Editor’s Note: Taylor produced the 2010 movie “Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women’s National Air Derby,” a documentary film that focuses on the history behind the first Women’s National Air Derby ever held.
Smoke emitting from the plane a thousand feet up, performing an emergency landing in a cow pasture and hitting a steamroller – these are just a few of the incidents twenty pilots in 1929 overcame when racing across America in the First Women’s National Air Derby.
Besides flying for nine consecutive days – many doing so in open cockpits – the women battled stereotypes, threats of sabotage, mechanical failures, navigational challenges, autograph signings and countless chicken dinners at endless banquets.
Some of the most famous female pilots of the era participated in the race, including Amelia Earhart (who had just flown across the Atlantic as a passenger) and Ruth Elder (who flew across the Atlantic several months before Amelia but landed in the ocean, just shy of her goal). Pancho Barnes – a rambunctious, wealthy woman who founded the first Hollywood Stunt Pilot Association – signed up, as did record-holders Louise Thaden, Ruth Nichols, Bobbi Trout, Phoebe Omlie, and Marvel Crosson.
Earhart explained part of the women’s philosophy for the race.
“All of them looked on the derby as a sort of joint undertaking of which they had to make a success,” she said. “They were determined to see it through in spite of everything.”
The women’s enthusiasm for flying created a bond among the racers, allowing them to experience genuine joy for one another as well as pride in their own achievements. By putting energy into what they loved, they had a sense of accomplishment, which they shared collectively. This, in turn, created an authentic community as opposed to a fragmented group fueled by jealousy and greed.
Throughout the race and afterwards, nearly every pilot commented on how wonderful and meaningful it was to fly with one another.
“It makes no difference to us girls who was first, second or third,” said Thea Rasche of Germany. “It was all done for the advancement of aviation.”
The excitement the women shared for the race mobilized more than just the aviation community; it inspired the entire country. Thousands of spectators showed up at each stop along the race route. Front pages of nearly every newspaper featured articles about these “Flying Flappers.”
The Douglas Dispatch reported that, when the women landed, the Associated Press called for the status of the race, saying there was “an urgent demand from the press of the country to have this news as fast as it can be gotten.”
So how did these women make this race happen? With all the obstacles they faced, how was it even possible for twenty women to race across the sky in an era when few women even drove cars?
I believe the women succeeded, in part, because of their focus, passion and ability to engage and collaborate with others. These individuals, in turn, shared in this vision and contributed their own skills and talents to enhance the event.
Elizabeth McQueen, the philanthropist whose idea it was to have the race, had the resources to bring communities together. As the network grew, the energy surrounding the event spread. Race officials, mechanics, oil and gas companies, plane manufacturers and workers at airports across the country invested countless hours to ensure the women’s success. Local non-profits organized hundreds of volunteers helping at each of the nineteen stops the women made along the way.
There were certainly naysayers. By the time the event began, however, the strength of the community was so solid that it created it’s own support system. For example, when oil tycoon E. Halliburton was quoted in the papers as saying that “[t]he race should be stopped” because “women have conclusively proved they can’t fly” and that “for too long they have been dependent on men,” Derby manager Frank Copeland publicly responded by saying that “[w]e race officials wish to thumb our collective nose at Halliburton.”
When looking at the footage from the race, I can still see the glimmer in the women’s eyes. That glimmer is what motivated me to leave my salaried job, start my own production company and produce the documentary on the derby.
Like these women, I had my share of obstacles, including the biggest financial meltdown since the depression (ironically, the financial crash of 1929 happened just two months after the derby). The last surviving pilot from the derby passed away the week I attempted to contact her, and a cameraman landed in the emergency room the week of the aviation recreations (we rescheduled). The “snow-pocalypse” fell during post production. And this is just the tip of the iceberg (though I didn’t have to deal with actual icebergs).
One of the hardest parts of this whole process, however, was finding people who could share in my vision. I had the very deliberate intention of creating the same kind of collaborative community in producing the film that the women had during the race. It is not as easy as it sounds! I had the passion for the story but learned that many people don’t know how to collaborate. I often found people wanting me to tell them what to do or, conversely, wanting to tell me what to do. I ran into a few crazies, some “lazies,” and those just looking for a paycheck.
Through patience, perseverance and guidance from the women’s actions, I finally did find the community needed to pull the film together. Each person involved with the film was unquestionably impacted by the women’s spirits.
It has became clear to me through the journey of producing the film that the women did more than just follow a passion; they invited others who shared in the vision to join them in accomplishing their goals. As a result, they created an event so powerful that their story is still influencing people in a positive way more than eight decades later.
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