Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied the Odds and Made Aviation History
© 2018 Keith O’Brien
The subtitle is a bit of an oversell, but Fly Girls honors five pioneers of aviation, most of whom died while trying to push the envelope. Amelia Earhart is the only one of their number who has any name recognition today, disappearing as she did while trying to accomplish the first trans-pacific solo flight. She’d previously been the first to fly solo from the United States to Hawaii, as well as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Judging by her accomplishments, Earhart is in a class by herself here, but I’m tempted to agree with one of the other featured fliers here, Louise Thaden, who responded to someone asking her how she won the 5th National Air Race by stating it was 25% skill, 25% the airplane, and 50% luck. Early aviation was a lethal enthusiasm, practiced with evolving tools and planes composed with canvas wings. When things went wrong — and flying planes for hours at a time meant something was bound to — survival came down to circumstance. Sometimes a catastrophe could be survived, but sometimes there was nothing but to accept rapidly-hurtling fate. No one in this book is ever far from death; Earhart, for instance, was nearly sucked out of her aircraft during the same race that Thaden won.
Earhart’s triumphs could have belonged to other women, like Ruth Nichols: she refused to give up trying to cross the Atlantic, even after she crashed two planes within a span of four months. A broken back aside, she was determined to try it again — only to have Earhart beat her to it. Another accomplishment of the women here — who were friends and competitors simultaneously — was organizing the International Organization of Women Pilots, more popularly known as “The Ninety-Nines” because 99 women attended the first full meeting thereof. The Ninety-Nines organized in response to the discriminatory policies adopted by air race organizations to keep women out of the racing. The exact kinds of accidents that downed fantastically gifted fliers like Florence Klingensmith occurred to male fliers, but no one demeaned the talent of the male deceased or questioned their mental state at the time. Flying was inherently dangerous, but women, the Ninety-Nines protested, should have the right to accept that danger, and to try for the glory that would be theirs if they were successful.
As much as I enjoyed this look into aviation history, it does not live up to its title. The subjects were all outstandingly courageous and talented, moreso for continuing to seek their passion despite little support from outside, save for businessmen interested in gaining advertising value by sponsoring the odd attempt to across the Atlantic or set a new endurance record. But if this is a book about early women aviation pioneers, why is someone like Bessie Coleman completely absent, not so much as mentioned? Unable to take pilot training in the US because of her race, Coleman learned French and traveled to Paris to learn to fly, an incredible demonstration of doggedness that surely belongs here. I think Fly Girls is therefore more accurately regarded as a book about the women who formed the Ninety-Nines, culminating in their successful re-entry into national air races and Thaden’s victory. They were an impressive group of women who refused to quit, and I’m glad their story is being shared decades after the last of them has left us.