TOMBOY OF THE AIR
By, Captain Nancy Aldrich
That was the nickname given to Blanche Stuart Scott. She was born in Rochester, NY, on April 8, 1884 (or 1885), to Belle and John Scott. John was a successful business man, manufacturing and selling patent medicines. Because of her father’s success, she was probably a little spoiled. He bought her a car when she was 13 years old. At the time, there were no restrictions on who could drive, and she terrorized the streets. The city council tried to limit her driving, but since there were no provisions for licensing, their hands were tied and she continued to drive as she liked. She was Rochester’s only girl driver. At 24, she moved to new York City and made headlines as the only female automobile saleswoman.
The family had considered her a tomboy, and sent her to finishing school to try to make her more of a lady. She became a wonderful lady, but remained a tomboy!
She certainly did like driving and at age 21 decided to drive across the country, from New York City to San Francisco. The trip was sponsored by Willys-Overland, to demonstrate that women could make such a trip. A female reporter, Gertrude Buffington Phillips went along on the trip and sent regular reports back to her paper. At that time there were only 218 miles of paved road outside of the major cities. Blanche named her automobile, ‘Lady Overland.’ When Blanche and Gertrude left New York on May 16, 1910, the New York Times wrote, “Miss Scott, with Miss Phillips as her only companion, starts on a long trip with the object of demonstrating the possibility of a woman driving a motor car across the country and making all the necessary repairs en route. Miss Blanche Stuart Scott yesterday started in an Overland automobile on a transcontinental journey that will end in San Francisco.” The trip totaled approsimately 6,000 miles as they zigzagged their way between Overland dealers across the country. Their trip ended successfully on July 23rd.
Passing through Dayton, Ohio, she witnessed a Wright airplane in flight. After reaching California, she took her first airplane ride.
The cross country publicity caught the eye of Jerome Fanciulli and Glenn Curtiss. They asked if she would like to learn to fly. Curtiss was not that enthusiastic about a woman flying an airplane, but they agreed to giving her flying lessons. Blanche was the first and only female that Curtiss taught. While teaching her to taxi, he put a limiter on the throttle so she would not be able to go very fast. Somehow, on September 6th, she became airborne. Either the limiter moved, or was removed, or a gust of wind caught her, but whatever happened, she was in the air. It was a very short flight. She only flew to 40’ and then brought the airplane back to the ground safely. This was an unintended flight, but the Early Birds of Aviation give her credit for the first solo flight by a woman in America. Bessica Medlar Raiche soloed – intentionally – on September 16th, and the Aeronautical Society of America credits her as the first woman to solo.
About her flying lessons, she said, “I learned in two days. The plane had a 33 horse-power motor and we sat out front. The technique was for the instructor to wave “good-bye and God bless you,” and you were on your way. They had you cutting grass – – flying just above the ground, which we know today is very dangerous.”
In any case, Blanche was bitten by the aviation bug and became a professional pilot, and on October 24, 1910 she made her first appearance as a member of the Curtiss Exhibition Team. She was the first woman to fly at a public event in America when she flew at an air meet in Fort Wayne, Indiana. At that point she earned the title of America’s first female professional flier. She became an accomplished stunt pilot, and her stunts quickly earned her the nickname, “Tomboy Of The Air.” She was known for flying upside down, and she did “death dives.” She would put the airplane in a steep dive at 4000’ and then suddenly pull up when she was only 200’ above the ground. She was the first woman in America to fly a long distance when she flew 60 miles to Mineola, New York in July, 1911. During her career as an exhibition pilot, she was earning as much as $5,000 a week.
When asked about her age, she replied, “don’t ask how old I am, I’ve been 29 for years!”
In 1912, she became the first female test pilot, working for Glenn Martin. She would test fly the prototypes before the final blueprints were made. In 1913, she joined the Ward Exhibition Team. Her flying career was short lived, as she retired from flying in 1916. It seemed to bother her that the public seemed more interested in seeing crashes than in watching the flying. She was also discouraged and frustrated because there were no opportunities for women to become mechanics or engineers at that time.
Blanche became interested in entertainment and worked as a scriptwriter for RKO, Universal Studios, and Warner Brothers. She wrote, produced, and performed on radio shows that were aired in California and New York.
On September 6, 1948, she became the first American woman to fly in a jet airplane. She was a passenger in a TF-80C, which was flown by Chuck Yeager. He was aware of her history as a stunt pilot, so he treated her to some snap rolls and a 14,000’ dive. She ended her career working with the United States Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, as a traveling public relations consultant. She was able to help them acquire over $1.2 million worth of vintage aircraft, photos and memorabilia.
The Tomboy passed away in 1970, never having had a driver’s license or pilot’s license!
CaptainNancy Aldrich, aviation writer www.captaingramma.com