Famous high-flying female
Phoebe Omlie and the Velie Monocoupe took to the skies
Remember Amelia Earhart? Well, her fellow female pilot Phoebe Fairgrave
Omlie (1902-1975) flew Velie Monocoupe planes in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Actually, "flew" is a
rather tame word for Omlie’s activities. She raced and set records, performing stunts
and gaining fame in the aviation industry.
Born in 1902 in Des Moines, Iowa, Phoebe became
fascinated with parachute jumping at an early age. In fact, she financed her early passion
for flying by performing wing-walking feats and by stunt flying for the "Perils of
Pauline" motion pictures.
She married her instructor, Vernon Omlie, and
together they set out to take aviation beyond entertainment to a higher level of
respectability. They were the first to demonstrate the nonmilitary value of airplanes by
flying mercy missions during forest fire or flood emergencies and serving as fire
spotters. Based in Memphis, Tennessee, they also operated the first airport in the state
and one of the nation’s first flying schools.
addition to all the "firsts" she won in numerous flying competitions, Omlie was
the first woman to earn a federal pilot’s license and the first to receive an
aircraft mechanic’s license.
She went on to win numerous
races against male pilots and later joined other pioneering female pilots, including
Amelia Earhart, in an organization called the "Ninety Nines."
The group was formed following the Women’s
Air Derby in 1929. Will Rogers noted that their female genes compelled each racer to take
one last glance at her compact, along with a dab of powder on her nose and succinctly
announced, "It looks like a powder puff derby to me!"
Nineteen women pilots raced from Santa Monica,
California to Cleveland, Ohio. Before the race, Phoebe Omlie had parked her airplane in a
field near the Santa Monica airport but she was hauled off to jail by the sheriff who
thought she must be a dope smuggler!
The female pilots’ arrival in Cleveland was met with a huge crowd of
fans and media coverage. Upon landing, several top female pilots gathered under the
grandstand and discussed the possibility of forming an organization for women pilots.
On November 2, 1929, the group met to launch
their organization. Naming it proved difficult until someone suggested they use the number
of charter members. At first, that was 86 so it was called the "Eighty Sixes"
but the group grew and was temporarily named the "Ninety-Sevens" before it
settled on the "Ninety-Nines." By 1931, the Ninety Nines elected Earhart as the
first president. Today the group contains more than 6,500 members from 35 countries!
After her success in the 1929 Powder Puff Derby,
Omlie was asked by Franklin Delano Roosevelt if she would fly him around the country in
his campaign for president. She agreed and flew him from town to town on campaign stops.
When he won the election, he invited her to Washington to
develop pilot programs, including her concept of "airmarking," which would help
pilots find their way. The plan involved painting the name of the town on the top of a
building. With 12-foot high letters, the town’s name could be seen by pilots from as
far up as 3,000 feet. So when you see an airport hangar or other large building with the
town’s name painted on the roof, you can thank Phoebe Omlie for that!
And after her husband’s death, she
successfully campaigned for taxation reform that would return aviation taxes for aviation
use and for the establishment of state-sponsored schools to train civilian pilots. She
also developed pilot training programs and was an advocate for aircraft safety.
*NOTE: Some information
in this article comes from Women’s History magazine, Spring-Summer 1996
Oh, to fly
A print from a "Women
With Wings" series in 1968 features Phoebe Omlie with the title of "Woman
Competes in First Air Tour."
The caption says: "Phoebe Omlie flew Monocoupe No. 26 in the first
National Reliability Air Tour in 1928, being the only woman contestant. In 1930, in
another Monocoupe, she triumphed over all male competitors, winning the Reliability Trophy
in the second All-Indiana Air Tour."
information about female flyers, go to:
Amelia Earhart museum
Text› © 2001 Brenda Kruse.