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Keith O’Brien on the Radical Lives of Five Incredible Pilots

by Brendan Dowling on August 28, 2018

Keith O’Brien’s Fly Girls uncovers an overlooked period of aviation, exploring the lives of five disparate female pilots from the 1920s and 30s. Through exhaustive research and sweeping prose, O’Brien brings these remarkable stories to life, recounting the risks these women faced on and off the airfield. Critics have heaped praise upon the book, with The New York Times noting that “O’Brien’s prose reverberates with fiery crashes, then stings with the tragedy of lives lost in the cockpit and sometimes, equally heartbreaking, on the ground” and The Wall Street Journal stating that “O’Brien has recovered a fascinating chapter not just in feminism and aviation but in 20th-century American history.” O’Brien spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on July 9th, 2018.

What drew you to researching the stories of these five very different women?

Whenever I’m looking for stories—whether it’s for National Public Radio or magazines or books—I’m looking, for starters, for compelling characters who ideally are on some kind of quest. Those are the stories that people are most attracted to. Like a lot of my stories, I found this particular one by just a happy accident. I was on a plane traveling for a story I was doing for Politico magazine in the spring of 2016. For this flight I had grabbed a book off my bedside stand that I had been hoping to read for some time. It was Lily Kopppel’s The Astronaut’s Wives Club. One of my favorite books of all time is Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, and Lily in her book was writing that story from a totally different perspective, not from the perspective of the first seven astronauts, but from the perspective of the first seven astronaut’s wives.

I was on page sixteen or so of the book when there was this line about the Powder Puff Derby of 1929, some kind of airline race that had featured Amelia Earhart. I had never heard of it. In my day to day life, I may have written down this idea in a notepad I keep in my back pocket, but I was stuck on a plane. It was a plane that had Wi-Fi, so I was able to open my laptop and noodle around on this thing, the Powder Puff Derby of 1929.

By the time I landed about ninety minutes later, I knew a few things. One, I knew these characters were compelling. Two, I knew this story was much bigger than one race or one woman, and three, I knew I needed to get to a library soon and start learning about this time of airline racing, and that’s really where it all began.

One thing that becomes very clear in the book is how precarious flying was in the 1920s. Can you talk about what the dangers were these pilots were up against?

Flying at the time was extremely dangerous. Planes obviously had been flying for two decades and a great many advances had been made during World War I, but in the 1920s and even into the 1930s, airplanes were still a fairly primitive machine. They crashed for all sorts of reasons. Engines stopped and investigators wouldn’t be able to say why afterwards—they just stopped. Fuel gauges malfunctioned, pilots ran out of fuel without knowing they were low, and planes went down. People got lost all the time, especially in bad weather. With no radar or GPS there was no way to know where you were in clouds or bad weather or certainly at night. You had a compass, but those were also known to fail.

Maybe most alarming is planes at the time were typically made of lightweight material, that’s how flight was possible. They were often made with wood or fabric that was stretched very tightly around the wings and coated with a lacquer to make them hard, but it was basically fabric and wood. At times, wings would literally fall off planes or they would break apart midflight, and of course when that happened the planes would go down. It was just a much different time. To fly a plane or to ride in a plane really took a certain amount of gravitas or bravery.

With all the dangers inherent in flying, what drew these particular women to flying?

The main characters in the book—Amelia Earhart, Ruth Elder, Ruth Nichols, Louise Thaden, and Florence Klingensmith—were all different. They came from different backgrounds and different stations in life, but one thing they had in common was they were risk-takers. They were women who did not want to live by the rules that society prescribed for them. They wanted to live their own life. Because they had this both innate desire to be different and also an innate desire to make bold decisions, they were naturally drawn to flight, which at the time was probably the most romantic thing one could do.

We take it for granted now, getting on a commercial airliner and flying from Boston to Los Angeles. But at the time, the late 1920s, that was a magical idea. It was almost the equivalent of going to the moon. The fact that you could turn a weeklong train trip into a thirty-hour flight was completely mindboggling and exciting. Many of the heroes of this era were pilots, male pilots, but they were the heroes. They were what filled the newspapers and magazines and radio stories. If you were young and you were daring, no matter your gender, you wanted to fly. So of course these women wanted to fly, and they would do it even when the men would try to stop them from taking into the air.

What did their male counterparts think of them?

Like with everything, there was no monolithic way of thinking, but typically speaking, in the 1920s and 30s, most men did not think a woman should be flying. Most men certainly thought a woman shouldn’t be racing an airplane, that was a male dominated field, like many other fields at the time. This is an era where a woman was typically expected to do one of a few things, she was to become a secretary or a nurse or a teacher, again typically speaking. When she got married she was expected to quit that job and have children and  raise them, again typically speaking. In fact, many school districts required that when a female teacher got married that she quit her job. The thinking was she didn’t need to work anymore, she had a man who could support her, so that job should be fulfilled by a single woman. That’s how America thought in the late 1920s. So if this is how America at the time thought about teachers, you can only imagine how they though about a female pilot. They were certainly intriguing. Reporters loved writing about female pilot, or as they often called them “girl flyers.” But in these stories, they loved taking shots at them too. Even the title itself, “girl flyer,” is denigrating.

They loved giving these women cutesy names like “Ladybird” or “Sweethearts of the Air” or “Petticoat Pilot” or “Flygirls”. But the term “Flygirl” had other meanings as well. A flygirl at the time was a woman who refused to live by the old rules and was going to do it her way. In that way she was sort of dangerous.

Maybe more to the point, flying was very dangerous. Inevitably pilots of both genders would crash and die. When a man crashed and died—especially doing something daring, like flying across the ocean or flying in an airplane race—he was often treated as a hero and memorialized with grand tributes. Sometimes it happened right there on the airfield where he died, with twenty-one gun salutes, fly-bys, and his ashes scattered from the air. When a woman died or crashed in one of these airplane races, they often received different treatment. In the stories in the newspapers, it was not told that they died in the pursuit of some grand dream, they were often blamed for their death. Newspapers would question the stamina of the women or their decision making. These kind of things never happened with a man.

Florence Klingensmith’s story in particular is incredibly moving and one that I wasn’t familiar with at all. What was your reaction to researching her history?

When I started the research on this book, I wasn’t totally sure where it would lead. With all stories, there are these little crumbs you follow and you fall down a path. Sometimes the crumbs don’t lead anywhere, they lead to a dead end and you have to turn around and go back.

Other times these little crumbs on the path lead to something stunning and amazing that changes your entire narrative. When I followed the crumbs down the path that led me to Florence Klingensmith, I knew I had stumbled onto something that was truly shocking and wrong.

Florence Klingensmith was just objectively the most talented of these particular women as a pilot. To fly a plane around fifty foot pylons placed on the ground, at speeds of two hundred twenty miles an hour required a level of skill that most men didn’t have, much less women. You have to use both hands and both feet to control the speed and the turns of the plane to make a hairpin turn around a pylon at two hundred miles an hour. Avoiding the other planes around you was obviously extremely difficult.

And she did that. And she did that against men. I don’t want to say what happens to her in the end, but the way she’s treated after the risks she takes, and how men used what happened to her as a way to banish all women from racing planes, is infuriating. It really upset me knowing that Florence sacrificed everything to do the thing she loved and in the end would get nothing for it. In fact, most people don’t even remember her today. That, to me, is just wrong.

At one point, you describe Amelia Earhart as “a radical.” Can you talk about what you meant by that?

I think all of these women were radicals. To fly a plane, to not get married, to wear pants, to wear your hair short, all of these things were radical notions in the 1920s and 30s. It upset a lot of men that women would behave in such a way. All of these women were radicals. They were revolutionaries. If you think about it in terms of numbers, it becomes especially clear, in the late 1920s, women had had the right to vote for about eight years. There were about thirty million registered female voters in this country, but there were less than a dozen licensed female pilots. Out of thirty million adult women, less than twelve had a pilot’s license on file in the Department of Commerce in 1928. That alone shows you how bold and different these women were.

Especially someone like Louise Thaden, who’s flying when she’s eight months pregnant.

Right. Louise is an especially interesting character because she was really trying to do this thing that so many parents—forget about women, male and female today—do, which is try to juggle the work and career ambitions and a family. Getting married, having kids—Louise was trying to do all of that at the same time she was racing airplanes, which is something that none of these other women did during that time. Ruth Elder would have one child later. During this time, to be a woman and to be a mother and a race pilot was a very select group to be in. That she did that really speaks a lot to her character and that her husband, Herb Thaden, not only tolerated it, but really frankly encouraged it, speaks a lot to him. Herb Thaden, who died in the late 1960s, was really ahead of his time. Letting his wife find her own path and race airplanes, that’s something I imagine a lot of modern day husbands would struggle with. To be married to a woman who was considered braver than you and more famous than you, that’s something that I think a lot of husbands would struggle with today. Herb Thaden didn’t struggle with it then, in the 1930s, and I think that says a lot about Louise and Herb’s marriage.

The women were obviously fierce competitors in the air, but you also describe their camaraderie on the ground. Can you talk about the what their relationships were like on land?

They were at times rivals in the air, in races or in the pursuit to be the first woman to fly across the ocean. They all wanted those accolades. They all wanted those prizes and the fame that came with it. But they were friends on the ground, some of them especially so. Amelia Earhart

When we think of Amelia Earhart today we typically think of her as this lone woman who did these amazing things, and she was, but she didn’t do it alone. She was friends with Louise Thaden in the decade they knew each other and with Ruth Nichols, who really was one of Amelia’s greatest rivals. They were friends.

When one of them would succeed inevitably the others would be there for them, congratulating them or sending them flowers. And when one of them failed, they would be there too, coming to their bedside when they were injured in crashes to console each other and to be a friend. I think more broadly, all of these women knew they were connected. When one of them succeeded they all shared in that glory, and when one of them failed, they knew that men, and powerful men, could use that was a way to hurt them all. So they banded together and organized and stuck together. They knew it was important to do so.

Portions of this interview have been edited and condensed.