Women's Air Derby

The Women's Air Derby was the first official women-only air race in the United States, taking place during the 1929 National Air Races. Humorist Will Rogers referred to it as the Powder Puff Derby, the name by which the race is most commonly known. Nineteen pilots took off from Santa Monica, California on August 18, 1929 (another left the next day). Marvel Crosson died, in a crash apparently caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, but fifteen made it to Cleveland, Ohio, nine days later.

The race


During the first two decades of heavier-than-air flying, the few women fliers in the United States became acquainted with one another during air meets and air rodeos. The bonds among the top women pilots were strengthened in the first real race for female pilots—the Women’s Air Derby during the 1929 National Air Races and Aeronautical Exposition. Air-race promoter Cliff Henderson was the founder of the first Women’s Air Derby, which he patterned after the men’s transcontinental air races. (Ironically, Henderson would ban women from competing in the 1934 Bendix Trophy and National Air Races after a crash which claimed the life of pilot Florence Klingensmith in 1933.)

To qualify, pilots had to have at least 100 hours of solo flight, which included a minimum 25 hours of cross-country flying (these were the same rules that applied to men competing in the National Air Races). The twenty competitors, eighteen of whom were from the United States,[1] were:

One of the qualifications was that the aircraft would have to have horsepower "appropriate for a woman." "Though Opal Kunz owned and flew her own 300 horse power Travel Air, it was disallowed since it was deemed by the judges to be 'too fast for a woman to fly.' With $25,000.00 in prize money at stake, she found a lesser horsepower craft to race."[2]


The pilots, fourteen in the heavy plane class and six in the lighter class, took off from Santa Monica, California. Stops en route to Cleveland included San Bernardino, California; Yuma, Arizona; Phoenix, Arizona; Douglas, Arizona; El Paso, Texas; Pecos, Texas; Midland, Texas; Abilene, Texas; Fort Worth, Texas; St. Louis, Missouri; and Cincinnati, Ohio. At each stop, the pilots often overnighted for refueling, repairs, and to be treated to media attention and dinner banquets.[3]


To keep all competing aircraft safely separated as they climbed to altitude, they were lined up in rows at the start of the race and took off at one-minute intervals, the lighter aircraft first. National Aeronautic Association official Joe Nikrent was the official timekeeper. Earhart had an electrical problem and had to return to the airfield, but repairs were made quickly, and she resumed flying.

Almost every pilot suffered mishaps during the difficult race. Marvel Crosson crashed in the Gila River Valley and was killed, apparently the victim of carbon monoxide poisoning.[2] There was an outcry demanding the race be canceled, but the pilots got together and decided the most fitting tribute would be to finish the derby.[2] Blanche Noyes had to put out a fire that erupted in mid-air over Pecos, but continued on.[4] (In the 2010 documentary Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women's National Air Derby, Noyes, a non-smoker, explained that she found a cigarette butt in her baggage compartment.[5]) Margaret Perry caught typhoid fever. Pancho Barnes crashed into a car that drove onto the runway as she was trying to land, wrecking her airplane. Ruth Nichols also crashed. Claire Fahy's wing wires were eaten through, possibly sabotaged with acid; she withdrew from the race.

An estimated 18,000 people gathered in Cleveland, Ohio, to greet the pilots at the end of the race. Louise Thaden finished the race first[6] and won the heavy class in a time of 20 hours, 19 minutes and 4 seconds.[5] Phoebe Omlie won the light class in 25 hours, 12 minutes and 47.5 seconds.[5]


Heavy class:[7]

  1. Louise Thaden
  2. Gladys O’Donnell
  3. Amelia Earhart
  4. Blanche Noyes
  5. Ruth Elder
  6. Neva Paris
  7. Mary Haizlip
  8. Opal Kunz
  9. Mary von Mach
  10. Vera Dawn Walker

Four women completed the race in the light class (order unclear, other than Omlie finishing first):[7]

  • Phoebe Omlie
  • Edith Foltz
  • Jessie Keith-Miller
  • Thea Rasche

Bobbi Trout finished the race, but was untimed.


The race was the subject of the 1935 novel Women in the Wind: A Novel of the Women's National Air Derby by Francis Walton and the 1939 film adaptation, starring Kay Francis.

The book The Powder Puff Derby of 1929: The First All Women's Transcontinental Air Race, written by Gene Nora Jessen, was published in 2002.

The 2010 documentary Breaking through the Clouds: The First Women's National Air Derby covers the race from inception through conclusion, includes interviews with some surviving relatives of pilots, and offers short biographies of some of the women.



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