Monday, 27 January 2020

Sky Girls

Finished January 21
Sky Girls: The True Story of the First Women's Cross-Country Air Race by Gene Nora Jessen

This was a fascinating read, and my book club enjoyed it as well. The race this book tells the story of took place in 1929, and the female pilots did the solo race from Clover Field in Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, the site of the Cleveland Air Races. The race was the Women's Air Derby, the first of its kind, although similar races already existed for male pilots. Male Derbys from both the east and the west were also happening at the same time. Once at Cleveland, several of the women pilots would also engage in other races and competitions.
The race had many legs, and the women were timed for each leg, getting a cumulative total that was their race time. There were prizes for each leg, as well as overall prizes. The race follows one woman, Louise Thaden, a little more closely than the others. She was a saleswoman for Travel Air Manufacturing Company, and would be flying one of their fairly new planes.
This book touches on each woman's experiences during the race, their difficulties, and their interactions with others. It was interesting to see the lack of safety considerations, the lack of security for the planes at most of the stops, and the ways in which ordinary people offered assistance when it was needed.
The woman were mostly experienced pilots, and all fairly young. The oldest was born in 1896 and the youngest in 1910. They were mostly American, although one was German and one Australian. One pilot died during the race, likely due to poor airplane design causing carbon monoxide poisoning. Crowds interfered with runway safety, causing the crash of at least one pilot and her subsequent withdrawal from the race. I enjoyed learning about the women themselves, although my book club members all agreed we would have liked to learn more about all of them.
The personalities were wide-ranging from the rebellious, go-my-own-way Pancho Barnes, to the petite, budding actress Blanche Noyes and the boyish Bobbi Trout. All of the women had some mechanical know-how, necessary for pilots of that time.
The stops along the way were well-attended, but not well-managed, and the women found the socializing stressful when they were already tired from their race. But they were mostly gracious, even in the face of those that wanted women to "stay in their place". The support of Will Rogers and Wiley Post were appreciated by the pilots.
I liked the maps that were included, and the epilogue that summarized the pilots' lives after the race. Also of great interest was the Afterword that included a lot of the more general history of women and aviation.
Enlightening overall.

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