Opal Kunz

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Opal Kunz
Opal Kunz
Opal Logan Giberson

November 6, 1894
DiedMay 15, 1967(1967-05-15) (aged 72)
Resting placeAuburn Old Cemetery, Auburn, California; plot 127B-3
Known forfounder of the Betsy Ross Air Corps
Spouse(s)George Frederick Kunz

Opal Kunz (November 6, 1894 – May 15, 1967) was an early American aviator, the chief organizer of the Betsy Ross Air Corps, and a charter member of the Ninety-Nines organization of women pilots. In 1930, she became the first woman pilot to race with men in an open competition. She made many public appearances to urge more women to take up flying.

Personal history[edit]

Opal Logan Giberson was born in 1894 or 1896 in Missouri to Edward F. Giberson and his wife.[1][2] She graduated from Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Massachusetts.[2]

In 1923, she married mineralogist George Frederick Kunz (1856–1932).[3][4] The marriage was annulled in 1929.[5] The couple remained on good terms, with Kunz caring for George for the remainder of his life.[5] On his death, he left her a substantial bequest.[6][7]

Aviation career[edit]

Kunz earned her pilot's license in 1929. A crash two weeks later in New Jersey drew extensive press coverage; she escaped uninjured.[8][9] A second crash two years later left her with gasoline burns. [10][11]

She spent a great deal of time and money on her flying pursuits and always named her planes after Betsy Ross.[3] On April 7, 1930, at the Philadelphia American Legion Benefit Air Meet, she became the first woman to race with men in open competition.[3][12] She won the race.[13]

Kunz gave frequent press interviews and radio addresses to urge more women to take up flying.[14][15][16]

Powder Puff Derby[edit]

In 1929, Kunz participated in the first Women's Air Derby, later dubbed the "Powder Puff Derby" by humorist Will Rogers. At the time, there were only 70 licensed female pilots in the entire United States, and only 40 qualified to take part in this contest. The transcontinental course began in Santa Monica, California, and ended in Cleveland, Ohio.

Race rules stipulated that the aircraft must have horsepower "appropriate for a woman." Kunz was told her own 300-horsepower Beech Travel Air was too fast for a woman to handle and would not be allowed. Forced to borrow a less-powerful airplane in order to take part in the race, she finished eighth.[17]

Death of Jack Donaldson[edit]

On September 7, 1930, Kunz loaned her plane to aviator John Donaldson at the American Legion Air Races meet in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Donaldson suffered fatal injuries when the airplane fell from a height of 1,800 feet straight down into the municipal airfield.[18]

Betsy Ross Air Corps[edit]

Kunz was an organizer of the Betsy Ross Air Corps, a paramilitary service formed to support the Army Air Corps (the precursor to the U.S. Air Force) in national defense and to serve as humanitarian "air minutemen"[19] in times of emergency.[12][20][21][22][23][24] It also had the goal of offering flight instruction to women in order to build a reserve group of women aviators.[21][25][26] Kunz grew the corps to about 100 members, partially funding it herself.[12][27] She served as the corps' first commander, and her husband designed its insignia.[21][28][29][30] The short-lived corps (1931–1933) was never formally recognized by the U.S. military.

World War II[edit]

As World War II approached, Kunz began teaching aviation students at Arkansas State College. In 1942, she moved to Rhode Island, and at the start of World War II became an instructor at the Rhode Island state airport for Navy cadets and for the government-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program. She taught several hundred young men how to fly for the war effort.[31]

Later years[edit]

After the war, she became an inspector for the Aerojet Corporation in California.[31]

In 1961, following after the historic space flight of the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, she wrote to President John F. Kennedy to volunteer her services as an American astronaut. In honor of her extensive aviation experience, the president wrote her a courteous reply.[31]

Kunz died at home in Auburn, California in 1967.


  1. ^ Kunz's cemetery burial card indicates that her mother's maiden name was Gribble.
  2. ^ a b "Dr. G. F. Kunz Weds Miss Opal Giberson: Ceremony in Tarrytown Church Where Washington Irving Worshipped: They Sail for Bermuda." New York Times, May 16, 1923.
  3. ^ a b c Kunz, Opal. Letter to Carol Craig of the 99's. July 24, 1963. The letter describes her experiences and early days of flying.
  4. ^ "Dr. George F. Kunz and Opal L. Giberson Married." New York Times, May 16, 1923, p. 19:1.
  5. ^ a b "G. F. Kunz Marriage Annulled Nov. 21: Tiffany Official and His Wife Agreed in Court Action, She Reveals: Still Live in Same Home." New York Times, Jan. 25, 1930.
  6. ^ "Dr. G. F. Kunz Left Estate of $114,109.00." New York Times, November 7, 1932.
  7. ^ "Opal Kunz, Famous Flier, Gets Million: Will of Divorced Husband Gives Aviatrix Half Interest in the Estate of Dr. George F. Kunz." Washington Daily News, July 12, 1932.
  8. ^ "Mrs. Kunz in Crash Piloting Her Plane: Wife of Tiffany Official Escaped Injury in Wreck at Morris Plains, NJ- Got License 2 Weeks Ago- Encountered Fog While Returning with her Mechanic from Wilkes-Barre, Pa." New York Times, June 24, 1929.
  9. ^ O'Sullivan, Arthur. "Gem Man’s Wife Crashes on Night Flight with Gob." Daily News, June 24, 1929.
  10. ^ "Flying Skill Saves Life of Mrs. Kunz." New York Sun, April 30, 1931.
  11. ^ "Mrs. Opal Logan Kunz Burned by Gasoline in Plane Crash." New York Times, May 1, 1931, p. 2:2.
  12. ^ a b c Letter from Opal Kunz to President Kennedy, dated April 14, 1961. John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, "White House Central Name File, Box 1532, Folder: KUNZ."
  13. ^ "Thrilled the Groundsmen at the Legion’s Aerial Derby: Mrs. Opal Kunz, Who Won the Ten-Mile Race in a 300-Horsepower Plane at the Joint Aviation Show and Carnival of Unity Post, American Legion, of Roselle, and Aviation Post of New York, at the Westfield Airport." New York Times, June 29, 1930.
  14. ^ "Mrs. George F. Kunz Speaks on Radio Urging Women to Fly." New York Times, Aug. 7, 1929, p. 2:5.
  15. ^ "Mrs. Kunz Deplores Lack of Girl Fliers. 'It is Humiliating to Admit Our Women Cannot Compete With Foreigners,' She Says. Asks Support of Parents: Fears of Families Often Imperil Young Aviators, She Declares in Address Over Radio." New York Times, Aug. 7, 1929.
  16. ^ "Balloon-Buster Argues for Equality in the Air." New York Sun. March 19, 1930.
  17. ^ Jessen, Gene Nora. "The 1929 Air Race" Archived 2009-05-19 at the Wayback Machine. The Ninety-Nines website. Accessed May 14, 2001.
  18. ^ "John O. Donaldson, Noted Ace, Dies As His Plane Crashes: Greenville [SC] Man Killed When Plane Crashes at Philadelphia Airport; Machine Went Into Fatal Tail Twirl; Body Badly Mangled As Ship is Demolished- Had Great Record in the War." Greenville (South Carolina) News, Sept. 8, 1930.
  19. ^ Simbeck, Rob. Daughter of the Air, Large Print: The Brief Soaring Life of Cornelia Fort, p. 121.
  20. ^ Douglas, Deborah G. American Women and Flight since 1940, p. 282.
  21. ^ a b c “Girl Flyers Ready to Aid Army: Opal Kunz Heads Betsy Ross Corps, Formed as Military Auxiliary Unit”. New York Sun, Jan. 2, 1931.
  22. ^ Johnson, J. C. “Women’s Flying Corps, Named After the Creator of the First United States Flag, Stands Ready to Meet Any Emergency that May Confront the Nation.” Washington Post, June 11, 1933.
  23. ^ “Women Fliers Military Club Organized by Mrs. Opal Kunz.” Newark Evening News, January 3, 1931.
  24. ^ “Women’s Air Reserve Will Organize May 9: Heads of Army and Navy Services Will Attend Founding of the Betsy Ross Corps.” New York Times, April 26, 1931.
  25. ^ “Is there a Women’s Air Reserve?” Evening Star (Washington, DC), June 6, 1933.
  26. ^ “Women Reserve Pilots to Train: Construction of Eastern Center is Under Way at Orange City, Florida.” Evening Star (Washington, DC), January 19, 1932.
  27. ^ “Betsy Ross Corps Adds Members.” New York Herald Tribune, April 16, 1933.
  28. ^ "Opal Kunz. Davis-Monthan Aviation Field Register. Dec. 28, 2015.
  29. ^ “Girl Flyers Ready to Aid Army: Opal Kunz Heads Betsy Ross Corps, Formed as Military Auxiliary Unit.” New York Sun, January 2, 1931.
  30. ^ Altick, Sherman B. “Betsy Ross Air Corps to March: Girl Flyers Will Meet in Washington to Plan Military Auxiliary Work." Sun (New York), April 20, 1931.
  31. ^ a b c Canton, Ray. "Woman Flyer, Who Volunteered for Space Flight, Is Full of Surprises." Sacramento Bee, June 4, 1961, p. B4.