The time: August 1929. The place: Travel Air factory in Wichita, Kansas. The occasion: Women’s Air Derby. The photographer posed three ladies with a Type B4000 Travel Air biplane shortly before the race. The competition between female aviators covered 2,800 miles from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio. It would be a grueling test of both the women’s flying skills and the reliability of their flying machines, requiring sound airmanship as well as navigational skill during the week-long cross-country dash.
By comparison with Louise, who had been flying since 1927, her close friend Blanche was relatively inexperienced, having earned her pilot license earlier in 1929. Her husband, Dewey Noyes, was a transport pilot and had taught his wife to fly. As for Louise, her husband, Herbert von Thaden, was an airplane designer who was held in high regard by his counterparts.
The Travel Air factory built five biplanes for the competition and all were equipped with Wright Aeronautical air-cooled, static radial engines. Of those five airplanes, Louise and her Type D4000 placed first and Blanche managed a respectable fourth place finish. Two other airplanes, one flown by “Pancho” Barnes and the other by Marvel Crosson, failed to finish the race because of damage and a fatal crash, respectively.
In 1936 Louise and Blanche would team up to compete in the coast-to-coast Bendix Cross-Country Race from New York City to Los Angeles, flying an unmodified Beechcraft C17R. The duo won easily, beating all the male pilots and demonstrating beyond doubt that women could fly and win against the best men in the air racing business.
The photograph is one of many from the estate of Ralph Nordberg. He was the chief of public relations and advertising for the Travel Air Company in 1929 and did much to publicize Mrs. von Thaden’s hard-earned victory in the Derby.
Candid photographs such as this one provide a momentary glimpse into the lives of female flyers. Although by the end of the “Roarin’ Twenties” they had clearly established their equality with pilots of the opposite sex, their struggle for equality among a male-dominated industry was just getting started.