Women's Air Derby

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Womens Air Derby was the first official women-only air race in the United States during the 1929 National Air Races. Nineteen pilots took off from Santa Monica, California on August 18, 1929 (another left the next day). Fifteen made it to Cleveland, Ohio, nine days later.

The race[edit]

During the first two decades of heavier-than-air flying, the few women fliers in the United States became acquainted with one another during air meets and air rodeos. The bonds among the top women pilots were strengthened in the first real race for female pilots—the Women’s Air Derby during the 1929 National Air Races and Aeronautical Exposition. Air-race promoter Cliff Henderson was the founder of the first Women’s Air Derby, which he patterned after the men’s transcontinental air races. (Ironically, Henderson would ban women from competing in the 1934 Bendix Trophy and National Air Races after a deadly accident by pilot Florence Klingensmith in 1933.) Humorist Will Rogers referred to it as the Powder Puff Derby, the name by which the race is most commonly known.

To qualify, pilots had to have at least 100 hours of solo flight, which included a minimum 25 hours of cross-country flying (these were the same rules that applied to men competing in the National Air Races). The twenty competitors, eighteen of whom were from the United States,[1] were:

The pilots, fourteen in the heavy plane class and six in the lighter class, took off from Santa Monica, California. To keep all competing aircraft safely separated as they climbed to altitude during an air race, they were lined up in rows at the start of the race, but took off at timed intervals. National Aeronautic Association official Joe Nikrent was the official timekeeper.

Almost every pilot suffered mishaps during the difficult race. Tragically, Marvel Crosson crashed in the Gila River Valley and was killed, apparently the victim of carbon monoxide poisoning.[2] There was an outcry demanding the race be canceled, but the pilots got together and decided the most fitting tribute would be to finish the derby.[2] Blanche Noyes had to put out a fire that erupted in mid-air over Pecos, but continued on.[3] Margaret Perry caught typhoid fever. Pancho Barnes crashed into a car that drove onto the runway. Ruth Nichols also crashed. Claire Fahy's wing wires were eaten through, possibly sabotaged with acid.

An estimated 18,000 people gathered in Cleveland, Ohio, to greet the pilots at the end of the race. Louise Thaden finished the race first[4] and won the heavy class.


Heavy class:[5]

  1. Louise Thaden
  2. Gladys O’Donnell
  3. Amelia Earhart
  4. Blanche Noyes
  5. Ruth Elder
  6. Neva Paris
  7. Mary Haizlip
  8. Opal Kunz
  9. Mary von Mach
  10. Vera Dawn Walker

Four women completed the race in the light class (order unclear):[5]

  • Phoebe Omlie
  • Edith Foltz
  • Jessie Keith-Miller
  • Thea Rasche

Bobbi Trout finished the race, but was untimed.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Read 1992, p. 11.
  2. ^ a b Jessen, Gene Nora (1999). "1929 Air Race". 99 News magazine (Ninety-Nines). 
  3. ^ "Girl Flier Fights Blaze in Air". Pittsburgh Press. August 22, 1929. 
  4. ^ "Winner Of "Powder Puff" Air Derby Greeted". New Castle News. 28 August 1929 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read
  5. ^ a b Bonnie L. Johnson. "History of American Women's Aviation Feats - 1929 Women's Air Race". wingsoverkansas.com. 


External links[edit]

  • Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women's National Air Derby Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women's National Air Derby is a documentary that showcases actual footage of the 1929 air race. In addition, there are aerial recreations in the film using planes like the women flew in the derby including: Travel Air, Waco, Monocoupe and Fllet. There are images of the women in the race that have rarely been seen before. There are interviews in the film with legendary pilot Elinor Smith, National Aerobatic Champion Patty Wagstaff, aerobatic pilot Julie Clark, family members of the pilots in the derby, aviation historians and people who knew the women racers personally.
  • Photographs of the derby and participants in the Saint Louis University Digital Collections