By C. Michael Irvin - From AIR CLASSICS magazine, October 1986, used with permission
She flew in the Golden Age when giants like Doolittle, Howard, and Turner roamed the skies. Charles and Anne Lindbergh were her frequent house guests, and she double-dated with Amelia Earhart. When the aviation editors of the nation's newspapers listed the prominent aviatices, her name was included; and when the country cooled to aviation after World War Two, she was forgotten. But during the 1920s and 1930s Louise Thaden was, as Earhart called her, "one of our ablest women fliers."
"I shall be eternally grateful that Papa always wanted a boy," Louise wrote long after she had left her hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas. Her father, Roy McPhetridge, unknowingly trained his daughter to be a pilot by instilling and nurturing in her, his own interests in engines and automobiles as well as his passion for the outdoors. As she grew, Louise gained a reputation for being a tomboy who could, "knock a Ford down and put it back together better than most men."
In 1918, Louise began driving -- at age thirteen, which the Bentonville Town Council did not like. They demanded she stop. Louise would not. Finally, after numerous skirmishes, the town council surrendered unconditionally; they gave her a special license!
Her curiosity about machines naturally extended to airplanes the day a barnstormer brought his Curtiss Jenny to town. Snared by a five minute flight, Louise knew she wanted to fly, but there was no place to learn. Realizing that adventures in the air would have to wait, she reluctantly returned to school work. Louise soon left high school and, in 1921, entered the University of Arkansas. Four years and three changes in majors later, she left college, without a degree, to work for the J.H. Turner Coal Company of Wichita, Kansas.
A young lady who learned to drive at thirteen, left high school for college at sixteen, and wanted to fly more that anything else, would not be satisfied with a "typical woman's job." Louise sold coal oil, and traveling around Wichita on her sales calls, it did not take her long to find Walter Beech's Travel Air factory. The biplanes there at the field attracted her as a flame lures a moth. Louise spent more time watching Travel Airs than she did selling coal oil, which went unnoticed until the day that Mr. Turner, himself a stockholder in Travel Air, turned out to see the first flight of a new airplane. The next day he summoned her to his office.
To her amazement, Louise left her meeting with Mr. Turner with his promise to get her an interview with Walter Beech instead of a pink slip. Only a short time later, she was on her way to Oakland, California, where flying lessons and a job selling planes for the D. C. Warren Company, the Pacific Coast distributor of Travel Airs, awaited her.
Warren soon found he had a strong, enthusiastic worker; he also found that having a female employee attracted considerable attention. The press followed Louise's progress in her flying lessons, noting that she was the first woman to fly alone from the Oakland Airport the day she soloed in February 1928. Herbert Thaden, an engineer, and former Army pilot, who dreamed of building an all-metal monoplane, and worked in Warren's hangar, also noticed Louise, but his interests were not of a professional nature.
By May, Louise had enough hours for Orville Wright to sign her Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FDI) pilot's license #6850. A month later, she picked up another license when she married Herb Thaden. The pace of a already busy year quickened in the fall when Warren decided that Louise was competent enough as a pilot to attack a few women's flight records. It was a great opportunity for Louise and a chance for a little bit of advertising for Warren. The first attempt, which required no modifications to the Travel Air, was to set a new women's altitude record.
The greatest danger facing Louise on her altitude flight was hypoxia. The Army had a monopoly on oxygen systems then, and although Louise could have borrowed one from them, she did not have the time to wade through the proper military channels. Instead, she rigged her own system of a welder's tank of oxygen, some rubber tubing, and an ether mask she borrowed from a nearby hospital. Armed with this protection, two altimeters, an a sealed barograph -- required by FAI rules -- Louise set out after her record on 7 December 1928.
She climbed in broad spirals; the 180 horse Hispano engine at full power. Still it was a long cold flight -- so cold, the ether mask froze to her face. Each control movement seemed to require great effort despite the homemade oxygen system. With one last glance at the altimeters -- one read 23,000 feet, the other 25,000 -- she fainted. Louise gradually became aware of the roar of the Hisso, still at full throttle, and the screaming wind that tore through the wires. Groggily she cut the power and hauled back on the stick, regaining control of the plane. After landing, the barograph read 20,260 feet; the first officially recognized women's altitude record.
Louise needed enough fuel to fly for eighteen hours to break the women's solo duration flight record, so Warren's mechanics modified the Travel Air. They installed an extra fuel tank in the front seat, and faired it over with bits and pieces of sheet metal until the airplane looked humpback. By late afternoon on 16 March 1929, the mechanics finished the last checks and tune-ups. One of them gave Louise a small flask of brandy, which, he hoped, would keep her awake during the lonely flight. She put it in her hip pocket and climbed into the cockpit. At 3:15 pm, she took off, climbing to circle the airport.
At first, flight instructors, other pilots, and planes laden with the press flew alongside Louise. That night, when she needed company the most, she flew alone. Each dreary circuit over the field slowly dragged her closer to sleep; then the spinner came loose from her propeller. It whizzed back in the slipstream, barely missing Louise's head, and miraculously sailed into the night without hitting the tail or damaging the engine. The spinner did, however, snap Louise awake.
The effect was only temporary; the smooth flying in the still night air again mesmerized Louise. This time the brandy snatched her from slumber, but not in the manner the mechanic expected. The flask lost its cork and the liquor drenched the seat of her flight suit. Unable to get comfortable while sitting in a puddle of brandy, Louise maneuvered the Travel Air through the night. She landed after flying for 22 hours, 3 minutes, and 28 seconds -- seven hours longer than Earhart's 1932 solo crossing of the Atlantic. And Amelia flew in a Wright-powered Vega!
The final record Warren and Louise set their sights on was the women's speed record. This attempt required more of Louise's mechanics than it did of her. They had to remove the extra fuel tank, tune the Hisso, and mount the special, shorter, "speed wings" that Walter Beech sent out from Wichita. With the wings attached and rigged, Louise went out, climbed, then dived through the course, hurtling along at a record-setting 156 miles per hour.
By the time of the first Women's Air Derby in August 1929, Louise and Herb had moved to the East Coast in search of greener pastures for his all-metal airplane. At that time the National Air Races barred women pilots, so a few, including Amelia Earhart, persuaded Cliff Henderson , the promoter who organized the Thompson, and later, the Bendix, Races, to form a race for women. The course began in Santa Monica and zig-zagged across the country to Cleveland as if drawn by a drunken navigator.
Louise, one of the few females pilots in the country who had enough cross-country hours to meet the entrance requirements, sent in her registration fee. Walter Beech promised her a plane (six of twenty airplanes entered in the Derby were Travel Airs), and as the starting date drew near, she went to wichita to await the plane's final construction.
The new Travel Air bore little resemblance to the one she had flown in her record-breaking flights. It had the speed-wings, of course, but in place of the old liquid-cooled Hispano, Beech installed a 225 hp Wright Whirlwind and, to streamline the plane, he also attached one of the newly-designed NACA cowlings.
Beech knew an airplane fresh off the production line would have problems, and since his reputation was tied to Louise's racer, he flew, in his personal plane, in formation with her to California. One oversight quickly showed itself -- with near fatal results. The new cowling channeled carbon monoxide from the engine back into the cockpit, causing Louise to pass out after landing in Fort Worth, Texas. Another few minutes of flight and she would have died.
To give her a source of fresh air, Beech ran a four-inch pipe from the front of the cowling to the cockpit. This makeshift ventilation system worked; the trip continued uneventfully. Mechanics at Santa Monica solved the problem by rearranging the Whirlwind's exhaust stacks.
Louise made it to Santa Monica, others almost did not. Ruth Nichols' engine died as she flew over the Arizona desert. She safely put the Rearwin biplane down in between the sagebrush, and then walked to the highway to hitchhike into a town where she phoned for help. A Ford Tri-Motor carried mechanics and a replacement engine out to her plane. With a new engine--and a mechanic in the front seat -- Nichols flew to Santa Monica to barely meet the race deadline.
Aviatrices covered the field: Jessie Keith-Miller, the first woman to fly from England to Australia, was there in her Fleet biplane; a German pilot, Thea Rasche, planned to fly an American built de Havilland Gipsy Moth. Amelia Earhart had one of the more attractive planes in the race, a Lockheed Vega; and Pancho Barnes hoped to win in a Travel Air.
On 18 August, the race officials lined them up in the order that their entry applications had been received. After "ten drops of a red flag" Thea Rasche gunned her Gipsy Moth across the broad, grass field near the Douglas factory; the Gipsy's tail rose almost immediately. The rest of the racers sat with props ticking over; they took off in one minute intervals. Louise was right in the middle of the pack, at the end of the first row, tenth of the twenty participants. Her turn finally came, first stop: San Bernardino.
The first leg of the race was only 65 miles because the next lap crossed over the high desert of Southern California to Yuma, Arizona. Pancho led the race into San Bernardino. Louise came in third, but aimed to advance. The short initial leg gave the women the cool, quiet air for the next morning's flight. Even through Louise took off at 6:00 am, she still saw Yuma through heat waves that shimmered like "undulating gossamer curtains."
Earhart upended her Vega at Yuma, bending a prop. Louise felt the tail of her Air Travel rise into the air as her wheels dug into the soft sand on the runway, but she managed to keep the plane upright. The others fliers voted to wait until a replacement propeller for Amelia's plane could be flow in and attached. At noon, they took off for Phoenix.
Eager to duel with Pancho, Louise flew low, 100 feet or less, and wide out. The strategy worked, she arrived in Phoenix first. But Pancho still held a faster elapsed time than Thaden and led the race by fifteen minutes. The excited climate generated by the competition faded at news of Marvel Crosson's failure to arrive in Phoenix. The rumors had Marvel, a capable aviatrix who had been taught to fly by her brother, Joe, an Alaskan bush pilot, alive and unhurt, alive and wounded, or dead. She was still missing at takeoff the next morning.
Because she was first to arrive in Phoenix, Louise was the last to leave, this let the slower planes depart ahead of the faster ones, keeping all in a bunch during the flight over Arizona from Phoenix to Douglas. There the sad news greeted each racer: Crosson was dead, she had apparently jumped from her crippled plane at an altitude too low for her parachute to open. Marvel's death took the joy of leading the race from Louise. Immediately those who claimed women couldn't fly howled that the derby should be stopped. Louise solemnly replied, "There never has been nor will there ever be progress without sacrifice of human life." Then she and the others pilots climbed into their cockpits and flew on.
Louise's duel with Pancho ended at Pecos, Texas. While landing, Barnes' Travel Air struck a car parked on the airfield and "stopped minus two wings and a few other essential parts...." Louise never relinquished the lead after Phoenix. Usually flying low, she navigated by dead reckoning, the aids "an oscillation prone magnetic compass" and Rand McNally road maps that "yearned to fly away" in the Travel Air's open cockpit.
Once past Fort Worth, flying on to Tulsa, Wichita, Kansas City, and St. Louis, the plentiful landmarks made navigation easier. Louise still flew low, but when she approached a stop, she would zoom up to better find the airfield, the "lost seconds retrievable in the dive toward the finish line." By the eighth day of racing, at the last overnight stop at Columbus, Ohio, Louise held an hour's elapsed time lead over second placed Gladys O'Donnell. There were 126 miles left to race to Cleveland, and as she watched Ruth Nichols crash her Rearwin into a tractor at the end of the runway, Louise knew she could still lose the race through accident or poor flying.
She did not. Fifty-four minutes after takeoff from Columbus, Louise Thaden hurtled across the finish line in her blue and gold Travel Air, earning $3600 and winning the first Women's Air Derby. She had flown across the country in twenty hours and nineteen minutes, stretching over nine days.
That fall the 99s were formed with Earhart as president and Louise as vice president. After the Derby, Louise found time for pursuits other than flying; on 31 July 1930 the New York Times proclaimed the birth of Bill Thaden. Besides mothering, Louise also headed the Women's Division of the Penn School of Aeronautics, and taught other women to fly. Then, in August 1931, it was time for another Women's Air Derby.
The race mirrored that of the '29 Derby and the contestants were the same--except that Earhart was touring the country in the Beechnut Autogyro and Ruth Nichols was in a body cast because of her crash in New Brunswick during an attempted transatlantic solo flight. In this derby, Louise chose to fly one of Herb's airplanes. The Thaden T-4 was an all-metal, high winged, four place cabin monoplane that featured a monocoque fuselage and a 200 hp Wright J-6 engine. It had a top speed of 138 mph and cruised at 112.
She should have stayed with Travel Air. Louise had numerous problems with the airplane, including having the throttle lever come off in her hand during landing. She finished out of the money in fifth place.
In 1932 her luck returned whe she and Francis Marsalis teamed to break the women's endurance-flight record. For 196 consecutive hours -- almost 8 1/2 days -- they droned over Valley Stream Airport on Long Island. At intervals, they flew in formation with a Curtiss Robin while food, oil, and fuel passed down a line between the two planes. Eight days of sponge baths, oil pumping, rocker arm greasing, and hourly log entries made for a long flight --"about eight days too long." said Louise --- but it did set a record.
Louise and Herb gave Bill a sister, Patsy, in 1933. Louise had told reporters she was though with racing in 1931, and that she intended to stay at home and rear children. The Depression forced her back to work. Through Phoebe Omlie (an old flying buddy) and the Arkansas Congressional delegation, Louise caught a job with the Federal Bureau of Air Commerce. Her role in Roosevelt's New Deal was to persuade cities and towns in the Southwest to participate in the "Air Marking Program" by painting the name of their town, and directions to the nearest airport, on prominent roofs. For two years she rode trains or borrowed friend's airplanes (the Bureau couldn't afford their own) to go preach the gospel of Air Marking.
In the autumn of 1936 a couple in Wichita laid plans that would that would liberate Louise from the tedium of bureaucracy. Walter Beech decided to enter one of his Staggerwing C-17Rs, in stock condition, in the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race. His wife, Olive Ann, who later served as president of Beech Aircraft, realized that a woman flying the plane would attract more attention; her choice was her old friend, Louise Thaden. To the dismay of the Beech factory pilot, Walter agreed with his wife and extended the invitation to Louise.
She accepted, then persuaded her fellow air-marker, Blanche Noyes, that the trip would be a good way to get National Air Races in Los Angeles, where the Bendix would end. While the pair journeyed to Wichita, the only modifications made to the blue and white Staggerwing, registered NC15835, were carried out. The Beech workers worked replaced the passenger seats with a 56 gallon fuel tank and they put a twelve gallon oil tank in the luggage compartment. The plane had neither radio transmitter nor directional gyro at the time Louise picked it up shortly, before she hurried to the starting line at Floyd Bennett Field in New York.
Everyone expected Roscoe Turner and Bennie Howard to vie for that year's Bendix Trophy, but Turner crashed on his way to New York, leaving Howard the favorite. This was only the second Bendix that women could fly in; besides Louise and Blanche, Amelia Earhart and Helen Richey were to fly Earhart's Lockheed Electra, the same one she died in a year later, and Laura Ingalls was to race alone in her Lockheed Orion, named Act of Faith.
The contestants could pick their own starting time; they all had to be on the ground in Los Angeles by 6:00 pm. Thaden chose a 4:30 am takeoff time, then she checked on the installation of a borrowed directional gyro in her airplane. Sleep eluded Louise and Blanche that night and they lay awake in their beds listening to two of the other racers roar down the runway towards California. At 3:00 am they dressed and went out to the ramp. Herb had stayed up during the night, making the last checks on the Beech.
He told Louise that the plane was ready. The women climbed aboard, and taxied to the runway. As a race official counted down the time, Thaden pushed the throttle forward; she reached the full power stop as the official said "Go!" the Staggerwing eased off the runway and climbed slowly under its additional load of 336 pounds of fuel. The clouds closed beneath them; static crackled over the radio receiver. Louise flew by the directional gyro.
After two hours of flight, a tiny hole appeared in the clouds and Louise spiraled down through it. The pair scanned the unfamiliar land. Finally, Blanche recognized one of her own air markers and located their position over Ohio. Louise continued to head west while Blanche figured out that they were only ten miles off course. Better yet, they were averaging 210 mph at 65 percent of full power.
The bad weather worsened as Louise approached Wichita, her refueling stop. Over the radio, Louise heard the Wichita airport reporting rain, and ceilings of 1500 feet. She safely landed to take on 169 gallons of fuel, two box lunches, and a few words of advice from Walter Beech, "Open this thing up!" Eight minutes later, they took off again.
Pushing towards the Rockies, the skies cleared, but now a strong headwind slowed their ground speed to 153 mph. Louise climbed to 14,000 feet, without oxygen, to clear the mountains. Then she nosed over in a dive towards Los Angeles. Using her old tactic from the Derby. she retrieved the lost time. The Staggerwing ripped into the haze over Los Angeles at a speed of 200 mph.
At first they couldn't find the airfield, then Blanche saw it and pointed it out to Louise. Pushing the nose down they zipped across the field, but it wasn't the finish line. The airport for the race was adjacent to the one the aviatrices had just buzzed. Louise racked the Beech around and crossed the finish line -- from the wrong direction.
Seeing other racers on the field, Louise assumed she was "the cow's tail" of the race. The crowd of officials that surround the Staggerwing after she landed and swept her and Blanche to the speaker's stand puzzled Louise at first, then she saw Vincent Bendix and Cliff Henderson and the huge Bendix Trophy. The other racers had arrived in Los Angeles first, but Louise Thaden had arrived there the fastest: she was the first woman to win the Bendix Trophy. Mr. Bendix, Louise remembered, looked "crestfallen."
If Vincent Bendix was displeased with the race's outcome, Walter Beech was delighted. Staggerwing sales soared (the Bendix C-17R was sold to the Honduran government shortly after the race). The promotional benefits for Beech continued when Louise won the 1936 Harmon Trophy as the "outstanding woman pilot in the U.S." Public interest was so high that WOR radio station in New York broadcasted the presentation luncheon live, and thousands heard Louise modestly give her airplane credit for the win.
Louise toured the country in another blue and white Staggerwing, also registered NC15835, making speeches and selling Beeches. It was tiresome work that kept her away from home for long periods. After nine months of it Louise quit to, as the newspapers reported, " to spend more time with her family."
Sadly, by the time Bill and Patsy were able to attend school, thereby freeing Louise for for other opportunities, World War Two engulfed the United States. Hap Arnold asked Louise to ferry planes to Great Britain; she declined his invitation, preferring instead to join the Civil Air Patrol. In between CAP activities Louise worked as Purchasing Agent for Herb's Thaden Engineering Company. The family firm developed and sold plastic products and Louise steadily worked her way through the business from Office Manager to Research & Development supervisor, to co-owner. In 1969, when Herb died, she became owner of the company.
Despite the lack of records to break, and the decreased interest in aviation that followed the war, she continued to fly. Louise often ferried Beechcrafts from Wichita to new owners for her old friends, keeping the promise she made in a 1929 magazine article, "I intend to fly until I get too old and feeble to fly." The FFA grounded her in 1974 because of a heart condition that killed her five years later. Being grounded was not catastrophic; air traffic controllers and radar took the joy out of flying. Louise lamented, "The jubilance of flight has been replaced by regulations and control, reducing pilots to airplane drivers." In any event, she flew for almost fifty years, skillfully piloting airplanes while many of her peers, such as Amelia Earhart, Marvel Crosson, and Frances Marsalis, perished. How? "If you learn to fly within your limitations and the limitations of your aircraft, you can have a long life. " Louise Thaden did.
'Louise Thaden, the winner of the first Women's Air Derby 1929 Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes after winning the Bendix Trophy
Louise standing in front of the plane in which she set the women's world speed record
Added note regarding a little local history on Louise Thaden:
Louise was born in Bentonville to Roy and Edna McPhetridge on November 12th, 1905. and was raised on the family farm. Even at an early age she would jump out of the barn with a large umbrella, trying to fly. In her youth she had an opportunity to ride in a barnstormer's airplane which fueled her interests in flying even more. She attended Bentonville High School and started college went she was 16 years old. For a while she lived on East Central, but about the time she started high school the family moved to 703 W. Central. This was the house Louise called home and where she would later come back to visit family. Her home was recently within days of being razed to make room for new construction. A gathering of concerned citizens brought enough focus on the history of the house and its famous occupant that it was moved instead of being torn down. The house will now be on the property of Thaden School, about a mile from its original location.
The Louise M. Thaden Airport in Bentonville was named in honor of the accomplishments of Mrs. Thaden. It was originally dedicated in 1951. The airport was rededicated on Aug 22, 1976, and was named in her honor at that time. Louise was able to attend the rededication. The day was proclaimed as Louise M. Thaden Day by then-governor David Pryor. The mayor of Bentonville also proclaimed Louise Thaden Week in the city. Mrs. Louise Thaden passed away at the age of 73 at High Point, N. C.
This is a photo of Louise Thaden when she came back to Bentonville for the rededication of the airport in 1976.