By, Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer
That is a name very familiar to most women pilots, as the woman who was killed in a crash on the second day of the 1st Powder Puff Derby, in 1929. However, there is much more to her story.
She was born on April 27, 1904 to Esler and Elizabeth Crosson, in Minneapolis, Kansas, where they lived on a ranch. The family relocated to Sterling, Colorado, and that is where she first saw an airplane when a ‘barnstormer’ named McMullen, came to their town. I was not able to determine if she was able to get a ride in his airplane, but she was fascinated with airplanes from that time until her death.
In 1922, the family moved to San Diego, where she and her older brother Joe began taking flying lessons. They put their money together to buy an Army surplus Curtiss N-9 airplane that they used for their lessons. Joe soloed in 1923, and encouraged Marvel. They progressed rapidly, and were soon involved in the aviation business. It was obvious to Joe that commercial aviation opportunities were greater in Alaska, so he decided to move there in 1925. There was simply not enough money for both to go, so Marvel stayed in San Diego and flew at every opportunity. While Joe was gone she accumulated 200 hours of solo time, building her skills and knowledge.
While flying in San Diego, she had this to say about her fellow pilots: “There was something about this fellowship that used to get under my skin and make me bite my lips These good fellows never forgot that I was a girl! There was a shade of condescension in their palship – they acted as though it was a pleasant thing for a girl to be interested in fling, but ‘just among us men’ it was of no importance. I could feel the sex line drawn against me, in spite of the fact that they were splendid fellows, and pals of Joe.”
On Joe’s second trip to Alaska in 1927, Marvel went with him. With all her flying in San Diego, she had not taken her flight examination, but she did once she arrived in Alaska. She became the first woman to earn a pilot’s license in the Alaskan Territory!
At this time in Alaska, dog mushers were the primary form on transportation for people and goods. Pilots were not welcome, by any means. They were seen as a threat and discouraged at every turn. The mushers knew that they could not compete with the speed of airplanes and they would lose their business once the pilots became established. This affected other businesses also. The dog mushers would pass through the towns along their route, stopping to buy goods and food, while the pilots would fly over the towns. Businesses were losing money and some put up signs reading, “No dogs nor pilots allowed!” This attitude did not deter the Crossons. They continued their work. It seems that Joe did most of the commercial flying and Marvel ran the business, piloting, keeping the equipment in working order, and giving demonstration flights.
Upon returning to California, Marvel set an altitude record of 23,996’, on May 28, 1929. She and her brother also flew a Lockheed Vega, with a 200 horse power engine, from Los Angeles to New York, in two days! She described the flight:
“We’d made a number of cross-country flights, but this was our first transcontinental one, and we’d been looking forward to it. We left Los Angeles on the morning of September 12, stopping at San Diego, spent the night in El Paso, landed the next day at Jefferson City, Mo.; spent the next night at St. Louis, stopped at Cincinnati to obtain plane service, and landed at Curtis Field at 7:30 p.m., September 14.”
Marvel is also quoted as saying, “I don’t think I’ll ever give up flying. It means everything to me. Oh yes, I used to play tennis and go to dances, but they’re not in it with flying for pleasure, and besides I’m combining fun and work.”
Then, on August 18, 1929, Marvel set out, along with nineteen other women pilots on the 1st Women’s Air Derby, from Santa Monica to Cleveland, dubbed the “Powder Puff Derby” by Will Rogers. During the race almost all of the pilots encountered some kind of trouble, and many suspected sabotage was involved. While no one is absolutely sure what happened, we do know that Marvel crashed into the Gila River Valley in Arizona and was killed. It is suspected that she suffered carbon monoxide poisoning while flying. She did try to parachute, but must have been too close to the ground. Her body was found about 200’ from the wreckage, her parachute had not opened.
The race sponsor, The National Exchange Club, held a nationwide moment of silence in all its clubs to commemorate her death. A vacant chair represented Marvel at the banquet for the racers in Cleveland.
Marvel Crosson was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame, in 2011.
By, Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer
Her articles for 20thCenturyAviationMagazine.com in 2012 garnered awards:
Winner of the prestigious 2012 Golden Yoke Award
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You can also order her book by going to her website: www.captaingramma.com
“Flying My Dream” is a revised and expanded edition of ‘Captain Gramma’. It contains some new stories, and makes the book more understandable and interesting for non-pilots. This new book still tells the story of how Nancy Aldrich found herself a single mother of two teenage children, with no formal training or education with which to get a good job. Through struggle, determination, tears and prayer, she was able to become a Captain for one of the largest airlines in the world. This is her story. It is a story of hope and encouragement, not just for women, but to anyone who feels like all doors have been closed. It is a story of opening those doors and walking into your dreams.