“They were the kinds of kids who jumped off the roofs of buildings,” begins Steve Sheinkin’s stirring account of the 1929 Air Derby, BORN TO FLY: The First Women’s Air Race Across America (Roaring Brook, 288 pp., $19.99; ages 8 to 12), without a hint of hyperbole. Future participants in the first women’s cross-country air race did indeed spend their childhoods leaping from outlandish heights with umbrella parachutes, greasing the tracks of rickety homemade roller coasters and building honest-to-goodness airplanes in the backyard. Asked why she’d taken to the skies, Florence “Pancho” Barnes once retorted, “To keep from exploding — that’s why I fly!”
Women like Pancho, Marvel Crosson and Louise Thaden needed every atom of that zeal to launch themselves into the careers they craved. The technical obstacles were daunting enough. Planes in those early days were made of wood. (“Seriously,” Sheinkin emphasizes, “wood.”) Navigation consisted of comparing a paper road map with the lay of the land below. Design flaws sometimes vented carbon monoxide into the cockpit.
Yet mechanical hurdles proved less cumbersome to women fliers than society’s skepticism and disdain. Instructors subjected prospective female students to whiplash-inducing dives and loop after nauseating loop before deigning to accept their money for flying lessons. Once they’d conquered the air, respect was still not guaranteed. Ruth Elder’s record-breaking flight across open water earned her both instant celebrity and a reputation as “one of the most scolded young women of her time.” Altitude records and daredevil stunts — such as 17-year-old Elinor Smith’s feat of threading a plane under all four East River bridges in a single flight — met the same reactions.
And heaven forbid a plane piloted by a woman careen into a fatal crackup. A male pilot lost to a crash lived on as a tragic hero, whereas a woman who met the same fate simply died a tragedy. Sheinkin has no qualms about calling these behaviors and attitudes exactly what they were: “patronizing and stupid.”
Fed up with blatant sexism and eager to bring their achievements to the forefront of aviation, female pilots successfully pushed to add a women-only event to the National Air Races in 1929: a nine-day race from Santa Monica to Cleveland.
Twenty women leapt at the chance to make history. Among them was Amelia Earhart, though Sheinkin wisely prevents Earhart’s later fame from outshining the formidable skills and accomplishments of her fellow competitors, many of whom were record-holding pioneers in their own right.
The breadth of their personalities is so vast, readers are apt to feel immediate kinship with any one of them, from the California mother of two known as “the Flying Housewife,” to the “timid kid” from New York who hated heights and elevators, to the cigar-smoking minister’s wife who once flew loops around the steeple while her husband preached a sermon.
In an age when different kinds of women are so often pitted against one another, it’s refreshing — downright moving, even — to witness the Derby fliers unite into a fierce sisterhood that reaches the pinnacle of sportsmanship. Each and every pilot coveted that first-of-its-kind trophy while simultaneously bolstering and cheering her competitors to the finish line for the greater good of all. With elbows metaphorically linked, they faced the nine-day odyssey, buffeted by nail-biting weather, a series of suspicious mechanical malfunctions and the inane formal banquets that robbed them of necessary rest at each stop on the route. Through every veering twist and turn, the pilots’ moxie, their determination and their fellowship fuels this little-known episode in aviation history to dizzying heights.
Sheinkin’s prose is delightfully snappy and concise. When Bobbi Trout’s focus strays during an early flight, for instance, her instructor points toward the ground. “Below them was a cemetery. Bobbi nodded. Message delivered.” Spare, charcoal-smudged art by Bijou Karman fills the gaps in the photographic record — everything from smoldering crackup scenes to the interminable chicken dinners.
Above all, Sheinkin makes the Derby pilots’ passion for the sky so contagious, even a white-knuckle flier’s heart can’t help but soar.
Sarah Miller is the author, most recently, of “The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets.”
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