For those familiar with Fate on a Folded Wing, you may recall the following words regarding Joan Merriam Smith’s side trip to Saipan in 1964, where she planned to investigate the Amelia Earhart disappearance.
“April 24th I took off for Saipan but had to return because the gear wouldn’t work properly. I thought the hydraulic power pack probably needed overhauling. The afternoon of April 30th, the hydraulic gear plans supposedly were in readiness, so I was off to see Saipan. I took pictures from the air of Rota Island, the first I came upon. It’s only one-mile-by-one and a half miles in dimension. Tinian Island was next. It was at Tinian that the first atomic bomb was loaded on the airplane Enola Gay bound for Hiroshima. There was a large, round, concrete circle below. The plane was parked in the circular ramp area to be prepared for its mission and night takeoff. All these islands were infiltrated heavily by the Japanense …”
Source: Fate on a Folded Wing, page 110
Of course, those were the last words in the original manuscript before two sequential pages went missing in the middle of that particular chapter, creating a cliffhanger for those wanting to know more about what Joan did and saw during what she referred to as “the most important part of her trip.”
While we’ll never know why those pages went missing, it did force me to try and re-create from public sources what exactly transpired during that span of time. Below follows a brief overview of news excerpts about Joan’s world flight between April 20 – May 1, 1964.
“The 27-year-old Long Beach housewife planned to take off today for Guam on what she calls the “most important part of my trip.” – April 20, 1964 | Long Beach Press Telegram
“She leaves today for Wake Island and the mainland via Honolulu.” – April 23, 1964 | Guam Daily News
“Joan Merriam Smith is pausing in Guam on her around-the-world flight, and will make a visit to the island of Saipan in an effort to learn the fate of the late Amelia Earhart.” – April 23, 1964 | The Indianapolis News
“She planned to visit the island of Saipan north of Guam tomorrow to seek possible information on the death of Amelia Earhart.” – April 23, 1964 | Honolulu Star Bulletin
“She canceled her flight to Saipan last night because of bad weather. She had planned the 150 mile hop from Guam to Saipan as a pilgrimage to the area where Miss Earhart disappeared in 1937.” – April 24, 1964 | Sacramento Bee
“Joan Merriam Smith took off for Wake Island from Guam Wednesday but returned an hour later with mechanical troubles.” – April 30, 1964 | Long Beach Independent
“Joan Merriam Smith landed safely at Wake Island last night. She completed the 1,300 mile overwater flight from Guam in 12 hours 18 minutes.” – May 1, 1964 | Tucson Daily Citizen
While there is nothing else printed in the original manuscript about Saipan, and I was unable to find anything about her trip to Saipan printed in newspapers (via Newspapers.com), Joan did go on to make this statement in an article that was published in the Saturday Evening Post in July of 1965, confirming that she did in fact stopover there:
“I talked with some people on Saipan who claim that the Japs shot Noonan and that Amelia died a few weeks later. I saw the place where she was supposedly kept in prison and the spot where she is said to be buried.”
Source: Saturday Evening Post, July 1965
The questions inevitably remain: what else did Joan do in Saipan? Why wasn’t anything printed in newspapers about her trip, when every other leg of her journey was covered in detail? How long did she stay there? Who exactly did she meet with? Did she learn anything new? What did she come away from the experience with? After flying around the world tracing Earhart’s footsteps for herself, surveying the area, and visiting New Guinea and Saipan, what were her assumptions and takeaways? What did she personally believe happened to her hero in 1937?
In 2019, I published a blog post entitled “The Undeniable Lure of the Amelia Earhart Disappearance,” which provided an overview of the items Trixie saved in her files about Earhart’s disappearance, among other things. For those interested in reading more I recommend this post for an interesting look at this pivotal moment in American history.
In closing, on April 23, 1964, Guam Daily News asked the same question many people still find themselves asking today: will we ever know? Or “may somewhere there still be hidden a clue as to what happened,” as the article suggests?
In 1958, Trixie flew in the 12th Annual All Woman Transcontinental Air Race, also known as the Powder Puff Derby. According to the Ninety Nines website, the 1948 and 1949 All-Woman Transcontinental Air Races, sponsored by Jacqueline Cochran, marked the formal beginning of the All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race (AWTAR). In 1951 and 1952, the AWTAR was called “Operation TAR” (in response to the Korean War) and was operated as a training mission to “provide stimulation as a refresher course in cross-country flying for women whose services as pilots might once again be needed by their country.” The AWTAR became affectionately known as the “Powder Puff Derby,” a reference to the 1929 Women’s Air Derby by Will Rogers.
While I had known that Trixie flew in a Powder Puff Derby, I didn’t know which one … or who she flew with. Therefore, it was pretty neat when I recently came across a personal story that Trixie had typed up for a sponsorship (per her notes) about her experience of flying in the race. I wanted to re-share it here to preserve a little piece of history.
Coincidentally, I learned that she flew together with Jan Wood, who also completed an around-the-world flight (albeit unofficial) in 1955-56. (Click here for a 2019 feature article about Jan Wood courtesy of the San Fernando Valley 99s Newsletter.) It’s no doubt she and Trixie had plenty to talk about. Bios from the official race literature follow below:
Pilot: Jan W. Wood, Reseda, Calif. Jan will be flying her 1st TAR in the the “Little Yellow Cloud” which she flew around the world in 1956-57. She has logged more than 1,100 hours fling time and holds a Commercial license, Single and Multi-Engine Land ratings. Jan is a former WASP Pilot during WWII and is currently teaching at Birmingham High School. She is an active member of the Ninety-Nines, Inc., CAP, NAA, AOPA, Lockheed Flying Club and Icerian Flying Club.
Co-Pilot: Trixie-Ann Schubert, Los Angeles, Calif. Trixie-Ann will be flying her 1st TAR. She holds a Private license and has logged more than 200 hours flying time. Trixie-Ann is currently writing a column in Cross Country news and freelances in aviation writing. She has won the Donald Douglas trophy and the TWA trophy for her aviation writing. Trixie-Ann is a member of the Ninety-Nines, Inc., the Los Angeles State Faculty Wives, and the Aviation Writers of America. her husband, Delwyn G. Schubert, is a Professors at Los Angeles State College and they have three children.
Source: Twelfth Annual All Woman Transcontinental Air Race Official Program | July 1958
Without further ado, below is Trixie’s story. Original language, original punctuation, as well as some dated references follow, but a very entertaining story offering a first person vs. a fictionalized view into the past.
Notes on Flying the Transcontinental Air Race, 12th Powder Puff Derby By Trixie-Ann Schubert
July 1 seemed like the culmination rather than the beginning of the air race, climaxing three months of concentrated preparation and planning for the Transcontinental Air Race (TAR). Local citizenry and aviation groups gave a banquet for us the night before we left LA as a prelude to the big takeoff banquet for all the pilots in San Diego.
We had sectional maps, jet navigation maps, world air maps. The most direct route between race legs was marked in red with every 20 miles indicated so we could spot-check progress and try to gain at least a minute on our own time each 20 miles. We inked in the airport designations which we might land on without being disqualified; made separate cards for each new heading (allowing for variation and deviation) with OMNI, VOR, VHF radio, and LF Radio frequencies in case all else failed. At the last minute we decided not to take a supplementary radio offered us by the Civil Air Patrol; it eliminated five extra pounds. We had the OMNI installed by OnMark Engineering Corp. in the rear of the plane rather than on instrument panel or beneath it; as it seemed better to distribute the CG.
We saw the catapult mechanism for the jets on deck and learned that a catapult failure is a “dead cat shot”; saw Guppie AD 5 NANs fly overhead, and big ships (airplanes) land in the bay on this busy southwest military establishment. Shirley Thomas of Voice of America was with us to file a report on “the average day of a woman race pilot” which was anything but average. The flight deck is 800 feet plus, but the cables have adjustable tension so that they can be “set” to the particular aircraft making a deck landing with the aid of the new mirror system. 2,800 men in the ship’s compliment and 32 pilots aboard the Bennington. On non-convoy tracks three destroyers accompany a carrier. 12 to 20 planes in the squadron. Can’t find my notes on how many tons of paint it requires to grey the flight deck but it was staggering. A call to the ship indicated that any women pilots aboard who were flying Bonanzas in the race were to report to the field immediately to check the stall warnings on the planes. Did not concern me but the tour was over anyway so we left the Bennington for Miramar Naval air station. In the immense mess hall which feeds 5,000 servicemen daily we were met by a bevy of Brass and escorted to seats and served breaded veal, deep fried eggplant, potatoes, 20 varieties of salads, all the trimmings, and a huge cake decorated by the “mess crew” with “Welcome ladybirds to Miramar.” High along the upper ceiling of the hall were printed the Hebrew, protestant, and Catholic meal blessings.
Again we split up and we’re talking to the RATCC (radar air traffic control center) which we found difficult to leave. We watched the beeps as the needle scanned for alien planes, identified those in the air, expanded its scope to include much of the US and narrowed it to include the immediate area; cut out planes and monitored weather clouds, or vice versa. After exhausting her questions in the RATCC center we entered the weather room and got current briefing on weather plus prospects for July 4th takeoff. As we checked isobar markings on new weather maps being prepared the siren sounded indicating an emergency landing. Every man in the vicinity dove into action of some kind, leaving us girls stranded so we climbed to the roof to watch the emergency approach. Red fire trucks, ambulance trucks (one at each end), and at least 12 or more pieces of equipment were converging along the line of approach. The jet came in streaming black but made a normal approach and landing; and the pilot was out of the cockpit almost before the plane stopped rolling. The tri-wheel jets come in with nose wheel high to break speed … looking like praying mantas. Saw the Douglas F4D Sky Rays, the F38 all-weather fighters, the Grumman Cougar (F-11s), the F8U crusader built in Dallas by Chance Vought. We pay $9 million each for the Crusaders. Captain Campbell, who was commander of the famed Hornet before coming to Miramar showed us around some more as did commanders H.B. Hanson, C.E. Fisher, and L.W. Newman.
Lieutenant Harry F. Thompson asked permission to take us through his domain, the mess kitchens. We walked through zero temperature freezers to see the 20 beef carcasses which would be eaten before the weekend, the bakery where 2,000 loaves of bread are baked daily, the great machines which peel potatoes automatically, the tremendous vats of soup, etc. The Lieutenant was more proud of his kitchens than the flight squadron leader of his planes. He showed us how in the storehouse he could name at a glance how many cans of this or barrels of that he had on hand. Chief MM Blankenship joined us and finally I found myself quizzing R. Bardeau PH 2, USN who told me in the war he shot combat film with infrared film as it “cut out “camouflage and showed only the true God’s greenery. Camouflage greenery showed up white.
Went to Astronautics Division of Convair, the home of Atlas, but not even the top brass escorting us was permitted past the gate of the beautiful new buildings housing our Atlas missile. Everything in the vicinity highly classified as it should be.
Back at the hotel about 5:30 I phoned Dell and the kids. Dell said Trice awakened at 10:30 last night screaming “Mother just crashed. I saw her. She’s dead. She’s dead.” She was hysterical Dell said, so he took her upstairs and tried to get me long distance so she could talk to me. At midnight he got her calmed down after the operator tried unsuccessfully several times, with paging at the hotel, to reach me. “Where in the devil were you?“ Dell asked. “In Mexico,” I replied meekly.
We had agreed during the race to wear only the exquisite race wardrobe designed and donated to us by Zella of Beverly Hills. I took off the crushproof Persian print and got into the white raw silk cocktail dress just in time for the takeoff banquet at which there were about 500 people, almost as many speeches, introductions and brief histories of each pilot. Again asleep almost before I reached my room; the pre-dinner cocktails at the late afternoon party given us by aircraft manufacturers made me sleepy anyway.
I did some quick shopping (for face powder, extra dark glasses, etc.) All the fruit we wished was supplied to us at race headquarters complements of Safeway Chain Groceries. So I made up a plate of fruit and put it in the double room suite I’d engaged for Dell and kids along with candy and gum; then walked over to the Catholic Church for a visit. I have three St. Christopher medals (both priests from our LA church came to the house for dinner the week before I left and insisted on this) one given to me by Mary Moy for the new watch Dell bought me for my birthday. Pilot briefing, the final before takeoff, was scheduled for 13:00 in the hotel dining room. Everything in the race runs on strict schedule and no one waits for anyone, nor is any excuse a valid reason for being late. The briefing lasted three hours and seemed like three minutes, so fascinated was I with each new speaker from race chairman Betty Gillies to C.A.A. inspectors, Murter from weather, and Air Force officials.
I took copious notes as did Jan which we planned to read over and over before going to bed. Typewritten, they covered four single-spaced sheets. Here are just some brief excerpts.
Never fail to file flight plan each leg of route or you’re disqualified. At Yuma, Arizona call the tower on 122.5 VHF and listen on 119.1. Only 80 octane gas available here. A banquet waiting here for you girls who wish to stop.
You are cleared through the restricted areas (area 309) of an ADIZ (air defense interception zone) only on July 4. If delayed going through you must get individual clearances as practice bombing and maneuvering will be resumed.
Stay south of 32’ 30” latitude on the 4th en route to Tucson. At El Paso international fly one base leg of 90° to the traffic pattern on entry and one crosswind leg to 90° on takeoff. Left hand approach on runway is 26, 22, 17 and right hand on runway is 35, 4, 8. Maintain lateral separation on final approach for runway 35.If lost at any time fly high so VHF can be heard. If your receiver only is in operation fly a triangular pattern to the right and hold each heading two minutes (do this twice), resume course. Repeat every 20 minutes.
If both transmitter and receiver are out fly triangular pattern to the left. Keep this up till radar spots you and sends a plane to lead you in.
Remember there isn’t much civilization north or south of Highway 80 in the desert and the desert is no place for a forced landing so keep your position to 80 in mind at all times crossing the desert.
Stations will answer on 120.7 OMNI range unless advised 126.7. Make sure station knows frequency you’re listening on.
Be on the lookout for jets around Jackson, Mississippi. Charleston has demolition of explosives below 3000 feet. Montgomery has LF frequency change to 396KC. Pull mixture control full out on ground. If engine kicks over while you’re on ground for log stamping you’re out of race.
Clock position has been changed at Macon, Georgia. Do NOT buzz the finish line at 200 feet at Charleston until you get radio permission to do so. Contact at least 40 miles out if possible.
Do not penetrate eastern ADIZ without military okay.
Be sure to RON (remaining overnight) each night or you’re disqualified. Do this with C.A.A. communications.
Remember temperatures at El Paso may be over 100 and the runway is 3,900 feet long. Consequently it’s like landing at 9,000 feet altitude. Allow for it. Etc. etc.
And some more … Anvil head of thunderstorm indicates which direction it’s moving. DON’T go in front of it, but around behind it.
Thirty minutes before takeoff deadline start leaving impound area; taxi single file. If have a magneto drop or trouble on takeoff land on runway 23. Takeoff at 20 second intervals. Air Force B 36 and some F 102s are coming over at zero takeoff in demonstration flight for crowds watching takeoff. Don’t try to outguess them in the air.
Then the weather man. There’ll be coastal low stratus back to the foothills in the morning with base at 1,500 and top at 2,000. There’s a trough of low pressure far to the north. Expect 3 p.m. cumulus thundershowers and unstable air east of Texas, etc.
I left the briefing room running to see if my family had arrived. And sure enough there were the girls and my Normie who was overjoyed to see me. Trice began crying until I got them into the bathing suits and the outdoor pool. Countess Marina Coudenhove-Calergi who loves the kids and is staying with them this week came down with Dell. She’s beautifully bred and tutored in everything—except housekeeping but is doing a marvelous job of keeping my home and hearth together. (Marina’s mother, now in Europe, was the first woman pilot of Austria.)
Marina watched the children while Dell and I attended a cocktail party given by the AC spark plug people. Then we all went into the dining room for dinner. Back in our rooms Trice began crying again and Heidi soon followed suit. Cried themselves to sleep.
Today is my Grandmother Gehrung’s birthday (after whom I was named Beatrice). Up at 5 a.m. after fitful sleep. Took my luggage to the entrance where a truck would pick it up to put on the Air Force C-47 which is flying our excess luggage east for us. In ballroom for heavy 6 a.m. breakfast, and final weather briefing. Did not wake Dell and kids until bus departed at 7 a.m. for field. Then I hurriedly awakened them and dressed the kids before they could remember that I was leaving today and start crying again. “Now go with Daddy to breakfast and I’ll see you right away.” Then I rushed to the bus, the last to board.
An hour after we’d reached the field, Dell, Marina, and kids arrived. I talked steadily about the firecrackers I’d purchased earlier and left at home for them. When the order came to clear the area around impound and for spectators to go to the bleachers I kissed each quickly and ran to the plane leaving Dell to deal with the crying, if it should start again. Fortunately hundreds of colored balloons were released at that moment and sent skyward announcing the imminent takeoff of the derby and the children were fascinated by the new development.
As we lined up and taxied past the bleachers behind plane number one flown by Randa Sutherland (one of the four planes flown solo) the loud speaker again announced pilots and brief histories. Tears streamed down Tricie’s face and Heidi looked bleakly straight ahead. Lined up, all 61 planes for takeoff, there was another delay. A jeep drove up to the plane and the fellow asked “anything I can do for plane number two?” I said, “Yes, how about a portable latrine?” He insisted on driving me at breakneck speed across the field, to the administration building, and back to the plane again. Fran Rocklin and Anna Held who had arrived minutes before with their men friends were at the plane to say goodbye. Los Angeles friends, and Lieutenant Commander Bain Allen and his family of San Diego had come out earlier to say goodbye. Fran brought me a four leaf clover pressed between celluloid.
At 10 a.m. sharp the first plane was flagged over; then our log was stamped and run out to us by a runner and we were heading down the runway past the crowds, past the remote track with the TV cameras grinding away, past the end of the runway airborne by now. The instant we reached 400 feet we made our turn into the pattern and were away heading for the mountains. Minutes later we were alone in the sky, not another plane in sight.
We flew full throttle and kept on course accurately even to the juxtaposition of a railroad with a highway on our maps. The maps were numbered to facilitate handling and we were tuned into the closest OMNI and checking our position on the map against the OMNI rows constantly so that at any given moment we could identify our position exactly. Since we were given permission to fly over ADIZ at briefing the day before, we had reconstructed our first leg of the flight. Though we had 4 1/2 hours of fuel aboard we decided not to be foolhardy in stretching our flying time and perhaps being disqualified by having to land at an undesignated field for fuel.
My mind curiously enough was at rest for the first time in months. We were committed and there was nothing more except following through. It’s always that first step. I felt sure the children were committed by now to being without me for 10 days and looking forward to the drive home through the orange orchards and along the ocean, the promised stop at San Juan Capistrano, and the fireworks later in the evening.
Forty miles out of Tucson (after we passed within sight of Gene’s mountain top in the Laguna range) we radioed for permission to make a head on approach without entering traffic pattern and were given it. On the headphones we were getting latest weather sequence: “92 temperature El Centro, 67 Los Angeles with 1,600 ceiling, 1,700 San Diego, Yuma 91° with a south six wind.”
Got out our map of airport identification as we were to do hereafter on each approach landing, studied the position of runways and the all-important clock position area, and barreled into Tucson. We are the only plane in the race I believe with the Crosswind Landing gear. Our turn off the active runway onto the nearest taxi strip was so abrupt that we came into the clock area sidewise the whole distance though our wheels were in proper position. Not understanding the quirks of the crosswind gear, many bystanders behind the ropes began yelling “they’re going to crash; they’re going to crash.” So reported the amused airport manager who put a cold Coke in my hand almost before I’d stamped the log book.
A splendid smorgasbord style luncheon awaited us along with race favors etc. inside the administration building, compliments of the 99’s of Tucson. We closed flight plan, checked weather, ate, checked weather, filed new flight plan to El Paso and took off.
Landed at El Paso and RONed (remaining overnight) with the proper authorities. Waiting cars took us to beautiful modern Caballero Motel where we got into swimsuits and relaxed in the water for an hour before other cars took us to town for dinner and asked if we’d like to go across the border to Juarez. We wanted only some sleep.
Up at 4:30 a.m. Waiting cars (astronomical thanks to the local drivers … sometimes military, sometimes 99’s and their 49½ ers who always were waiting with transportation the second we were ready for it.) A gulped breakfast at the airport while the plane wing tanks were tipped, the oil put in (we always waited till plane cooled and oil settled before putting in new … thus we kept engine case clean during flight; no overspill from heat expanding oil.) Then off into the dubious dawn toward Abilene. Landed for gas and then on to Tyler, Texas. Asked the HAM operators on the field to wire Los Angeles “Tyler, Texas, tonight. Love to you ducks and drakes. Trixie-Ann.”
Taken to Maria Motel newly managed by the young McDonald’s and their three year old son Gene. No restaurant facilities as yet so McDonald drove out to get 20 of the biggest steaks I’ve ever seen and we barbecued them outdoors (in the rain) while Nancy Walton of Australia made a salad that heretofore she’d only seen her cook make. The local C.A.A. weatherman stopped at the various hotels and motels where we were with discouraging weather reports for tomorrow. Some of the girls decided not to try it. We (we always is Jan and myself) decided to get to the field and take off soon as there was a break in the clouds. But I had one reservation … I wanted to go to mass first. The Catholic Church had no masses till 9 a.m. But I learned that the Mother Frances hospital had a chapel mass at 6 a.m. for nurses. One of the motel workers, a young man by the name of Piccard who was studying to be a Lutheran minister at the local seminary drove me to mass in a pickup truck, waited till it was over, and drove me out to the airport afterwards.
(The HAM operator on the field this morning was a man by the name of Williams who has relatives by name of Peterson in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.)
Coming into Tyler we flew in weather that under normal conditions we’d have never been found in. Hail bombarded the cockpit windshield like machine gun fire. Lightning struck off both wingtips. Rain periodically obscured vision. So this is it… more weather than we expected, but we still have visual reference to the ground (at times), a compass heading, enough gas in both tanks for another hour’s flight, a horizon finder and a roll and bank indicator on the instrument panel to keep us from vertigo or getting the plane into a stall or spin attitude. Also we’ve been well-versed with the new 180 procedure for getting out of a tight situation when weather “closed in.” The emphasis always was on RELAX. And so we relaxed. And not until after we were on the ground at Tyler did we find that our hands were shaking around the cokes handed us on landing.
Haphazardly we picked up morning newspapers at various stops all front page headlined with the news of the Powder Puff Derby, all belated news because it couldn’t keep actual pace with the race. This was my leg to fly and it was a double leg. We took off from Tyler (with some sandwiches we had made up at the field) and while Jan ate and navigated I flew from Tyler, bypassed the Montgomery, Alabama, stop, and onto Macon, Georgia, a MUST stop. Landed at Macon after almost a four hour flight and were greeted with a basket of Georgia peaches, coke, and the usual refreshments, newspapermen, cameramen, 99s, airport personnel trying to be, and being, helpful etc.
We landed at Macon early in the afternoon after a turbulent flight. I was stimulated to a degree that might have enabled me to fly on just indefinitely … at least so I felt. “We can finish this afternoon. Let’s refuel and get out of here and cross the finish line in Charleston. I can almost feel the Atlantic from here,” I said. Jan was tired: “It takes all the fun out of the racing when you’re as tired as I am now,” she said. “Let’s finish tomorrow.” And since it was her plane, it was her decision. We RONed at Macon for the night and were driven to the Holiday Inn. Despite a threatening storm I got into the pool and swam with one lone occupant, a 10-year old boy who was en route to San Diego with his marine father and family. In the deluge of rain that hit the pool a moment later sending big plops of pool water up to meet the downpour he told me his name, complete family circumstances including the condition of his father’s uniform and the family bank account. Twenty minutes later the rain stopped and we got out of the warm pool and ran shivering through the Georgia July afternoon to our motel rooms.
At a long dinner table, those of us remaining at Georgia engaged in “hangar flying“ about the race to date. It was learned the two 18 year old girls from Blackfoot, Idaho, had been disqualified because one got sick and they made an emergency landing at an undesignated airport. We all felt badly. Sylvia Roth, who has an air transport rating and 10 or so thousand hours of flying said that her co-pilot quit in the middle of the race; she was noncommittal about the reason. But since the co-pilot was a licensed pilot too and since personality conflicts are tensed in a race of this nature I thought I understood why the girl quit, undoubtedly forfeiting Sylvia’s chances for a higher score toward winning.
Pat Udall, a very pretty girl who is mother of five children and wife of a Tucson, Arizona lawyer, said her co-pilot was utterly terrified. She was not a pilot, had never flown in weather, was along merely to run the logbook in for time stamping. When she began asking Pat, “What if you faint? I suppose we just plunge down to crash,” then Pat began realizing what terror the girl really felt and offered to send her home by train at the next city. The girl readily accepted and Pat flew the rest of the race solo.
Spent the rest of the evening thinking over the “mind of the south” as I’d been doing for sometime. The Texas drawl was a pleasant respite in the race; not so pleasant had been our first encounter with airport administration buildings that had restrooms labeled “for colored men,” and “for white men”; “for colored women” and “for white women.” One of the girls was heard to ask, “Why, I wonder. Is their urine a different color than ours?” Mostly the colored people when spoken to (at least in the hotels and elevators) kept their eyes lowered like some kind of slave or inferior.
Through the ever-alert HAM operators I sent Dell a wire, “Overnight at Macon. Finish on my birthday. Love, Trixie-Ann.” As I crawled between the seemingly damp sheets in the overly-air-conditioned motel room I was thinking about mother 37 years ago tonight… about to give birth to a baby and with a whole new life opening up before her … so she must’ve thought, not knowing she had less than seven years to partake of it.
We were in no great rush to be off this morning since we had less than three hours time before finishing the race … air time that is. So we didn’t rise until about 6:30 a.m. At the field we were told that our planes would be topped with gas for free, compliments of the Georgia flying service on the field. I began thinking about this half an hour after we were in the air. “Live and learn,” I spoke to Jan. “We shouldn’t have had the gas topped for free. We shouldn’t even have had the tanks filled the night before. We could finish the race with half of each tank filled. And here we’re carrying all that excess weight to slow our speed.” “I never thought of it till too late either,” said Jan. I was sure Fran Bera and some of the other race pros had thought of it. When I questioned them later at the race terminus I found it to be true; they calculated almost exact fuel consumption and flew with that—no more.
As we approached the east we saw the ocean first … then Charleston cuddled on the shores; then the airport west of the city, and finally, straining our eyes to see, we detected the finish line… alternate red cloth markers on the field the span of a couple of planes wide and with what looked like weather balloons attached and floating 25 feet or so above the marker. Never have been so impressed with the control tower operator as with the chief operator at Charleston who with utter cool and calm brought all the girls across the finish line. We were given permission to swoop down within 200 feet, but no lower, of the field lined with crowds. As we buzzed past the tower our time was recorded automatically and the tower operator, knowing our mode of excitation, dropped his usual tower nomenclature and instead of giving us compass turns said, “Now TAR 2, turn to your left; you’ve completed the downwind leg. This is your base leg. Now begin your turn for final approach; take your second taxi strip to the left after landing and immediately called ground tower for further instructions.“ A child could have landed the plane there.
As we coasted to a stop before the administration building two men came running carrying something between them; and before we could get the safety belts off and slip from the plane they literally had rolled out the red carpet and we stepped from the plane onto the red carpet and began shaking hands with all of the grinning people. It was almost too much.
Page Shamburger, who also writes for Cross Country News, was there to greet us as was Marge Campbell from the Charleston Courier and Inquirer. All along the route we met 99’s whom we had corresponded with or knew about but had never met. Cora McDonald, for instance, told me at one stop that my efforts to get Robert Cummings for judge for the Amelia Earhart scholarship at the national convention had been successful, that he had wired later he would participate. Jimmy Stewart, whom I had contacted at their request, for convention speaker, was on SAC duty and could not oblige.
Cross country impressions begin to merge … it had all happened so fast; all the hospitality, all the different people; how small Shreveport, Louisiana looked when I had thought it a big city, how winding the Mississippi River with its barges like water bugs. How superior the airplane seemed over anything that cumbersome that would take unending time to wind around the river bends down to the Gulf; the beautiful hardtop runway system at Monroe, which we had thought a rather small town; the desert nothingness gradually transposed into squares of greens and verdure and finally trees and civilization below again; the strangeness of seeing no mountains anywhere; the bayous and swampy areas of the south; the isolation of cities on the face of vastness that is America … and mostly the insignificance and nothingness of man or humankind in general in the great scheme of things. Only in his own personal integrity and being did man, the finite nothingness, amount to anything, and thus man is his own world. And I began to understand the poet (T.S. Elliott?) who declared that a whole world died every time a man died; or perhaps it was Ernie Pyle who had infinite poetry in his day-to-day reporting.
We were chauffeured by the Air Force to the Francis Marion Hotel, the best in Charleston, and I was struck afresh how the best of most anything in the South suffers by comparison with the best of anything in the West or the North. I had yet to learn that Charleston is not as much a city as it is a museum. And I certainly hadn’t seen ALL of the south. I think maybe New Orleans would give me a new perspective on the south.
We had just time to register, pick up our luggage flown out by the Air Force, get our beach attire and leave for a private beach party given at the L. Louis Green Jr. summer home on the Isle of Palms. We drove over the two roller coaster-like spans of bridge across the Ashley and Cooper rivers. We swam in the ocean, delighted that the Atlantic is much warmer than the Pacific this time of year; we found sand dollars or sea biscuit fish shells to bring home unlike any I’ve found along Pacific Shores; we considered how in a few weeks I’d be home having twice traversed the continent from west to east border and back only to start the transverse crossing from south to north (California to British Columbia) and back; and then, shrieking from the shock of it, I finally kicked free a large blue feeler crab bigger than my hand that had latched onto my right foot. With the crab marks still on my foot I went back to the city and ordered crab salad for dinner. Jan and I ate at a table for two and just as we were about to leave the waitress came up with one big piece of cake on top of which was a vial of flaming brandy, singing “happy birthday to you.” This was Jan’s idea. “Let the cake be the compliments of the Jack Tar hotel,” said the waitress.
Everything had been arranged for us while in Charleston mostly at the expense of two wealthy citizens Thompson and Brenner. I also found myself after the first evening’s cocktail party with several cards from other well-wishers who asked that we call and be welcomed at their homes for private parties. Captain Georges L. Hansen, U.S.N; Dr. Arthur Williams (who had gone to Marquette University in Milwaukee and said he frequently felt nostalgia for the north: local citizenry said he was one of their best internists.) After the party the Williams (Emgee is his wife) took us to the nearby lobster house, but I found it impossible to look a lobster in the face.
Jan had a couple press interviews (she was a former prospective Olympic contender in shot put, discus storing, and excelled in baseball, football, boxing and consequently was a good subject for the sports editors) so I took a boat trip to Fort Sumter. Pauline Glasson sat next to me (all this is free… as with every other courtesy and consideration in Charleston) and told me she had a plus score of 13. Ours averaged 5 plus so I figured we were somewhat shy of being race winners by any count. Pauline said she flies by the clouds, has been doing it for over 20 years. She’s a flight instructor. Her grandfather was a Cherokee Indian, and like most women with traces of Indian blood, Pauline wears well. The officer at Fort Sumter revived the Civil War for us in his soft southern drawl; we were mightily impressed but somewhat askance at how these people live the Civil War yet while the north’s memory of it has been dimmed by more recent wars and perhaps by the fact that the north was not the battleground that the south was. These are a people apart and I had the feeling they wouldn’t require much impetus to secede from the Union even yet. Mr. Green at his beach party told me how his grandfather ran the blockade etc.
Gradually we became overcome with the oldness, the decrepit oldness of everything. My respect for the tradition has never been questioned, my love of the old. But here is oldness in tradition that stagnates because the populace refuses to relinquish it to its proper century. “Charleston has more firsts than any city in America” we heard constantly. The city has a law stipulating that nothing new may be built in the original section of Charleston. When a home recently burned the owner had to rebuild it from the rubble and very old brick made many years ago in order that there be nothing new. Back from the harbor boat trip to Fort Sumter we had luncheon at the white Fort Sumter Hotel on the battery front. The fish is excellent. The turnip greens and black-eyed peas served so often and not quite fresh heated buns hardly serve as a good comparison with the best the west hotels have to offer. And perhaps the comparisons are unjust. It seemed that nowhere in the south could we buy that drink so often associated with the south … mint julep. Maybe it too is antebellum like the plantations we were taken to.
But the recipe for Planter’s Punch, which originated in the Planters Hotel (now used as their legitimate theater) is still ingrained in a wood panel at the bar of the hotel… now almost illegible. We walked back to the Francis Marion after the harbor tour. Streets narrow. Houses historic but decaying. Much hand wrought iron work of which Charleston is proud. Much outdoor brass polished daily by the Negroes … take great pride in their shining brass. But houses seemed close … unventilated by privacy from one another … musty with memories of the has-beens who occupied them when they were new and beautiful. Francis Marion, so the legend on one of the hotel walls reads, was the Swamp Fox of the south … a general who fought viciously, and holed in in the swamps or pursued in the swamps as the case demanded.
(Yesterday on arrival I sent telegrams to Dell, A.L., Dorothy and sponsor Soma.) Received telegrams from Soma, Zella, Joyce Failing. Also my birthday present with a call home. I talked with the children, with Marina who had stayed over till Mrs. Bach arrived on the seventh, with Dell. The girls were delighted to talk. Normie however, said, “My mommy (Moner, he says) went away on an airplane and I’m sick.” I couldn’t seem to convince him it was I talking. “If I find your mother what shall I tell her to bring you?” I asked. “A turtle,” he replied solemnly.
This afternoon we were guests of the Russell Nathaniel home, one of the oldest in Charleston, and now the historical society headquarters. Its lovely old oval rooms and once-lush furniture spoke of another era of gingerbread trimmed living. Even the Sevres China with its burnt orange design splashed on the plates without much glimpse of the white underneath still was in the glass and enclosed hutches. It seemed strangely garish and in bad taste. Could anyway but shudder at a long table set with pieces each of which screamed loudly.
We had cocktails and appetizers served in the back lawns. Stopped to admire again on our way out the graceful spiral staircase spinning up three floors. Then back to The Battery where we boarded a boat for dinner at sea. Cruised the harbor for an hour till we were served chicken like I’ve never before tasted. Injected with spices and deep-fried in corn oil. Never, ever have I tasted such a wonderful chicken and my outlook on Southern Food brightened.
Before pilot briefing Ruth Reinhold and I took a walk. Someone pointed out what they thought was a museum. We walked in. A very old unstable looking interior patio with balconied sides, narrow corridors in the building. We wanted to see some of the paintings and asked a uniformed man where they were. “Did you expect to find them here?” he asked. “Isn’t this a museum?” we asked. He was young and had the courage to share this with his colleagues while we were still there. “This is the police department,” he said.
In pilot briefing promptly at nine. The eyes seemed ready to leave the faces of some of the girls as they awaited the announcement of winners. There was no surprise when Fran Bera was listed as having won with highest par. Pauline Glasson was second; since she had told me her plus score, I assumed this might happen. Third place to two of the nicest girls in the race, Gertrude Howard and Barbara Anspaugh who had acquired a Luscombe only two weeks before the race and had no sponsors except their husbands. Howard teaches at Texas A&M and Anspaugh is working on his PhD. They were the only plane with a higher score than ours flying their first TAR. Since several of us had 5 plus scores we assumed we’d be about 10th but with the scores computer to seconds we were 15th among 61 airplanes.
Most heartbreaking was the situation of San Diego nurse Isabelle McCrae and eight-times-a-grandmother Betty McNeill who flew a great race and would have had second place except that a C.A.A. official in Charleston said the air scoop on the front of the airplane made it non-stock and disqualified it. This should’ve been detected by the race C.A.A. official in San Diego before takeoff. (On landing our plane keys were taken away from us in Charleston and the planes impounded again for another three days while checked over.) Both these veteran race pilots sat in the rear of the hall at pilot briefing, tears running down their faces.
After luncheon I took the city tour of Charleston, glad that I had purchased a little set of pickaninny dolls for the girls a day before since Charleston stores close at noon on Wednesdays. We visited some of the lovely old protestant churches with their pinpoint spires that can be seen far out at sea; passed the Catholic cathedral, and visited the old Huguenot church (the only one of its kind in America) at which services, in French, are held once a year. People in the old days came from the islands to the mainland for services, then waited for the tide so they could return to their islands. They bring lunches and meet on the shores to talk and visit … thus the term originated, “I’ll meet you at the turn of the tide.“ Wandered through the ancient cemetery of the church. On to the City Hall in whose small quarters are housed the famous Turnbull painting of Washington (the original) and other portraits of Calhoun, Lee, Moultrie, etc. (None of Lincoln I might add.)
The bus driver pointed with pride to the squares that used to be slave blocks. “That’s where we sold our slaves.” We saw the long arcade that served as marketplace, visited the log cabin store that sells anything you could possibly wish to buy. (Could that bus driver but have seen Farmer’s Market in LA.) He pointed out the spiked wrought iron fences of many homes, the spikes put up during slave uprisings, indicated how when the earthquake almost 100 years ago left many buildings lopsided they were propped up with sidings of what looked like sewer pipe; in the City Hall the 14 councilmen sit on chairs that have been there almost 200 years … not a nail in them, all pegged. Some of the homes were built with pegs, no nails. One is built of marble slab. All need paint and refurbishing.
The streets are narrow, accommodation for one buggy drawn by horse, some still are cobblestoned like some of Boston’s. The great difference between the New England tradition and the tradition of the south is that New England preserves the old while abiding in the new; the south abides in the old preserving only the memories. Maybe this is unfair judgment too since the south is poor moneywise.
“This is our hospital; the medical students can watch operations by TV now, and “continued the voice of the bus guide. I cringed … could that bus driver but take a tour through the UCLA medical center. Could he but take a ride down Wilshire Boulevard. Could he but drive down Sunset Boulevard to the ocean and see what residential magnificence really is. It was impossible to keep from making mental comparisons. And suddenly I felt myself feeling sorry for these people so hidebound by the past; and I hoped he never would see the West, or the great cities of the North. It would destroy the carefully generated self-satisfaction, the centuries old pride. I wondered if he had been in service … he looked old enough to have been in World War II. And how do they acclimate after seeing the rest of the world … or is hometown so deeply embedded it always seems good. I was told that some northern industrialists choose to retire to Charleston and I have no reason to doubt it. If one wanted to be let alone certainly Charleston would be overlooked. Its vegetation is its particular charm for me… Oleander, crêpe myrtle, the tremendous old magnolia trees, the Spanish moss that graces so many trees and is not parasitic, living off the air; the azalea trees. The vegetation has a primeval air about it in some respects. Lovely vegetation.
Back to the hotel in time to get ready for the next cocktail party. (I should say here that before leaving San Diego I had made arrangements to fly back to the west with Ruth Wagner and Hialeah Reilich in the Navion belonging to Ruth who is a Sacramento doctor’s wife.) Ruth is a platinum pretty blonde; Hialeah, tall and dark; both girls whom I’ve met and like before. At the party I met the mayor of the city … a ruddy complected, kindly man who is dying of cancer. I said the nice things about his city that I found I justly could say emphasizing the beautiful trees and flowers.
Captain Richard Schaller who flew the C-47 out, saw me typing my column for Cross Country News earlier in the day in the hotel press room using a Swiss portable loaned to me by a Courier and Inquirer reporter (Campbell). He said, “Gee we can take press people in the Air Force plane without special permission. Want to come back with us?” I toyed with the interesting idea for a while then decided to take my chances with the Navion … since the Air Force still had six days en route time and we’re likely to use it up at every town with an airport between the east and west. As it happened we reached home in the small Navion a whole day before the C-47 pulled into international airport, LA. I did ask, however, if he’d take my luggage back with him in the C-47 so we wouldn’t overload the Navion.
Finally everyone promenaded into the awards banquet room. Fine meal but iced tea was served with it and most of us headed for someplace where we could get a cup of hot coffee right after the banquet. The trophies, cash awards, leg prizes etc. were distributed ceremoniously at the banquet and speeches were kept to a minimum. A white model (foam material model) of a Beechcraft Bonanza with a “6” on the side graced the speakers table… in other words a model of Fran’s winning plane. Fran has become a legend with her winning … this was the fifth time. Hearsay tidbits ran as follows: “I’ll clue you, that girl plans to win the race in every possible type of ship.” “She never keeps her cash award but turns it over to the owner of plane she flies so she can get a new engine since she usually burns one out per race. Not only does she fly a proficiency race but an efficiency race thinning the mixture till it burns the valves out. Gets the airplane a bad name. That’s why airplane manufacturers wouldn’t put up prize money if we ran an efficiency race for all the girls.” “She’s got the know how all right,“ this from Irene Leverton, “I left Jackson in the same type of plane Fran flew and left an hour before she did. She beat me into Charleston by one minute. I swear she flew right through the thunderstorms without reducing the throttle.” Etc. etc. But notable was the fact that none of the conversation was of the sour grapes variety; people like Fran Bera.
Packed my largest bag, gave it to Captain Schaller to haul home for me in the morning, and went to bed with a call to be awakened at 5:30.
Awoke with misgivings … weather-wise. I’d hate to be weathered in here for a whole week while so eager to start home again. Went out to the field anyway after being offered a complimentary breakfast in our rooms … and after leaving a so-long note to sleeping Jan (who will go on to Europe for the summer) as soon as there was a hole in the weather ceiling we took off and broke through it. Hialeah, who used to be a civil engineer draftsman in the LA Department of Water and Power, has an uncanny ability at air navigation. I have to watch the maps pretty closely. She dozes at times in the air but when asked for a position can pinpoint it within a mile on the map. We stopped at Meridian to refuel and learned that two of the girls en route east during the race had landed in a nearby cow pasture after running dangerously low on gas. Were driven into town to a restaurant that had a sign “whites only” on it. Wasted only an hour on the ground and were off again.
“Why can’t we RON at Fort Worth or city sister Dallas, Texas, for the night?” I asked the girls, “I’ve never met Tony Page, editor of the paper I’ve been writing at for four years. She’s on Meacham Field.” Agreeably they spread the maps and we drew a line to Fort Worth a little north of where we had come in the race. And Dallas apparently all it’s rated to be. Beautifully laid out city from the air with lakes etc. … looks new, modern, progressive and outreaching with new areas being developed far out on its perimeter. Landed in the city almost adjoining it, Fort Worth. Big Texans in cowboy hats and boots were lounging around the airport administration building, a large beautiful building. Tony was in her office. She was on the phone in minutes making arrangements. Then into her car for a sightseeing tour of the city, on to the motel where she had obtained a room for us (City Center Motel). We put on fresh clothes and went on to Western Hills Night Club where a single woman pays an initial $2,000 for belonging, and rooms are $50 a night. Beyond a doubt the most fabulously beautiful and big night club I’ve been in barring none … The Mocambo and Ciro’s together could be placed nicely in the one room with slate floors, mahogany paneled walls, and works of fine art along the sides we were ushered into. White leather long couches everywhere … a fountain in the center. Only by a stretch of the imagination does it compare with any night club so-called anywhere. It’s a breed of all its own. Called Western Hills I believe. And then on to the Branding Iron for dinner after cocktails at the previous night club. Tony says there’s much rivalry between Fort Worth and Dallas.
A huge brazier in the center of the dining place burned with hot coals. Small brands were placed around it so you could go up, put your own brand on a steak, and have it done to your liking.
Tony suggested I have a rare delicacy in Texas known as calf fries. On the menu it was expensive. “What is it?” I asked. “Comes from the tenderest part of the male?” She answered. “Like what?” I pursued. “Steer testicles?” she said. I declined the calf fries and chose very carefully from the menu, things with which I was assuredly familiar. We paid for nothing. “This is on Cross Country News,” Tony said. Her birthday is tomorrow.
Seemed strange to waken and have to call a cab to the airport; where was all that race hospitality transportation we were getting so accustomed to? Snatched a ham and egg breakfast and just as I was finishing Ruth remarked, “I told Al I’d get home by Saturday but it looks like we’ll make it today, Friday.” But too late, I’d already eaten the ham before realizing.
Wasted no time getting into the air, and headed for Tucumcari where we stopped to get gas and eat. No eating facilities on field. A fellow loaned us his Ford and I drove it into town and back so we could eat. Took a good look at Tucumcari Mountain where Indian Tucum and his maiden Cari committed suicide after being denied marriage, and where a couple fellows from Los Angeles were killed a couple weeks earlier when they ran into weather and didn’t see the Tucumcari peak, crashing into it. From there on west the thermals created much air turbulence and soon we were yawing, pitching, and rolling all at once; and all three of us trying not to be sick. North Texas terrain nicely checkered into ranches. We bypassed Albuquerque, New Mexico and headed for Prescott, Arizona which is the place Mayetta Behringer and I had to stop almost 10 years ago with prop trouble when we were flying cross country in her Cessna 140.
With headaches and on the edge of airsickness we three crawled out of the Navion at Prescott and were greeted by Mr. Hightower who asked what we were doing flying in 102° weather. Most plane accidents are so-called hot weather accidents when the air is thin and one needs twice the usual runway to take off. He said also that larger planes than ours had taken off on pleasure flights that day and returned because of the turbulence. He suggested we wait over. But after a cold Coke and cold water and dry bakery we felt like going on and getting home. Learning we were returning from the Powder Puff, Hightower said he’s been a race pilot for years, knew Steve Whitman of Oshkosh well, gave us some valuable pointers to remember if we should race again, and took us out to the hangar to let us climb around his newly delivered Piper Comanche, a $17,000 piece of airplane anyone would be happy to hangar in his possession.
Noticed a 180° wind switch just before we took off and had to taxi the length of the strip again. All three of us soon feeling sick again … the constant tossing and buffeting about. We decided something as light as a Cub, Aronica, or Luscombe just couldn’t make it on so rough a day. Finally crossed over the railroad town of Winslow and spotted the famous meteorite crater just beyond it. Took pix of it from the air; and headed on for the Pacific. How wonderful to see familiar landmarks … Lake Arrowhead with the puffs of white (sailboats) on it, Big Bear Lake, Mount Baldy, the Wilson observatory with the nearby forest fires trailing white smoke high into the air (learned afterwards the forest fires were thought to be set by arsonists), and finally over the crest of the mountain range, smog-smitten LA worse in summer than any other time of year.
Smog has dissipated greatly since the banning of backyard incineration and we were happy to learn, after calling Burbank radio that it wasn’t smog so much as fog rolling in from the ocean and backed up against the mountains. They told us to get in fast and land since the fog would soon put all fields on instrument. We did a full throttle race to the field and I remembered to tell Ruth who is unfamiliar with Grand Central, that we have a right hand pattern approach. Three grateful California citizens crawled out of that plane. I had invited the girls earlier to come home with me for the night and continue their course home to Northern California in the morning or when weather permitted. They were anxious to get home to their children too.
Phoned home. Trice answered. I said, “We’re home; have Daddy come to the airport to pick us up.” Trust my Tricie to emotionalize all situations just like her mother. “Are you home? Are you really here in our city? I’m so glad. I’m so happy, Mother. Mother, I love you. Are you really here?” I asked her to call Dell again and she replied, “Oh he can’t come to the phone. The doctor is here and daddy‘s sick in bed.” Marina came to the phone. Mrs. Bach left yesterday and Marina had returned. They both were perfectly wonderful to my children. The kids are crazy about Marina and Normie had begun calling Mrs. Bach “Momma Bach.” Marina said she would come after us except that she couldn’t drive. I went into the flight office and got one of the instructors, Robert Cook, to tote the three of us and our luggage home in his new small foreign car.
Recently, I decided to browse through some historical articles in Flying Magazine. (Thanks to Google Books, all of Flying Magazine’s issues dating back to the 1920s are available for one’s personal exploration here.) I wanted to see not only how Joan Merriam Smith and Jerrie Mock were covered by one of the aviation industry’s leading publications in the 1960s, but how other women pilots were covered as well. It was quite the experience.
Flying Magazine’s 1960s Coverage of Women Pilots
While I had known about the ridiculous feature story written about Joan following her death entitled “The Loser,” which is buried on page 80 of the August 1965 issue, I was shocked to find an editorial in the very same issue about women in aviation from none other than the editor of the magazine himself, Robert B. Parke.
In “The feminine case” on page 28, Parke writes:
“There have always been a good many reasons why women shouldn’t fly and a few reasons why most of them don’t. The reasons are not related. The ‘shouldn’t reasons’ are largely based on man’s shrewd insight into women’s natural shortcomings—their lack of mechanical aptitude, their emotional and irrational behavior in emergencies and their well-known limitation of being able to do only one thing at a time.”
He goes on to explain:
“But a hint of change is in the wind. A tiny ripple is appearing on the vast ocean of consummate diffidence of women toward the airplane … of course the presence of hordes of women in an activity does revolutionize the activity, and this we should be braced for. You can almost certainly expect potted geraniums outside the hangars, curtains and rugs in the pilots’ lounge and clean restrooms. You can look, too, for more tasteful paint schemes on airplanes, fewer skirt-stretching steps and more readable instrumentation. Perhaps there will even be a new phonetic alphabet—Annie, Bertha, Carol.”
On page 30 of this issue, there is a similar article entitled “For Men Only: A Women’s Place is in the Kitchen.” Author Milton W. Horowitz, PhD writes “There are those who look with distaste upon the prospect of women swarming into aviation like lemmings: this professor of psychology, for one.” Ouch. But seriously, you must read the article for yourself to get the full effect.
Then on page 39 of this issue, there is an article entitled “The Invisible 99s” (also by a man named Richard Bach). He writes: “Women are people who seek to clutter the air with tea and talk, using the sky as a sort of highway where you don’t have to signal your turns, and an airplane as a thing wherein this is a knob you push and this little wheel you twist and if you’re lucky and keep your fingers crossed you arrive where you are pointed.”
NOW – if this isn’t the definition of mansplaining then I don’t know what is! Hard to believe that this sentiment was so deeply infused into the mainstream thinking, and that the editor of an industry magazine (marketed as “the world’s most widely read aviation magazine” on their front cover), in the case of Parke, actually held such views. Hearing this perspective, however, does offer an enlightening peek back into the past. It brings to light some of the insidious challenges that Joan and Jerrie faced, and the difficulty it took to not only navigate the world in an airplane without GPS, but an ultimately condescending, unfriendly, and unsupportive network upon which they relied to achieve their respective undertakings.
Joan Merriam Smith Branded as “The Loser”
Taking the above-mentioned coverage into consideration, it is therefore no surprise to find a story like “The Loser” written about Joan. For a woman who became the first to complete Amelia Earhart’s route, the first to fly solo around the equator, the first to complete the longest single solo flight of her time, and the first female to seek out and take off for (but not be the first to complete) a flight around the world solo, all she gets in the end is an unfair commentary from a biased, male, associate editor at Flying Magazine in 1965 to sour her accomplishments. Not to mention coupled with a terribly chosen photo.
In the article, Mr. James Gilbert writes:
“She was a little tornado of a girl who flew alone around the world, and in so doing made the longest solo flight in history. It was for her the fulfillment of a childhood dream of immortality, the achievement of a life-long ambition to finish the unfinished last flight of the girl she had ever idolized—Amelia Earhart. yet the journey was also a fiasco and a defeat, a losing race with another girl, a girl who got home weeks ahead, and who got all the official world records, the handsome gold medals and the lioness’ share of the fame.”
Gilbert goes on to talk about the controversial sanctioning process, commenting that it was probably Joan’s fault as to why she didn’t get the sanction. (Of course in my book, based on my research, I beg to differ.) It’s therefore no surprise that someone like Gilbert would write:
“You might say she hemmed and hawed and procrastinated for so long that someone else beat her to it. Surely the NAA is right here: it’s nice, neat completed application forms that count, rather than vaguely expressed intentions to have a go … all the NAA could do was sit tight and see whose completed application came in first. And bad luck on the loser.”
Gilbert also goes on to share his opinion about how Joan’s way of finding sponsors was wrong. He talked about how the plane she chose was wrong. He talked about how her route was basically, you guessed it, wrong. He talked about how her supporters and advisors were wrong. Of course, this was just an opinion. It was one man’s biased, third person perspective, and an unfair framing of a situation that he had zero involvement with. The biggest tragedy of all was that this article in some ways was the final word on her legacy. And it left a very bad mark. In fact, it was one of the very first articles I received a photocopy of from various archives when I first began my research into Joan’s world flight.
Jerrie Mock Branded as “The Winner” (In a “Race” the Two Women Didn’t Acknowledge as Such)
To compare the coverage Jerrie Mock received in Flying Magazine, it’s easy to feel the sting of what Joan must have felt. In the July 1964 issue, Jerrie was highlighted in a feature story about her world flight entitled “Jerrie Mock: Winner Take All” with a subhead that reads: “blend a diminutive 38-year-old Ohio housewife with an 11-year old single-engine airplane; add courage and determination; stir in a pinch of competition; mix well and presto—7 world records.”
The story includes a picture of Jerrie receiving a medal from President Lyndon B. Johnson. There is hardly any mention of Joan.
Jerrie is also introduced in the publisher’s letter at the opening of the magazine. He writes this about Jerrie:
“At the Wings Club luncheon, Bill Lear was warmly applauded. But the assembled aviation personnel—chief pilots, private pilots and non-pilots alike—saved most of their energy for a well-deserved, five-minute standing ovation for Jerrie Mock, whose total flying time after her flight is still less than 1,000 hours.”
In other parts of the magazine, Jerrie appears in advertisements such as these:
While there is nothing wrong about Jerrie being celebrated and featured for achieving such a fantastic feat, the absence of coverage regarding Joan’s accomplishment is deafening. When comparing the coverage of Joan and Jerrie in Flying Magazine, and taking into the account the general sentiment about women in aviation at the time, I do find one thing a bit odd. Why such celebratory coverage of Jerrie if the men didn’t want women in aviation to be taken too seriously? A closer look at the article reveals something interesting: the main author who wrote the story? Her name was Betty Vail.
On August 18th, 19-year old Zara Rutherford embarked on an around-the-world solo flight, with hopes of becoming the youngest woman to fly around the world solo.
In 2017, Shaesta Waiz became the “youngest woman to fly around the world solo in a single engine aircraft” at the age of 30. Zara is hoping to break her record. However, readers of Fate on a Folded Wing will know that Joan Merriam Smith actually completed a flight at a younger age than Shaesta, who was just 27 when she finished her solo flight around the equator in 1964 without GPS following Earhart’s same route. (Joan flew a twin-engine plane vs. Shaesta’s single engine.)
Zara’s undertaking is aimed at bringing more awareness to both women in aviation and STEM. She is following a western route from Belgium via Greenland through to New York on her 32,000 mile voyage. After that, she’ll fly down to South America, back up through North America and over to Russia, through Asia, Indonesia, the Middle East, Europe, and back to Belgium. She expects that due to potential weather delays and anticipated bureaucratic tape, that her flight will take about three months to complete.
To date there have technically been just 10 women who have completed solo flights around the world. While there were at least two other women who completed solo flights during the Great Depression—before any woman had yet completed a solo flight across the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean—it wasn’t until 1964 that an official solo flight around the world was made by a woman! (Read more about the 10 women who have completed solo flights around the globe here, plus Mary Petre Bruce and Elly Beinhorn who completed unofficial world flights in the 1930s.)
Around-the-World Solo Flights Completed by Women | 1964 – 2017
Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock (1964)
Joan Merraim Smith (1964)
Sheila Scott (1966, 1969, and 1971)
Judith Chisholm (1980)
Gaby Kennard (1989)
Jennifer Murray (2000) *Used helicopter
Polly Vacher (2001, 2004)
CarolAnn Garratt (2003, 2011-12)
Julie Wang (2016)
Shaesta Waiz (2017)
For those interested, you can follow Zara’s journey via her Facebook and Instagram pages. And one thing that’s really cool? You can follow her flight in real-time on her website here. Go Zara, go!
If it wasn’t for a friend who had clued me in last week, I embarrassingly *may* have missed today’s live coverage of the historic Blue Origin space launch featuring the richest man on the planet Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, and 82-year-old Wally Funk.
If you find yourself asking the question “Who is Wally Funk?” – you may not be the only one. If it hadn’t been for my huge interest in all things having to do with women in aviation, I may not have known who Wally Funk was before today, either …
In 2004, the Los Angeles Times published a feature story entitled “The Unlaunchable Wally Funk,” in which the author traced her saga from the early 1960’s until 2004, outlining her achievements in flight, but also ultimately her unfortunate inability to ever make it into space. In covering her achievements following the shutdown of the FLATs program, the author wrote:
She became a flight instructor at Hawthorne Municipal Airport and competed in women’s air races from coast to coast. A three-year around-the-world interlude in a VW camper took her to 59 countries before she ran out of money. Back in L.A., she was hired as a field examiner by the FAA and then an accident investigator by the NTSB–both jobs a first for women, she says. After investigating 450 accidents ranging from a probable mob hit to a fatal crash at a mortuary, she retired in 1985 and went back to teaching.
Funk lectured widely on space and safety. She skydived, bungee-jumped, raced cars, ballooned and, in Wild West costume, competed as “The Taos Kid” in shooting competitions. She entered hoity-toity car shows in a custom-body Rolls-Royce once owned by the Queen Mother. She designed and built her own house in Taos. She appeared on “The Mike Douglas Show” with Billie Jean King (“I did all the talking”) and was featured flying aerobatics in a Stearman biplane in a Merrill Lynch TV spot (“Sure, I take risks for fun. But when it comes to my money, I’m really careful.”). More recently, and for no apparent reason, she popped up on a CD titled “The Flight of Wally Funk,” by the Australian rock band Spiderbait.
But through it all, she never forgot the ride not taken.
Nearly 20 years later though, it finally appears that all of this has now changed, not only in history’s favor but to Jeff Bezos’ credit. Here’s a short video clip of Bezos telling Wally about how she was going to come up to space with him.
And here’s a look at the recent headlines from CBS and Newsweek, to The Atlantic, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, Washington Post, and more:
Who is Wally Funk? Trailblazing aviator becomes oldest person to travel to space at 82 | CBS News (read more)
Who Is Wally Funk? Oldest Blue Origin Passenger Who Outperformed Jeff Bezos | Newsweek (read more)
Guess Who’s Going to Space With Jeff Bezos? Wally Funk has been ready to become an astronaut for six decades. | The Atlantic (read more)
Wally Funk Is Defying Gravity and 60 Years of Exclusion From Space | New York Times (read more)
Wally Funk’s 60-Year Journey Into Space; In the early 1960s, she was one of 13 women who trained to become an astronaut — but it wasn’t until Jeff Bezos brought her on board that she was able to fulfill that dream | Rolling Stone (read more)
Wally Funk Is Going to Space Aboard Jeff Bezos’s Rocket. Here’s Why That Matters | Time Magazine (read more)
In 1961 She Lost Her Chance to go to Space. Today, at 82, She Finally Got Her Shot | Washington Post (read more)
Wally Funk, the ‘heart of this mission,’ finally reaches space at 82 | MSNBC (read more)
Wally Funk fulfills lifelong dream to go to space with Blue Origin flight
The 82-year-old became the oldest person to go to space, six decades after being denied by the US government | The Guardian (read more)
Finally, here is a video in Wally’s own words about what it was like to finally go up into space today:
Today I learned that the Blue Origin feather is a symbol of the perfection of flight. From the first hot air balloonists, to the earliest aviators, to the pioneering test pilots, and beyond, I think everyone can appreciate this moment and how far we’ve come, yet how very far we’ve yet to go. Until then, cheers to Wally and congratulations to all at Blue Origin on a very historic, uplifting, and successful mission!
In 2018, Aimee Bissonette wrote a children’s book about Joan and Jerrie’s simultaneous solo flights around the world entitled Aim for the Skies: Jerrie Mock and Joan Merriam Smith’s Race to Complete Amelia Earhart’s Quest. Aimee is the author of 10 picture books, fiction and nonfiction: she has also worked as an occupational therapist, teacher, writer, lawyer, and small business owner. Based in Minnesota, she has lived in many different places and one of her favorite things to do is travel and experience new cultures.
The book is beautifully illustrated by Doris Ettinger, a watercolor artist who has illustrated over 40 children’s books. According to her website, Doris lives with her artist husband Michael McFadden in an old gristmill near Hampton, New Jersey where they raised their two children. On the first floor of the mill, the artists have their studios. On the third floor Doris teaches members of the Musconetcong Watercolor Group, now in its 12th year. She also teaches workshops at The Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster NJ.
With research institutions across the country now physically re-opening after months of Covid shutdowns, I recently heard back from the Eisenhower Presidential Library about an inquiry I made many months ago. Because this library holds the historical files of Jackie Cochran, I wondered if there might be any info about Joan’s experience of being tested for the First Lady Astronaut Trainees program, a.k.a. Mercury 13.
While I didn’t end up finding any info about Joan’s involvement in the program, I did find a series of letters catalogued between Jackie, Joan, the National Aeronautic Association, and others that shed some additional light on the events that unfolded following Joan’s 1964 world solo flight.
When the package containing the copied materials from archives arrived in the mail, I was excited to see what was inside. Prior to this, the only correspondence I’d seen from Jackie regarding Joan’s flight was a letter that she had written to the NAA on Joan’s behalf courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution’s archives. Individuals involved in the new correspondence that I received include:
Jackie Cochran, famed aviatrix and honorary lifetime president of National Aeronautic Association (NAA)
Floyd Odlum, Jackie’s husband, and one of richest men in the U.S. at the time
Colonel Mitchell Giblo, Executive Director of the NAA
William Ong, President of the NAA
M.J. “Randy” Randleman, Secretary of Contest Board under Mitchell Giblo, NAA
Ruth Deerman, outgoing President of the 99s
Alice Roberts, incoming President of the 99’s
Joan Merriam Smith
John Sarver, Joan’s PR Person
Peg Schroeder, friend of Joan’s and head of “Citizens committee for recognition for Joan Merriam Smith”
Two U.S. congressmen
While reading through these letters, there was a lot to unpack. There’s nothing quite reading actual history vs. someone else’s account of it! I also couldn’t help but think about how much more complicated communication seemed back then having to write formal letters, copy them out in the mail to everyone, and then retain paper copies. Email is so much easier.
Below follows a top-level overview of the correspondence, along with direct links to a couple of these letters for historical value.
May 12, 1964 – Joan becomes first person in history to fly solo around the world at the equator, the first person to complete the longest single solo flight around the world, the first woman to fly a twin-engine aircraft around the world, the first woman to fly the Pacific Ocean from west to east in a twin-engine plane, and the youngest woman to complete a solo flight around the world.
Following Joan’s flight, John Sarver (Joan’s press person) sends out letters to multiple agencies and individuals attempting to find a way to have her flight more formally recognized. In July of 1964 Sarver received a letter from the FAA telling him that there was nothing they could do to help Joan get recognition for her flight.
Joan next reached out to Jackie Cochran directly for help by telegram. (Download telegram)
Jackie’s husband Floyd responded the next day to Joan’s telegram, and he also drafted a response letter for Jackie to send to Joan. In his drafted letter he included a note to Jackie that said: “Maybe a show of interest in Mrs. Smith’s problem along the lines of the attached draft letter would be a good on the record action for you irrespective of results accomplished.” (Download telegram)
Next, Jackie reached out to Colonel Mitchell Giblo, executive director of the NAA for more info, and said she would be in DC soon and would make an appointment before coming to the office.
Jackie received a formal response from the NAA, then sent another letter asking follow-up questions to NAA’s secretary of the contest board, Randy Randleman.
After receiving a response that Jackie felt was sufficient from Col. Giblo with a copy of a letter written from Randleman to Ong, she explained to NAA in another letter that she felt satisfied with the actions taken.
During this time, Jackie received a letter from Joan thanking her for looking into the matter. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2)
On 9/14/64, Jackie wrote a letter to Joan summarizing her findings after inquiring about her world flight with the NAA. Jackie explained to Joan that she understood her disappointment but that there was nothing more that she could do.(Download letter: Page 1, Page 2)
On 9/16/64, Jackie sent Joan another letter acknowledging receipt of her first letter, which she didn’t receive until after her 9/14/64 response.(Download letter)
From here, Joan decided to send Jackie a follow up letter on 9/17/64 explaining what “really” happened, in that she felt there was favoritism. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2)
Jackie’s secretary then responded saying that Jackie was out of the country for a month. (Download letter)
Incidentally, in this very same month of September of 1964, Jackie was featured on the cover of National Aeronautics Magazine, which was a quarterly publication of the National Aeronautic Association, edited by William Ong, with feature stories by Col. Giblo. (View the publication)
After Joan died, a woman by the name of Peg Schroeder reached out on behalf of a citizen’s committee to gain recognition for Joan in the form of a commemorative stamp to celebrate Earhart and Joan’s accomplishments. (Download letter)
Jackie clearly did not like this idea as she wrote a condescending letter back to Peg in July of 1965, in which she said “I think you and those on your committee may be emotionally carried away by the fact that Miss Smith is dead. She was killed in an airplane accident when the wing of her light plane pulled off. Of course this was a structural failure, but whether the plan was structurally weak or had a stress put on it beyond its designed strength, I do not believe, has yet been officially determined.” Jackie copied NAA’s executive director on this letter. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2, Page 3)
Jackie next reached out to the incoming and outgoing presidents of the 99s, she reached out to two congressmen, and also followed up with the NAA.
The NAA (Giblo’s) response to Jackie on 7/22/65 was “congratulations for sending the type of reply that Peg Schroeder deserved.” (Download letter)
After reading all of these letters, my main takeaways were these: 1) If there truly was any favoritism, Jackie was not asking the right questions to NAA 2) What would Jackie have gained anyway from telling the NAA that they were wrong in how they handled the sanction process between Joan and Jerrie? 3) What reason would there have been for Jackie to have pressed the issue considering she had never even met Joan and also had close ties to NAA leadership? 4) Since Jackie was a close friend of Earhart’s, and together she and Earhart were among the most accomplished women in aviation history, it seemed to me that asking for her support to create a “Joan Merriam Smith-Amelia Earhart Aviation Day” after Joan’s death was a bad idea. The reasoning is evident in her July 1965 letter, as Jackie felt Joan’s supporters were somehow trying to equalize Joan and Amelia when all they were trying to do was find a creative way to get Joan some recognition.
In conclusion, I felt that Joan had noble intentions, and Jackie intended to help her so long as it was convenient to do so, but that’s about the extent of what could be expected given her stature and her political ties. If you’ve followed along this far, would love to hear your thoughts!
If there’s one thing I have learned in this research, it’s that most information about Joan is buried in historical archives such as this and not easily findable. Needless to say, the treasure hunt continues!
Each and every day, countless files from around the globe are newly digitized, catalogued, uploaded, organized, shared, or otherwise published to the web. Take for example the online newspaper archive services. Even though the Newspapers.com database (the largest online newspaper archive) currently features 20,700 newspapers from the 1700s–2000s, it is still adding millions of new pages to its archive every month! Similarly, NewspaperArchive.com is currently adding one newspaper page every second, which equates to over 80,000 images a day or 2.5 million pages per month! With this in mind, every now and then I like to search around and see what new items have popped up.
Recently I was able to locate some new articles I’d never seen before about Trixie, related to her work as a journalist. I was delighted to find an October 17, 1943 Milwaukee Journal article entitled “The Adventures of WTMJ’s Trixie,” where the writer provided an overview of a day in the life of Trixie as Wisconsin’s first female radio news writer.
I also learned that Trixie traveled to Hollywood in the 1940s to personally invite movie stars to Milwaukee’s 1946 100th birthday “Centurama” celebration (see article “Throngs Turn Out for ‘Two Guys’ – Stars Arrive for Fliers Meet.”) While on the Warner Bros. lot, she apparently rode around on the handlebars of Bob Hope’s bicycle.
According to the Milwaukee County Historical Society, the Milwaukee Centurama was comprised primarily of a 31-day festival near the current site of the War Memorial on the lakefront. Concerts, food and entertainment made the festival one of Milwaukee’s most memorable.
During this celebration, I also learned that Trixie helped organize a private gathering for 300 private pilots with special guest Tyrone Power (see article “Private Fliers Get Together, 300 at Gathering“). Power was a big movie star in the Golden Age of Hollywood. From the 1930s to the 1950s, he appeared in dozens of films, according to Wikipedia, and was often cast in “swashbuckler roles or romantic leads.” From the above-referenced article, he is quoted as saying: “I’m delighted to be here. I want to thank Trixie Gehrung for inviting me. She’s the reason I’m here tonight.”
For the historical value, below follows the full text of the article about Trixie’s work as a radio news writer. I felt this article not only provided a good description of Trixie’s character, but it also gave a fascinating historical look into the history of journalism and the heyday of radio news.
The Adventure’s of WTMJ’s Trixie by Bea J. Pepan Milwaukee Journal | 10/17/47
“Just back from a trip to New York, Beatrice “Trixie” Gehrung, woman news writer at Radio City, is still quietly glowing over the part she played in a television experiment at NBC‘s Radio City.
As the story goes, Trixie was touring the NBC studios, comparing them mentally with Milwaukee’s own Radio City and enjoying her post man’s holiday immensely.
Her tour party came to a studio where a demonstration of television operation had been scheduled. But at the 11th hour a live subject was lacking. Miss Gehrung, with her televisable black and white dress, be so kind as to sit in? Without hesitation, or even a moment to experience the qualms of stage fright, Trixie acquiesced. Her directions were to talk about anything she desired for six minutes.
She was placed before a backdrop of forest scenery, facing one wall on which was placed a small Televisor, comparable to the lens of the camera. Flooding the room and the subject were blinding lights, as on a movie set. Add a signal chicks he began to speak about Milwaukee’s Radio City. From the studio in which she stood, her picture was flashed upon a screen in front of the audience in the adjoining room, just as slides are flashed on any screen. And sitting in the world’s most famous radio center, the party saw and heard a lecture on the Milwaukee facilities of WTMJ, 1000 miles away.
Unusual experiences seem to be Trixie’s lot in life. And traveling? She’s covered a godly mileage and her 20 odd years, living in big towns and small from Coast to Coast. Born in Denver, Colorado, she found herself in Tampa, Florida, at the age of two, and shortly thereafter the family moved to Hollywood. Her father’s profession, acting, accounts for the steady changes in scenes. On the screen he was known as Gene Gehrung; on the stage he was known as Judd Morgan.
Misfortune over took the family in California – the death of Trixie‘s mother. So from the West Coast Trixie and her brother came to the middle west, to Oshkosh, where they went to school. Trixie spent two years in Oshkosh state teachers, but got her degree at Wisconsin University in Madison.
Ambitions? Trixie had many at different stages of her youth, but finally settled on journalism. And she made up her mind to combine newspaper work with radio if possible.
With this in mind she set out for Tomahawk, Wisconsin. After graduation from Wisconsin, she picked up all around newspaper experience editing the Tomahawk leader. Then Trixie took a job as announcer and news writer for station WSAU, Wausau, Wisconsin. Still climbing the ladder she moved onto Radio City, Becoming WTMJ’s first woman news writer.
Here is the radio news riders daily routine: Trixie’s day starts at 5 AM, continuing through until 2 PM, which means rolling out at 4:30 AM daily, dressing in 10 minutes flat, whizzing through breakfast, mounting her bicycle and arriving at Radio City at 5 o’clock promptly. Bicycling in Trixie’s case is not only a convenience but a necessity. Bus service has a tendency to be erratic at that hour.
Trixie’s first duty each morning is to clear the teletype machines of all associated press copy sorting it in piles on her desk according to Washington news, London news, War base news, news from Southwest Pacific, miscellaneous matters, human interest stories, feature stories, local news, etc. That takes about half an hour. As she sorts all this she’s planning her first broadcast, five minutes long, at 6:05 AM. A sustaining program, meaning a broadcast without commercial announcements, generally takes about 75 lines. Sponsored news broadcasts take less depending upon how much time is given over to “plugs.”
All copy news writers hand to announcers must be practically letter perfect. Each WTMJ-W55M announcer spiels at a different rate of speed. Don Stanley usually covers about 55 lines of copy in five minutes. Bob Shannon takes about 48. Words and sentences for news broadcasts must be brief and concise, which naturally throws out those lovely nine and 10 letter words like “diaphanous,” which look good in print but are devilish pitfalls for fluffs.
So it goes throughout the day, the machines pounding out a study ream of AP copy and Trixie writing news broadcasts for 6:30, 7, 7:30, 7:55, etc. … until 2 o’clock, when Jack Kruger takes over.
Trixie says her work doesn’t get dull. She’ll never forget the day when, wearing a very precarious pair of French sandals, she tore into the studio where one of the announcers was on the air awaiting the late baseball scores she was carrying. Trixie skated and fell just inside the door and it banged behind her. Its incidents like these that can start an announcer off on a laughing jag with disastrous results. Trixie hates to recall the moments she spent sitting on that studio floor, trying desperately to regain her composure and stifle the laughter welling within her.”
Recently I came across a couple of old newspaper articles documenting the “feud” between Joan and Jerrie following their respective world flights. Because I had not come across these articles before, I thought it would be fun to share them here for anyone interested. (Links to articles follow below.) Reading the full text offers an interesting glimpse into the past.
Article #1 – Jerrie Calls Joan a “Poor Loser,” Wants Guam to Oakland Race Pacific Stars and Stripes | May 16, 1964 (Note: same text with different headline also ran in the Pasadena Independent on same date.)
The growing feud between America’s two long-distance women pilots leaped into the open Thursday when Mrs. Jerrie Mock charged Mrs. Joan Merriam Smith as “a poor loser.”
Mrs. Mock became the first woman to fly solo around the world April 17 when she landed her single-engine plane here to end a 29-day flight. Mrs. Smith, who left Oakland, Cal., several days before Mrs. Mock left Columbus on her flight, arrived back in California Wednesday in her twin-engined plane.
Article #2 – Aviatrixes Fly at Each Other in World Hops Long Beach Press-Telegram | May 15, 1964
A feud which had been smoldering for weeks between Long Beach’s Joan Merriam Smith and Mrs. Jerrie Mock of Columbus, Ohio, who both recently completed solo global flights, broke into the open Thursday.
“I think she’s a poor loser,” Mrs. Mock charged in a Columbus interview.
“That’s the most ridiculous statement I have ever heard from a licensed pilot,” Joan snapped back.
Mrs. Mock’s ire apparently had been raised by a comment made by the Long Beach pilot on her arrival at Oakland to complete her flight.
Joan was asked if she considered herself the first or second woman to fly alone around the world.
“I believe if you check any almanac it will say the distance around the world is 25,000 miles,” she answered.
Mrs. Mock flew a 22,800-mile distance to back up her claim. Joan’s route, which followed that planned by Amelia Earhart in 1937, covered 27,750 miles.
Ten years before Joan Merriam Smith and Jerrie Mock successfully completed their solo flights around the world, Dianna Converse Cyrus Bixby planned to become the first woman to complete an official solo flight around the globe. While I had heard of Dianna and knew a little bit about her, it wasn’t until recently that I learned a whole lot more.
While looking for articles that Trixie had written about other female pilots, I came across this gem from a March 1954 edition of The Milwaukee Journal about none other than Dianna Bixby! In the article entitled “Young Mother of 2 Ready to Try to Fly Alone Around the World,” Trixie interviews 31-year old Bixby and reports on her plans to fly around the world in a De Haviland Mosquito Bomber. Back in 1954, no woman had yet completed an official solo flight around the globe.
While there were at least two women who had completed solo flights around the world prior to 1954, neither flight was considered official. For example, both Mary Petre Bruce and Elly Beinhorn flew around the world in 1930 and 1931, respectively. In both cases, their planes had to be shipped across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Dianna was an accomplished pilot with some 5,000 hours of flight time accumulated by age 31. In 1954, she flew produce 3-4 times per week in-between the United States and Mexico. She also flew passengers around the western half of the United States for the U.S. Forest Service. And, she also flew DC-3s for the movie industry, accumulating some 4,000 hours alone as a DC-3 (camera) pilot.
Standing at just 5 foot 2, Dianna’s personality was described as spunky; she was referred to as a “pretty pixie” with an infectious smile. As a child she rode horses bare back in the circus, accumulating a room full of trophies earned through horsemanship. She studied soprano singing and acted in Santa Barbara, California-based theater groups; she also played violin.
Dianna had a famous grandmother named Mary Parker Converse, who was the first woman to be commissioned by the United States Merchant Marine. (Click here to read “Running over the waves: Mary Parker Converse” from the Boston, MA website Wicked Local, which offers a wonderful summary about Mary’s life and accomplishments.) With a grandmother like Mary, there’s no doubt that Dianna gleaned much wisdom and inspiration from her. From the above-referenced article, the author writes this about Mary:
No stranger to tragedy, Dianna lost her first husband Capt. John Volney Cyrus in 1945 when his plane was shot down during the Battle of the Bulge. According to the book Soaring Skyward by Claudine Bennett, Dianna accepted John’s proposal of marriage on the condition that he would teach her to fly. Dianna would continue flying following her husband’s death. Shortly after the loss of her husband, her mother passed away. While flying air freight in 1948, she met and married Robert Bixby, a wartime Air Transport Command pilot. Together they had two children. Her first born, Lillian, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
Dianna’s World Flight Attempts
After the loss of her first husband, Dianna set her sights on becoming the first woman to circle the globe. Seeking out Paul Mantz (who had been Earhart’s technical advisor) for assistance, she got to work and in 1947 she set her first air record, which was a speed record between Denver and Burbank of 2 hours, 19 minutes, and 20 seconds. With Mantz’s prompting, she entered the Cleveland to Los Angeles Bendix Air Race. While she didn’t win the race, she was one of only two women who entered.
In 1950, Dianna and her husband Robert attempted a world flight, but their right engine blew a gasket near Calcutta. Due to the need for major repairs, they were unable to continue. Robert next agreed to let her make the attempt by herself since no one else had yet completed the record. However, it would take them some time to raise the money. The cost of such a flight to Dianna (minus sponsorships, presumably) was estimated to be around $17,000 for fuel plus a $2,500 fee to the aeronautical association, or $190,000 in 2021 dollars. In the early 1950’s, she underwent specialized high altitude training at Lockheed Aviation in Burbank, CA.
Dianna worked long and hard hours in preparation for her world flight attempts. Together with her husband, she ran a business transporting produce known as Bixby’s Airborne Products. It is of interest to note here that Jack Smith, Joan Merriam Smith’s husband, worked for the Bixby’s. A normal day for Dianna would begin at 5 am. After leaving her children in the care of a nurse, she would set off for flying until at least 4:30 p.m.. She is quoted as saying: “In aviation, you’re either in it 24 hours a day or not at all.”
Dianna’s planned route for her 1954 attempt was 20,525 miles, beginning in San Francisco, continuing on to Newark, followed by a 3,642-mile leg over to Paris, then Bashra (Iraq), Karachi, Calcutta, Tokyo, Midway Island, and back to San Francisco. On April 3, 1954 (just a few days after Trixie’s article was published) she was set to make the journey, but power plant troubles with her plane in addition to the prospect of bad weather forced her to cancel. She was determined to try again.
In the runup to her next world flight attempt, tragedy again struck when Dianna ran out of gas in inclement weather en route to Mexico. Less than a year following her interview with Trixie, Dianna crashed into the ocean and died. A January 5, 1955 summary from the Pomona Progress Bulletin reads as follows:
Even though Dianna was not able to achieve her dream of becoming the first woman to circle the globe as a solo flier, her efforts were not lost. She was a true pioneer: focused, goal-oriented, and willing to take great risks to achieve her dreams. “The problem human beings face is not that we aim too high and fail, but that we aim too low and succeed.” — Michelangelo