In 1934 at the young age of 28, Louise McPhetridge von Thaden was respected nationwide as one of America’s best female flyers. In the midst of the Great Depression she had set her sights on winning the MacRobertson International Trophy Race to be flown from London, England, to Melbourne, Australia. First prize was a whopping $50,000, but Louise lacked an airplane suitable for such a demanding mission.
She soon heard from Walter H. Beech, her long-time friend and mentor in the aviation business. He offered to modify the sole Model A17FS cabin biplane then under construction at the Beech Aircraft Company in Wichita. Powered by a massive, nine-cylinder Wright SR-1820F3 static, air-cooled radial engine rated at 710 horsepower, the A17FS would be capable of speeds approaching 200 mph and could fly up to 1,600 miles nonstop.
Covering a distance of more than 12,000 miles, the MacRobertson competition would begin from Croydon Airport in London, proceed east across the Belgian countryside before traversing Germany, Austria and Hungary enroute to Bucharest, then Baghdad onward across Persia to India. Next came Bangkok, the Bay of Bengal and overflying the treacherous, impenetrable jungles of Burma to Siam. Singapore was the next destination followed by Java and crossing the Timor Sea before reaching Darwin, Australia, then on to the finish line at Melbourne.
Louise would be accompanied by her husband Herbert von Thaden, who would act as co-pilot and mechanic. By mid-September, the mighty A17FS was ready for its first flight, but with only weeks remaining before the race and with the official deadline for entry looming before her, Louise realized the project was woefully short of funding. In addition to the airplane’s price tag of $25,000, Thaden estimated that she would need more than $8,000 to cover the cost of logistics to keep the bullish Beechcraft in the race from one fuel stop to the next. Despite making vigorous attempts to raise money, all she received were promises that never materialized.
As the official deadline for entries approached, Louise was forced to accept defeat. Her hopes of winning the great race were dashed to the ground along with her desire to bring Wichita a fresh round of victory and fame. On September 21 Thaden sent an official notice of withdrawal to the Royal Aero Club. In her memoirs recounting her flying career titled “High, Wide and Frightened,” Louise confessed that, “I was secretly glad we didn’t go. It was without question a fool-hardy enterprise and a dangerous one. Once begun, I had not the courage to back out.”(1)
Louise Thaden’s laurels included winning the first Women’s Air Derby in 1929. In 1932 she and Frances Marsalis set an endurance record flying at Curtiss “Robin,” and in 1936 Louise and Blance Noyes won the prestigious Bendix Cross-Country Race flying a nearly stock Beechcraft C17R. By 1942 Thaden had logged more than 1,600 hours in the air.
As for the A17FS, it was completed and underwent a series of flight tests before being parked in a corner of the factory where it languished, unsold, until the Department of Commerce bought the biplane specifically to familiarize its aviation inspectors with high-performance aircraft. It was later returned to Beech Aircraft Company and disappeared.
1. Pilots C.W.A. Scott and Tom Campbell Black won the MacRobertson race flying a twin-engine deHavilland DH-88 “Comet.” They completed the grueling, long-distance aerial trek in just under 71 hours flying time.