by: Captain Nancy Aldrich
Louise Thaden Field, in Bentonville, Arkansas, was named to honor Louise McPhetridge Thaden who was born there on November 12,1905. She was an aviation pioneer, holder of many records, co-founder of the Ninety Nines, the first woman to win the Bendix Trophy, and was the second-most famous American female pilot during the “Golden Age of Aviation.”
As a child, she was interested in mechanical things. Her father helped her advance her interest by teaching her to repair the family automobile. Then, at age 14, she bought a $5 ride from a barnstormer. From that moment on, she loved aviation!
After high school she continued her education at the University of Arkansas, studying journalism and physical education. After leaving the university in 1925, she worked in Wichita, Kansas at the J.H.J.Turner Coal Co. Turner was on the board of theTravel Air Company. On her days off, she spend so much time at the Travel Air Factory that Turner decided to introduce her to his friend Walter Beech, who owned Travel Air. Beech offered her a job with his Pacific Coast distributor, which she accepted. Her salary included flying lessons, which was a great incentive! She flew her first solo in February of 1928. She received certificate #74, signed by Orville Wright. In 1929, she also earned the coveted ‘transport pilot’ license, #1943. She was the fourth woman to achieve that rating.
While working at Oakland, she met her future husband, Herbert Von Thaden, who was also a pilot. they were married July 21,1928.
While low, fast,and aggressive were three adjectives that applied to Louise, she was also interested in setting records. On December 7, 1928, she set the first recognized women’s altitude record, flying at 20,260 feet. In the late 20’s and early 30’s records were made to be broken, and her’s soon was. She quickly followed that by setting a solo endurance record of 22 hours; 3 minutes, and 28 seconds on March 16-17,1929. That record only lasted until Elinor Smith set a 26 hour; 21 minute record a month later. Women were determined to prove that they could fly as well as the men, so the competition to set records was high.
On August 19,1929, she joined with other women pilots to fly the Women’s Air Derby, dubbed by Will Rogers as the Powder Puff Derby. The race began in Santa Monica and ended on August 27, in Cleveland, Ohio. Several of her famous competitors faced staggering problems during the race. Amelia Earhart damaged her Lockheed Vega when she ground-looped in Yuma, Arizona. ‘Pancho’ Barnes became lost and veered into Mexico, then tore the right wing off her Travel Air when she hit a Chevrolet on the runway, in Pecos, Texas. Blanche Noyes had an in-flight fire over west Texas, then ground-looped on landing in Pecos. By the time the race reached Ft. Worth, Thaden had it well in hand. She reached Cleveland after 2,500 miles, as the first woman to win a national race. Her elapsed time was 20:02:02, with an average speed of 135.97 mph. She won $3,600 for her effort.
Shortly after the race, Louise, along with several other pilots formed the Ninety Nines. She turned down the office of President in favor of Amelia Earhart, but accepted Vice President, and continued to serve as an officer for six years. She remained a member until her death in 1979.
In 1930, she and Francis Marsalis set a new endurance record of 196 hours (8 days and 4 hours). “Southern Aviation” called their Curtiss Thrush, NC9142, a “flying boudoir.” After landing, as they climbed out of the airplane, their exhaustion was obvious. They commented, “it was just one monotonous day after the other.” Louise commented that Francis was always hungry, and Frances said that Louise was always sleepy. When asked what they talked about during the long hours, Thaden said, “Nothing! How could we talk? Our ears were stopped with cotton to guard against the roar of the motor. We had to scream at the top of our lungs to make ourselves heard. We didn’t average more than ten words a day!”
During the 8 days they made seventy-eight air-to-air refueling. Food and water were lowered to them by a rope from another aircraft. The event gained national attention as the pair made live radio broadcasts during the flight.
They also stated, “Women can never hope to compete with men in the actual flying of airplanes. Not that women can’t handle a plane as well as men. They can – a number of them can do the job a whale of a lot better, but the public simply doesn’t have confidence in women fliers. That is, not enough confidence to ride with them to any great extent. This attitude on the part of ‘John Public,’ and he’ll never get over it – means that women are forever barred from careers as transport pilots on regular passenger lines.” I, for one, as a retired airline Captain, and very happy to report that she was wrong in that statement. It took many years, but women pilots are now accepted routinely as airline and military pilots!
In 1930, Louise accepted a positions as Public Relations Director of Pittsburg Aviation Industries, and Director of the Women’s Division of the Penn School of Aeronautics. In those positions she did much to help popularize aviation while she continued competing and setting records.
After the tragic death of Florence Klingensmith, flying a Gee Bee, at the Chicago Frank Phillips Trophy Race, it was the general consensus of male pilots that women had no place in national competitions. However, the women would not be denied and in 1935, after considerable pressure the ban on women was lifted. The question, however, remained – are the women as good as the men?
On September 4, 1936 Louise Thaden and her co-pilot Blanche Noyes answered the question resoundingly by becoming the first women to win the Bendix Trophy Race.
The race began in Brooklyn, NY. The started lost his signaling flag and had to use his handkerchief to signal them for take off. Their radio went out shortly after take off, so they were forced to navigate by dead reckoning through bad weather all along the route. They were flying in a modified C17-R. The back seat had been removed so an extra 56 gallon gas tank could be installed. Their only fuel stop was planned at Beech Field in Wichita. After that, they were plagued by very high headwinds and turbulence. They were beginning to doubt that they could cross the finish line before the 6 pm deadline in Los Angeles. They just kept pushing on. On the descent into Mines Field, the sun was in heir eyes, and the smoke and haze from forest fires nearly blinded them. They could not see looking forward and had to look back over the tail to see where they had been to determine their position. It was very discouraging and seemed impossible. Finally, they landed, having flown over the finish line the wrong drection. They were so embarrassed that they headed for far side of the field, wanting to just park the plane and hide. They felt it was the perfectly miserable ending to a perfectly miserable day!
As they taxied, there was a large group of men following them and shouting and waving their arms. It became apparent they were not going to be able to hide.
Louise said to Blanche, “I wonder what we have done wrong now!” Once they parked the plane and got out, they found out they had won the race. It was almost unbelievable to them. They had flown the entire route in 14 hours, 54 minutes, and 46 seconds! This was 3 hours and 24 minutes longer than Roscoe Turner’s record in 1933, but it won the race and was the best transcontinental time made by a woman. They were presented with $9,500. $2,500 for being the first women to finish, and $7,000 for winning the race.
In addition to writing about the race, one paper also made fashion comments, noting that Thaden was ‘cool and collected’ in her blue-green culottes, with a green flannel shirt; and Noyes looked ‘very fresh’ in her white jumpsuit with a blue silk waist. Of course, on one described the fashions or appearance of the male racers!
In 1935, Louise and three other women toured the country for the Bureau of Commerce, advocating ‘air-marking’ towns as navigation aids for pilots. Many of these markings were on water towers and the roofs of barns. You can still find barn roofs that have been marked. They frequently have a circle with an arrow through it, and a number. The circle indicates an airport, the arrow, the direction to the airport, and the number the distance to the airport. They were able to obtain approval from every state, with a total of 16,000 markings.
Thaden was also awarded the Harmon Trophy in 1936, proclaiming her the outstanding woman pilot in the country. Upon receiving that award, she stated, “We had to prove that women were as good as men pilots. In an era where some men didn’t think women should even drive a horse and buggy, much less an automobile, it was a job to prove that females could fly!”
After 1938, Louise decided to spend time raising her two children. She flew her last race in 1950 with her daughter. They flew in the International Women’s Air Race from Montreal to West Palm Beach, and took 5th place.
In 1951, Bentonville, Arkansas named their airport Louise Thaden Field, and in 1974 the National Beechcraft Staggerwing Museum named a building in her honor.
During the 1930s, Louise was as famous and as acclaimed as Amelia Earhart. However, Amelia was married to a promoter, and her mysterious disappearance has kept her name in front of the public for almost 80 years, while Thaden’s name has, unfortunately, faded from memory!
“I ask, Sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people! To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them.” George Mason, 1788
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