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Opal Kunz, also known as Opal van Zandt Giberson Kunz (1894–1967), was the wife of Dr. George Frederick Kunz, and she was a noted early aviator, the first president of the “Ninety-Nines”, a women pilots’ organization, that was formed in her living room, and an early feminist.
As an aviatrix, Opal Kunz spent a great deal of time and money on her flying pursuits. “I learned to fly as a sportswoman in the interest of National Defense [sic]. My planes were always called ‘Betsy Ross.’ My husband was Gem Expert and vice-president of Tiffany & Co. N.Y. C. Never flew for any company as my husband was able and wanted to pay my way... I have a huge scrapbook containing clippings from all the papers in the country... All the publicity was given free by the press- No publicity agents were employed. I was the first woman to race with men in open competition. It was an American Legion Air Meet in Philadelphia. I had the fastest plane and won the race...” In another letter, she stated: “I was the first woman to race with men in open competition at Philadelphia American Legion Benefit Air Meet, on April 7, 1930. Won first prize.”
Betsy Ross Air Corps
She also was an organizer of two other aviation clubs for women, the “Betsy Ross Air Corps” and the “Lady Birds.” The Betsy Ross Air Corps was formed as a semi-military service to support the Army Air Corps and to act in times of emergencies, such as flood, earthquakes, etc. “The Betsy Ross Corps was formed to ferry planes, give flight instruction, compete in benefit air meets to raise funds for charities, and provide first aid. Mrs. Kunz obtained about 100 members and kept the organization going for about four years.” She also indicated she placed as much money as she could spare into the service. “I spent all my resources trying to form Women’s Reserve Corp [sic].” 
There appears to be very little original information or primary sources about this organization, a precursor to many of the women’s flying organizations during World War II. Most of the information found are in the comments of the early members, which often were not recorded for posterity. “…In the spring of 1931, the year before she Pancho Barnes ran for L.A. County supervisor, she heard about the Betsy Ross Corps, a national organization of female pilots intended to function as an auxiliary to the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the US Air Force. She joined immediately, donning the uniform of khaki jodhpurs and shirt, and meeting with other local women fliers at March Field. But she was disappointed with the lack of activities…”
Powder Puff Derby
“The First Women’s Transcontinental Air Derby,” or the Women's Air Derby, later dubbed “The Powder Puff Derby” by humorist Will Rogers, took off from Clover Field in Santa Monica, California, headed for Cleveland, Ohio. At this time, there were only 70 licensed female pilots in the entire US, and only 40 qualified to take part in this contest. Over 500,000 tickets were sold for this race and air show which took place over ten days, and which instantly became a spectator sport. The flights were limited to daylight hours only, and the pilots navigated by dead reckoning and by using commercial road maps of the states they would fly over.
That there was overt sexism shown against this group was obvious from the first. One of the odd qualifications was that the aircraft would have to have horsepower “appropriate for a woman.” Opal Kunz was told he airplane was too fast for a woman to handle, and had to get another craft or stay out of the race. “…Though Opal Kunz owned and flew her own 300 horse power [Beech] Travel Air, it was disallowed since it was deemed by the judges to be “too fast for a woman to fly.” With $25,000.00 in prize money at stake, she found a lesser horsepower craft to race.”  In August 1929, the first Women's Air Derby was held. Of the 20 entrants, seven flew Travel Airs and it was Louise Thaden who won the Santa Monica, Calif., to Cleveland race. Opal Kunz finished eighth. The other five Travel Airs were flown by Pancho Barnes, Claire Fahy, Marvel Crosson, Mary von Mack and Blanche Noyes.
The derby was divided into two classes of airplanes based on engine size, and other pilots had TravelAir airplanes. It isn’t known if the judges would have included at third size especially for one airplane engine size or not. Opal Kunz seems to be the source for this story about the airplane motor being too powerful for a woman to use, so she had to buy another one instead. However, another account by her indicates she crashed an airplane going to the race, and may have decided on this story to explain why she needed a new airplane. Regretfully, no one seems to have the story straight today, and all the original references seem to point back only to the accounts given by Opal, but these stories are not backed up by official decisions of the judges, a letter of disqualification, or any other sources to independently verify this account.
Was sexism shown against the women pilots? Of course. Without a doubt, Thea Rusche and Claire Fahy claimed that someone tampered with their plane, and both Bobbi Trout and Opal Kunz claimed their instruments were maladjusted before starting the race in California. When another contestant, Marvel Crosson, was killed in a plane crash in Arizona, a police investigation into the charges of sabotage were taken more seriously. No cause for her crash has ever been determined. 
Death of Captain Jack Donaldson
On September 7, 1930, the World War I Air Ace John Donaldson had just won the 15 mile race for airplanes with a Curtiss OX-5 motor, used during the World War in the Jenny and in other military aircraft. After winning that race, Captain Donaldson borrowed Opal Kunz’ more powerful and more modern airplane, and shortly afterward crashed at the American Legion Air Races meet in Philadelphia. The airplane fell from a height of 1,800 feet straight down into the municipal airfield, in front of over 40,000 horrified spectators. List of accidents and incidents involving military aircraft (1925–1934)
After only seven years together, Dr. Kunz announced to the press that the marriage was annulled in January 1930. The request for the annulment came originally from Mrs. Kunz, but the legal papers concerning the annulment are still under seal in New York, and the causes and details for the annulment are not publicly known today. To avoid open court proceedings, the annulment was granted by a Supreme Court judge from New York, who had the authority to annul a marriage without open court proceedings and the possibility for more scandal. Mrs. Opal Kunz (she retained her married name) stayed in their apartment in an amiable arrangement. She continued to act as a hostess for Dr. Kunz and to care for him as long as he lived. In his will, he left half of his estate to her, as well as his apartment in New York City and his stock in Tiffany & Co. A frequent flyer, Mrs. Kunz had often said that her long absences on distant flights would make it “impossible for me to be a good wife to any man.” 
Even though they were separated, Dr. Kunz was still proud of his former wife. A few months after the annulment, he suggested that she pilot a member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh up in her plane to photograph a partial solar eclipse, something which had never been done before. “…On April 28, 1930 Dr. Fisher [of the Amateur Astronomer’s Association] went up in a biplane from Newark Airport for his first time in the air to photograph a partial eclipse of the sun. He used a Graflex camera with a Zeiss f/4.5 lens from an altitude of 18,200 feet. He wore helmet and goggles, the camera was handled with bare hands at a temperature of 18 below zero. The trip had been suggested to him only a couple of hours before by the husband of Mrs. Kunz, the pilot…” 
World War II
With the threat of war rising on the horizon, Opal later renewed her pilot’s license after taking a refresher course at Hagerstown, Maryland, and began teaching aviation students at the Arkansas State College. She later 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 the government sponsored “Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP)”  during the war, teaching over 400 young men how to fly for the Air Corps.
This was her old dream of the Betsy Ross Flying Corps come true, as she helped train the men who would fly fighter aircraft in combat. An account form the time shows the work she was doing by saying: “Mrs. Kunz has been in Providence since January  as a member of the staff of E. W. Wiggins Airways. She has a mother’s confidence in her ‘boys’ and they reciprocate with respect and enthusiasm. Nothing gives her greater joy than to see them solo, to know she has taken them one step nearer to Uncle Sam’s aerial defense line.” Later, at her home in California, she would recall with fondness her experiences. “I trained about 400 boys and it was easily the highlight of my career. I really became a sort of foster mother to them. You would be surprised how many of my boys brought their wives and children to see me after the war.” She also indicated in a letter that she had trained combat pilots. “...I was a flight instructor all during the war. Had over three hundred students who served as combat pilots in the war.”
After the war, she became an inspector for the Aerojet-General Corporation in California. She never re-married, and she lived alone in her modest house with her three dogs. While she never had a great deal of money, she was able to do fairly well on her inheritance from her husband and her retirement income from the aircraft company. “These days, I haven’t the money to fly. Aerojet lays off more people than they hire, and I have to depend on my modest income from N. Y. willed to me by my late husband. I have a modest house with plenty of shade trees and my old Oldsmobile runs beautifully. My family consists of three fine dogs- two collies and one German shepherd.” 
As a final example of her self-confidence, after the historic flight of the Russian Cosmonaut, Major Yuri Gagarin, in orbiting the earth, she wrote to President John F. Kennedy on April 14, 1961, and volunteered her services as an American astronaut. “It seems to me that all the Russians did was send a human dummy upstairs. All was controlled from the ground. Anyone could have ridden that course, even I could do that... I would be glad to fly in any contraption offered by my government to outdo this record flight of the Russian. I’m a widow and have no one to leave to suffer in case I didn’t come back.”
While a letter from an older woman volunteering to become an astronaut might be laughed at, when they checked her credentials they found she was not unqualified with her many years of flying expertise and her engineering experience. She deserved serious consideration and a courteous reply, and she received both from President Kennedy.
She died alone at her home in Auburn, California in 1967, and is buried in the municipal cemetery there.
- Kunz, Opal. Letter to Carol Craig of the 99's. July 24, 1963. The letter describes her experiences and early days of flying.
- John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, “White House Central Name File, Box 1532, Folder: KUNZ.” Letter from Opal Kunz to President Kennedy, dated April 14, 1961.
- Kessler. Happy Bottom Flying Club. Page 100.
- Jessen, Gene Nora. “The 1929 Air Race.” The Ninety-Nines. See the website accessed on May 14, 2001: http://www.ninety-nines.org/1929airrace.html.
- “Women Pilots Make Charge: Investigate Claim Miss Crosson’s Plane was Weakened.” Warsaw Daily Times. August 29, 1929, front page.
- “Dr. G. F. Kunz Left Estate of $114,109.00." New York Times. November 7, 1932.
- Patrick Rizzo. [“A History of the First Forty Years of the Amateur Astronomers Association.]
- The Civil Aeronautics Authority, starting in 1940, contracted out the work of training fighter pilots in reaction to World War II. The University of New Hampshire was one of the main contractors and ran the Civilian Pilot Training Program from 1940 to 1943. See the site accessed May 31, 2004: http://www.izaak.unh.edu/archives/guides/pilottraining.htm
- Ray Canton. “Woman Flyer, Who Volunteered for Space Flight, is Full of Surprises.” Sacramento Bee, June 4, 1961, page B4.
- Canton, Ray. “Personality in the News: Woman Flier Who Volunteered for Space Flight, is Full of Surprises.” Sacramento Bee, June 4, 1961, page B4.
- Canton, Ray. “Personality in the News: Woman Flier Who Volunteered for Space Flight, is Full of Surprises.” Sacramento Bee, June 4, 1961, page B4.
- “Betsy Ross Corps Adds Members.” New York Herald Tribune. April 16, 1933.
- “Is there a Women’s Air Reserve?” Evening Star (Washington, DC). June 6, 1933. Describes the Betsy Ross Corps as the Women’s Air Reserve.
- 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. Review article on the formation and activities of the Betsy Ross Corps.
- “Women Reserve Pilots to Train: Construction of Eastern Center is Under Way at Orange City, Florida.” Evening Star (Washington, DC). January 19, 1932. A new center of women air reserve pilots to train is announced. Also announced will be the commission of a new anthem for the Betsy Ross Corps to be composed, and a famous artist will ”perpetuate the corps on canvas.”
- “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.
- “Girl Flyers Ready to Aid Army: Opal Kunz Heads Betsy Ross Corps, Formed as Military Auxiliary Unit.” New York Sun. January 2, 1931. Opal Kunz was elected “Commander” of the organization.
- “Women Fliers Military Club Organized by Mrs. Opal Kunz.” Newark Evening News. January 3, 1931.
- “Mrs. Opal Kunz, Organizer of 99's Club for Women Pilots, was one of the first women to take Instruction at Newark Airport.” Sunday Call (Newark, NJ). April 5, 1931.
- 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. Describes organization, history, intentions, uniforms and plans of the Betsy Ross Corps, also described as “The Lady Bugs.”
- “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.
- “Flying Skill Saves Life of Mrs. Kunz.” New York Sun. April 30, 1931. Raw gasoline poured on her face from a broken fuel line while flying, blinding her and hindering her landing at the Washington-Hoover Airport.
- “Mrs. Opal Logan Kunz Burned by Gasoline in Plane Crash.” New York Times, May 1, 1931, page 2:2.
- “Woman Flier, Blinded By Gasoline, Crashes; Mrs. Opal Kunz Escapes Serious Injury as She Hits Fence Groping for Capital Field.” Special to The New York Times. New York Times. New York, N.Y.: May 1, 1931. p. 2.
- “Dr. George F. Kunz Announces Annulment of Marriage.” New York Times. November 21, 1930. Annulment granted on November 21 (1929), announced January 25, 1930, page 3:3. “G. F. Kunz Marriage Annulled Nov. 21: Tiffany Official and His Wife Agreed in Court Action, She Reveals: Still Live in Same Home. “Hope to Remain Friends for the Rest of Our Lives,” she says- Were Married in 1923.” New York Times. January 25, 1930.
- “Balloon-Buster Argues for Equality in the Air.” New York Sun. March 19, 1930. Mrs. Opal Kunz argues that women aviators must be accepted as equal to men, she says as a speaker before the Manhattan Chapter of the Reserve Officer’s Association.
- “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.
- “99 Club in Protest at Bar on Women by Air Race Heads: Agitation by Mrs. Kunz Bears Fruit in Resolution Adopted at Meeting.” Newark Ledger. August 28, 1930. (NASM) Opal Kunz opposed technicalities imposed on women fliers to prevent them from participating in the National Air Race held at Curtiss-Reynolds Airport in Chicago.
- “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. Monday, September 8, 1930. Pagination unknown. Opal Kunz is also quoted in the text, as a witness to his unfortunate death.
- “25,000 Watch Racers Die in Midair Crash. Plane at Trenton Clips Tail Off Another in Rounding Pylon: Pilots are Forced to Wait for Death. Machines Plunge Slowly; One Flier Had Tossed Coin to Use Ship. Mrs. Opal Kunz Hits Back at Criticisms; Handled Her Craft Rightly, She Says; Harry K. Thaw’s Son Wins Prize.” Washington Post. October 20, 1930, page 1.
- “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. (NASM) Mrs. Kunz “badly smashed” her Travelair biplane, and no identification was available to the police except the identification number on the fuselage, C-9827, and her initials, “O. G. K.” for “Opal Giberson Kunz.”
- O’Sullivan, Arthur. “Gem Man’s Wife Crashes on Night Flight with Gob.” Daily News. June 24, 1929. Sensationalized account of the crash of Pilot Opal Kunz and passenger Verne E. Moon. Several photos of her airplane before and after the crash. (NASM)
- “Flying Fashions.” Sunday News. July 7, 1929. “Mrs. George Kunz, prominent society aviatrix, wore this unique costume at opening of new air country club in Hicksville, L.I.” (NASM)
- “Mrs. George F. Kunz Buys New Plane.” New York Times. July 11, 1929, page 4:6. The new airplane was a sport model of the Travelair biplane, suitable for cross-country work and powered by a new Wright J-6 motor. The plane was to be named “The Betsy Ross.” At the christening of the airplane, the pilots and guests would wear evening dress.
- “Mrs. George F. Kunz Christens New Plane.” New York Times. July 12, 1929, page 23:1. She named her airplane the “Betsy Ross,” in honor of the woman who sewed the first American flag. Mrs. Thomas Edison broke a bottle of mineral water over the fuselage, sprinkled some on the propeller and christened the airplane. Moonlight flights over New York City were given to some of the guests.
- “Mrs. George F. Kunz Speaks on Radio Urging Women to Fly.” New York Times. August 7, 1929, page 2:5. Opal Kunz spoke on WABC to a national audience, saying that women pilots should enter the field of aviation with the idea of being accepted on an absolutely equal footing with men.
- “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. Wednesday, August 7, 1929. “Mrs. Kunz advised women to enter the field of aviation with the idea of being accepted on an absolutely equal footing with men. “Above all things,” she urged them, “do not try to flirt with the pilots. Flying is a serious business.”
- “Dr. George F. Kunz and Opal L. Giberson Announce Engagement.” New York Times. Page 19:1. May 9, 1923.
- “Dr. George F. Kunz and Opal L. Giberson Married.” New York Times. Page 19:1. May 16, 1923.
- “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. Opal Logan Giberson, daughter of the late Mr. And Mrs. Edward F. Giberson of St. Louis, were married at Christ Episcopal Church in Tarrytown where the bride was baptized and prepared for confirmation. “Mrs. Kunz, who is about 30, is of old Dutch and Kentucky ancestry. She is a graduate of Dana Hall, Wellesley, and with which she was officially connected for some time. She did relief work during the war and engaged in Liberty Loan campaigns and work connected with visaing passports. She has been much interested in politics, social economics and music, and made her home at the Three Arts Club for a considerable period.”