by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Aviation has been, from its onset in the first years in the 20th century, been dominated by men. Today only 7% of American pilot certificates, totaling about 43,000, are held by women, while just 4.4% of all airline pilots, comprising 7,000 in number, are women, though that number was a 31% increase over a decade from 2007-2017.
Still, women have been aviators since the earliest days of flying, starting French Baroness Raymond de Laroche, who became the first female soloist when she took to the skies in 1909. The following year, Blanche Stewart Scott, taught by Glenn Curtiss, was the first American woman to take a solo flight and, in 1911, journalist Harriet Quimby became the first American woman to become a licensed pilot.
A decade after that, Bessie Coleman had the distinction of being the first black female flier in the nation (she died in a tragic flying accident five years later, in 1926). The same year, 1921, Amelia Earhart took to the skies and, a little over a decade later, achieve fame by being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, though her route from Newfoundland, Canada to Northern Ireland was considerably shorter than the Lindbergh transatlantic solo flight in 1927 that brought him immortal renown. Earhart vanished in 1937 as she flew across the Pacific.
Tonight’s artifact from the Homestead’s collection isa press photograph with a stamped date of 3 December 1929 from the Newspaper Enterprise Association showing two prominent women aviators, Elinor Smith and Evelyn “Bobbi” (or “Bobbie”) Trout, with their aircraft “Sunbeam” as they prepared for their attempt to set a new record for a flight of endurance that allowed for refueling.
Trout, wearing a white blouse with sleeves rolled up, dark trousers and dark boots sits on the fuselage with two men standing on the ground next to the craft at the left holding a length of strap coming from the open cockpit where she sits. Smith, wearing her full ensemble including aviator hat and glasses and buttoned-up jacket, stands on the lower wing behind the men, watching intently.
A caption on the reverse reads:
GIRL FLYER READY TO START REFUELING ENDURANCE FLIGHT. Having successfully completed preliminary tests at the Metropolitan Airport, Los Angeles, Calif., Bobbie Trout and Elinor Smith, American girl flyers, are waiting for favourable weather conditions to start off in their “Sunbeam” plane in an effort to set a new world’s endurance flight record with refueling. This photo shows the girls’ plane being made ready for the flight.
A word or two (or several) should be said about the propensity of the media to refer to women aviators as “girl flyers” or “lady birds” which gives the impression of minimizing their efforts. Invariably, articles talk about the attractiveness of the women, such as the use of the term “air beauties” while one caption with a photo of Smith referred to her as “plucky” when brave or courageous might have been used for a man.
The two spent much of that year in direct competition, along with others, for records including the longest solo flight in duration and the highest in altitude. They decided to team up as the year came to a close to chase that new record and received a great deal of publicity for it, as well.
Smith had just turned 18, but had several years of flying experience under her belt. Born in to a professional singer mother and a vaudeville actor father in New York City as Elinor Ward (her father changed his name to Smith), she became, in September 1927, at just sixteen, the youngest federally licensed pilot to date.
A little over a year later, she achieved her first bout of major publicity when she flew under all four of the bridges spanning the East River from Manhattan, a feat that no one else has achieved. Residing then in the Long Island town of Freeport, the young aviatrix was dubbed the “Flying Flapper of Freeport.”
Trout was five years older and a native of the little hamlet of Greenup, Illinois, in the southeastern part of the state. She was twelve when her interest in aviation was sparked by hearing a craft fly overhead in her native town. In 1920, she, her younger brother, and her parents moved from St. Louis west to Los Angeles, settling in Boyle Heights, where her father owned a service station.
Trout took her first flight at age sixteen and saved money to enroll in early 1928 in a flight school located in Los Angeles near Inglewood. She was on a training flight with the Burdette School at its airport at Western Avenue and 94th Street when he told her to try a three-quarter turn at low altitude and the biplane plummeted to the ground at an Inglewood intersection. Though the craft was destroyed and Trout and her instructor were injured, she completed her education and received her solo certificate at the end of April.
At the end of 1928 she flew at the official dedication of Metropolitan Airport, now Van Nuys Airport, and quickly set her first record, flying on 4 January 1929 for 12 hours and 11 minutes and shattering the previous women’s best time by some four hours. At the end of that month, however, Smith took off from a Long Island airport and bested Trout’s achievement by over two hours.
Undeterred, Trout not only took back the record, but did so with the first all-night flight, thanks to a special lighting system developed for her. That trek, taken from Mines Field, now Los Angeles International Airport, on 10 February, lasted over seventeen hours, nearly four hours longer than Smith’s flight. In mid-June, the aviator set another mark by flying to an altitude of over 15,000 feet, setting a new record for a light-class plane. Smith, however, snatched back the endurance record with a stunning 26 and 1/2 hour flight not long afterward.
In August 1929, Trout and a field of women aviators competed in a Women’s Air Derby from Clover Field in Santa Monica to Cleveland. Humorist and actor Will Rogers, seeing some of the entrants check their faces in mirrors before takeoff, joked that the event turned into a “powder puff derby” and the name stuck.
The event featured fourteen heavy class and a half-dozen light class pilots and there were eleven stops over nine days. Mishaps were frequent, including the tragic death of Marvel Crosson after she crashed in Arizona and deployed her parachute, which, however, was found to be unopened. Florence Lowe Barnes, nicknamed “Pancho” because of some time spent in Mexico during a revolution and who learned to fly in 1928, was grounded when an automobile got in her path on a landing after she got lost and landed at an airport not on the route. Barnes achieved renown in 1930 for winning that year’s derby and breaking Earhart’s speed record to boot.
Other unlucky fliers in the race were Ruth Nichols, who crashed but came away uninjured, though she had to withdrawn; Margaret Perry, who got typhoid fever and had to abandon the contest in Texas; and Claire Fahy, who left the derby when the wings on her airplane were damaged, purportedly from sabotage by acid. Earhart had electrical problems, had the problem corrected, and resumed.
Trout also experienced difficulties and found herself out of fuel at a Kansas stop and resumed, though far behind the other pilots. While flying over Indiana and near Cincinnati, she had serious engine trouble and was forced down in an emergency landing. She managed to get her craft repaired and finished the race, but was not timed.
The winner of the derby was Louise Thaden, who became a major female aviator in 1928 and 1929 and secured fame by winning the first race which included both men and women, the Bendix Trophy Race, held in 1936. Third in that heavy craft class was Earhart.
One of the significant outcomes of the race was the formation in early November 1929 of the famed Ninety-Nines: International Organization of Women Pilots. Among its charter members were Earhart, Nichols and Thaden and Trout was another early member. Marian Trace, who was from northern California and received her pilot’s license at the end of 1929, also joined the Ninety-Nines early on. She married attorney Darius Johnson, who was later a member of the City of Industy city council. The Homestead has several artifacts related to Trace’s career as a pioneering aviatrix and a future blog post will focus on her achievement.
In fall 1929, Trout and Smith decided to team up to break the endurance record allowing for refueling, a distinction that they were the first women to achieve. The flight, originating from Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys, was to occur in rotation around the San Fernando Valley, into modern Santa Clarita, west to Santa Paula, and back to Van Nuys for a staggering twenty-two days and nights, far surpassing the record of 420 hours and 18 minutes set by men. Refueling was to be handled by the duo of Paul Whittier, as the pilot of that craft, and Pete Reinhart handling the hose for the delivery of the fuel.
A good deal of publicity attended their planning efforts, including a Los Angeles Times article from 13 October that reported that the two planned to make their flight a week from then. In addition to providing details on the Sunbeam, built at Metropolitan specifically for the flight, and its 300-horsepower engine, as well as about the refueling program from Whittier’s biplane, there was also information provided about how the aviators were to handle sleeping arrangements. An air mattress was placed in the closed cabin on top of the fuel tanks, so that one pilot could rest while the other flew the craft. During refueling, one flier would control the craft, while the other would handle the refueling alonside the cockpit.
In the 6 November edition of the Los Angeles Evening Express an article noted that the pair was to have direct radio contact with the ground thanks to the efforts of the president of Franklin Motors, which provided the aviators with a touring car for their use prior to their flight. The arrangement was to have the women make contact every hour during their flight and that these would be broadcast over the KMTR radio station. Trout was certified as a ham radio operator (note the recent post on this blog on a Los Angeles ham radio convention held at about the same time) so she could utilize the means of communication during the trek.
On the first attempt, however, on 23 November, fuel spilled from the hose as it was connecting to the Sunbeam’s tank and the accident caused burns to Trout and forced she and Smith to make an emergency landing. A week later, the duo made their second effort, but, after forty-two hours and eighteen minutes in the air, it was discovered that the plane’s fuel tank was empty and the flight had to be rapidly ended. Still, they had set a new record, though it was far short of their goal.
It was almost three weeks later when it was revealed that a third try was abandoned when Smith decided to return home to New York. The explanation was that her grandmother was very sick, but that news was not made public until Smith had been gone from Los Angeles for over a week. One wonders if a rift developed between the two women as they tried to get a third flight off the ground.
Despite Smith’s departure, Trout stated publicly that she was going to make a renewed effort for that next attempt and added that she was searching for a new partner. After January 1930, however, there were no reports of anything further and the idea died away for a time. In January 1931, however, with Edna May Cooper as her partner, Trout tried again for a refueling flight of great duration, this time a month. This, also, did not come to pass, but, on the 9th, the duo managed to stay aloft for almost 123 hours.
Smith continued to fly for several years, but having married and borne three children, she decided that her children needed her more than she needed flying. Trout formed the Women’s Air Reserve with Pancho Barnes so that disaster aid could be more professionally provided.
Both aviators lived long lives, with Trout passing away in San Diego in January 2003, a few weeks after her 97th birthday. Smith died in Palo Alto in March 2010, several months shy of her 99th birthday. They remain among the most important and celebrated women fliers in the early years of aviation history.