As a twelve-year-old, Bobbi Trout decided she wanted to fly. Outside of girls’ adventure novels, there weren’t many models for a schoolgirl who wanted to be a pilot. Journalist and photographer Harriet Quimby received her pilot’s license in 1911, becoming the first American woman to do so. Betty Scott had received lessons from Glenn Curtiss, become a stunt pilot, and worked as a test pilot for Glenn Martin. But when the first Women’s Air Derby, memorably dubbed the Powder Puff Derby by Will Rogers, put out the call for contestants, only forty women qualified. One of them was Bobbi Trout, who had earned her license in 1928. Nineteen women took part in the race, which began in Los Angeles, looped up through Washington State, and ended in Cleveland. Louise Thaden won the race, with Gladys O’Donnell and Amelia Earhart finishing second and third. Mechanical troubles had knocked Trout out of the running, but she soldiered on and was one of the fourteen pilots to finish. Half a million people paid to see the Derby’s finish in Cleveland. It was a glamorous life, being an aviatrix. Trout, like most of the Powder Puff Derby contestants, was a charter member of the Ninety-Nines, the women pilot’s association founded in 1929. Amelia Earhart was the organization’s first president, and had first been thrust into her celebrity not as a pilot but a passenger. Her first trans-Atlantic flight, which made her the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, was conceived as a publicity stunt by publisher George Putnam, whom Earhart would later marry. She was apparently distressed that the pilots, Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon, were largely ignored while she was catapulted into fame; Putnam’s masterful publicity efforts made Earhart one of the most recognizable women outside of Hollywood and the only one of the Ninety-Nines whose exploits are still popularly remembered.
But others of the Ninety-Nines who had competed in the Women’s Air Derby were legitimately famous. Inside Hollywood, the heiress and stunt pilot Pancho Barnes palled around with the likes of Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn. When King Carol of Rumania presented Bobbi Trout, Amelia Earhart, and Charles Lindbergh with an "Aviation Gold Cross" in 1933, Barnes threw Trout a party and got Louis B. Mayer and some of his studio’s stars to attend. Elinor Smith‘s stunts — most famously, flying under the Brooklyn Bridge — made her a nationwide celebrity even before she and Trout went back and forth as owners of the endurance flight. The two eventually teamed up to set the joint women’s endurance record, which Trout would eventually break on a flight with starlet Edna Mae Cooper. Trout and Cooper, who appeared in a handful of movies before the Depression (and had a bit part in The Ten Commandments), had been hired explicitly for the publicity value they would bring. Actress Ruth Elder had attempted the first trans-Atlantic flight by a woman at least in part to bolster her fame as an actress. Three hundred miles short of England, the plane crashed; Elder and her copilot were rescued and eventually received a tickertape parade. Chubbie Miller found the flip side of fame; she, her husband, and her lover Bill Lancaster were involved in a sensational murder trial.
But "aviation pioneer" was a risky profession for both men and women. Harriet Quimby, America’s first licensed woman pilot and the first woman to pilot a plane across the English Channel, died in an air show crash in 1912, less than a year after she received her license. Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly on a trans-Atlantic flight, the first woman to pilot a trans-Atlantic flight, and holder of women’s speed and altitude records, was famously lost in the South Pacific in 1931. Despite speculation and investigation, exactly what happened to Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, may never be known. The splendidly-named Marvel Cronsson was the first female bush pilot in Alaska and held a women’s altitude record; often seen travelling with her parrot, Dick, she was one of the famous famous aviatrices of the Twenties. Crosson’s death in a crash during the Powder Puff Derby prompted millionaire oilman, Erle Haliburton, owner of SAFEway Airlines and a leader of Tulsa’s aviation industry, to pronounce that women had conclusively demonstrated that they were unfit to fly.
Bobbi Trout died last week at age 97. In 1999, her Federation Aeronautic Internationale pilot’s license (#7027, certified by Orville Wright), was launched into space, carried in the personal preference kit of Air Force test pilot Col. Eileen Collins, the first woman shuttle commander.