Sunday, October 1, 1944, Evelyn got on the train in Jefferson City and went to Knoxville… From the Southern Railway Depot in Knoxville, she rode a city bus to the end of the line… From there, she walked about a mile along the river to a point opposite Island Airport. There was no bridge crossing the river. Mr. George Longfellow carried her across the river in a rowboat to take her first flying lesson. It was “love at first flight.”‘

Shortly afterwards, Evelyn’s career in aviation took off. She obtained her pilot’s license, flight instructor’s rating, sea plane rating, helicopter rating, helicopter instructor’s rating, flew in several air races and helped manage (and at one time owned) Morristown Flying Service in Morristown, TN. She flew in Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, San Juan, St. Thomas, Guadeloupe and the British West Indies. In 1968 she was promoted to Lt. Col. in the Civil Air Patrol and in 1979 the FAA awarded her Flight Instructor of the Year. In 1995 and 1996, Evelyn held the Guinness Book of Records for the most flying time for a woman, which was over 50,000 hours! She also continued to run the College Cleaners for four decades.

In the fall of 1997, my brother lived in Morristown, TN, approximately five miles from the airport where Mama Bird was a fixture. I took this as my opportunity to go to the airport and talk to Evelyn. Shy and insecure, I made my brother come with me in case I couldn’t make a connection with this legendary pilot. I need not have worried. Mama Bird was gracious and happy to talk. I sat in awe listening to her. I was astounded at how much she had accomplished in her life, her courage, and her bravery. At the time of my interview, she had 55,600 hours and was still flying at age 87!

As Mama Bird was talking, she happened to mention the women’s air races. She had flown in several of them in the fifties and sixties and was a timer in one as well. I knew nothing of women’s air races which surprised me since I attended air shows and hung out at general aviation airports on a regular basis. I asked Mama Bird a few questions about the races and how they began. She just casually mentioned how they had been going on for quite a while but as she talked, something just clicked inside of my gut and I KNEW that I had to learn more, that this was the story I had been looking for. Thus, my journey began.

I learned the first women’s national air derby took place in 1929 and that twenty women, including Amelia Earhart, competed in the race. I was completely shocked to discover so many women besides Amelia flew during that time period and just how accomplished they all were! It took ten years of researching the race (much of it before internet searches were available), make connections, write proposals and try to convince other people to produce the film before I realized that if the film were going to be made, I was going to have to take the risk. In June 2007, I left my job and took out a loan at the start of one of the worst financial times since, ironically, 1929.

It took an additional three years to produce the film. I researched, wrote, directed and produced the documentary, which is called Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women’s National Air Derby (BTTC). In the summer of 2010, I premiered BTTC. I paced in the back of the theater the entire time the film played and worried every second that there would be a technical problem, that the audience was bored, and on and on. When all four hundred people gave a standing ovation after the credits rolled, I was paralyzed. I had no idea what to do! I was just taking it all in and speechless. People came up to me saying they cried, laughed and were absolutely amazed with the film.

When I finally recovered from the initial shock, I began taking questions. One of the most frequently asked questions, even now, is how did I learn of the derby. The first time someone asked me this, I had to stop and think as I had been working on the film for thirteen years and had been through so much. When HAD I first learned of the derby? As I rewound my mind through all that had happened, a clear vision came into focus where I was sitting at a conference table in that small airport in Morristown, TN, with Mama Bird and realized, that’s when I knew. While Mama Bird may not have told me specifically about the very first women’s air race, my conversation with her opened up a whole new world and led me to the discovery of the women in the 1929 air derby.

All of these women are role models for following through when something excites and captures the imagination. By living her life and sharing that passion, Mama Bird inspired others, often without even knowing it. Through this, her legend will live on.

In her biography, Evelyn said she would “Retire her earthly wings when she is fitted for Heavenly ones. After all, old pilots never die; they just buzz off and fly away.”  If anyone ever earned those Heavenly Wings, it is Evelyn Bryan Johnson.

Blue skies and fair winds Mama Bird.


*Credit goes to George Prince for all the biographical facts about Evelyn in his book Mama Bird Biography of Evelyn Bryan Johnson A Flight Instructor. Evelyn gave me a copy of this book during our interview and wrote inside “Good Luck with your project, Evelyn Bryan Jonson, 55,600 hours!”


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