Fly Girls: How Five Dar­ing Women De­fied All Odds and Made Avi­a­tion His­tory

Flight Journal - - BRUSHSTROKES - By Keith O’Brien (Ea­mon Dolan/Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, 352 pages, $27.40)

In the late 1920s and early ’30s, avi­a­tion was still in its in­fancy, but Amer­i­cans were en­am­ored with the new mode of trans­porta­tion. Ev­ery flight was an ex­cit­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and, in some cases, dan­ger­ous as well. The var­i­ous air races and air­shows of the time drew hun­dreds of thou­sands of spec­ta­tors, and the highly con­tested fly­ing cir­cuits quickly evolved into “good ole’ boy” clubs; women need not ap­ply. In 1928, for ex­am­ple, there were fewer than a dozen Amer­i­can women who pos­sessed a pi­lot’s li­cense. Those women who ac­tu­ally flew were a spe­cial breed in­deed.

Fly Girls, writ­ten by Keith O’Brien, tells the story of women fight­ing for their right to fly air­planes. And of course, at a time where the term “glass ceil­ing” hadn’t even been coined, these brave and tal­ented women knew it would be an up­hill fight—all the way to the win­ner’s cir­cle. The chance to ac­tu­ally fly and race against the fa­mous male pi­lots and then to beat them at their own game seemed like an im­pos­si­ble goal. But fly, race, and win they did, in one of the tough­est, most dan­ger­ous air races of them all. For the female pi­lots, it was a stun­ning victory, prov­ing to all that they were truly just as good as, if not bet­ter than, the male pi­lots.

Fly Girls fo­cuses on the sto­ries of five re­mark­able women: Florence Klin­gen­smith, a high-school dropout from Fargo, North Dakota; Ruth El­der, a di­vor­cée from Alabama; Ruth Ni­chols, who re­belled against her blue-blood fam­ily’s ex­pec­ta­tions of her; the fa­mous avi­a­trix Amelia Earhart; and Louise Thaden, a mother of two who got her start as a coal sales­per­son in Wichita, Kansas. Thanks to their drive and tenac­ity, they moved for­ward slowly but surely un­til they were taken se­ri­ously as pi­lots and were given the chance to race against the men in the most dan­ger­ous sport of all. And in 1936, de­fy­ing all the odds, one of them would in­deed tri­umph.

The au­thor does an ex­cep­tional job weav­ing to­gether the var­i­ous per­sonal sto­ries of these in­cred­i­ble women. Al­though these women were in com­pe­ti­tion with the men, they of­ten found them­selves com­pet­ing among them­selves as well, as can be seen in events such as the Pow­der Puff Derby. In the book, you learn of the women’s vic­to­ries, fail­ures, joys, and sor­rows, and you come away with an un­der­stand­ing that their strug­gles were more com­pli­cated than the head­lines would in­di­cate.

I was go­ing to re­veal who won the Bendix Transcon­ti­nen­tal Speed Race in 1936, but that would spoil the fun. You’ll have to get the book to find out. To­day, with the strug­gle for equal pay for equal work still rag­ing, Fly Girls tells an in­spi­ra­tional tale of courage and for­ti­tude, and every­one will find it a sat­is­fy­ing read, re­gard­less of their gen­der.

For more in­for­ma­tion on the Fly Girls and to see vin­tage video footage of the events sur­round­ing the char­ac­ters in this book, visit fly­girls­— Gerry Yar­rish

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