Marvel Wynant Crosson was favored to win the 1929 National Women’s Air Derby in August 1929, but died when her Travel Air mysteriously crashed in Arizona.
In August 1929 women were included for the first time in competitive events held as part of the annual National Air Races (NAR). At that time there were many female fliers whose names had become well known, including Amelia Earhart, Louise McPhetridge von Thaden, Bobbi Trout, Ruth Elder, Ruth Nichols, “Pancho” Barnes and Marvel Crosson, to name only a few.
A cross-country competition for women pilots was sponsored by the National Exchange Club and carefully organized under the direction of NAR’s chief, Cliff Henderson. The National Exchange Club of Wichita and the Steffen Ice Cream Company announced their support of the race by taking out a full-page advertisement that proclaimed, “The object of this race is to stimulate interest in aviation, to aid long-distance flying and to further the Exchange Club’s program of establishing airport and air markers is being fulfilled. Wichita welcomes you, [ladies] of the Air Derby and extends to you the keys of the city. Wichita has 113,000 hearts and every one beats for aviation.”
The route would cover more than 2,700 miles in nine days, beginning at Clover Field in Santa Monica, California, and ending at the site of the week-long NAR in Cleveland, Ohio. Wichita, Kansas, was prominently represented in the Air Derby by the Travel Air Company. Its president, Walter H. Beech, had authorized construction of five biplanes built specifically for the event, including a small, custom-built, single-seat ship for Marvel Crosson.1 She was the first to register for the race and was issued Race Number 1.
Her biplane was powered by a seven-cylinder, Wright Aeronautical J6-7 static, air-cooled radial engine rated at 240 horsepower, and could attain a maximum speed approaching 150 mph. In addition, Crosson’s machine featured a narrow fuselage and was smaller overall than its Type D4000 and B9-4000 sister ships, and all of the Travel Air entries were equipped with “Speed Wings” that reduced aerodynamic drag and allowed faster speeds.
Marvel’s speedster and the other four Travel Air biplanes would compete in a division for engines featuring up to 800 cubic inches of displacement (CID). A second division was created for engines of 510 CID or less that powered smaller, lightweight aircraft competing in the race. When the event began on August 18, 19 women took off on the first leg of the course that ended in San Bernardino, California. Marvel Crosson had been the first to depart Clover Field that day and was confident that her Travel Air could lead the field into Cleveland nine days later, but only if she could navigate the course accurately and be spared any serious mechanical problems.
Crosson was born on April 27, 1904, at Warsaw, Indiana. Her older brother, Joseph, was an early aviation enthusiast and ignited Marvel’s interest in flying at an early age. Together, they rebuilt a war-surplus Curtiss “Jenny” and both soloed in 1923. By 1925 the duo was flying in Alaska carrying passengers and cargo to remote areas that could be reached by air far more quickly than by dog sled or boat. After returning to the “Lower 48,” Marvel became one of the more popular and well-known female fliers in the West, and during the past six years had gained significant experience in the air compared to some of her competitors. For example, in June 1928 she set a new world altitude record for women aviators, reaching more than 23,000 feet.
During the second day of the Air Derby, Miss Crosson took off for the next scheduled stop at Yuma, Arizona. Earlier that year she had flown the entire course from California to Ohio in a Travel Air to familiarize herself with every aspect of the route. When she failed to arrive after the other women had landed, some began to fear the worst had happened. Search parties were soon dispatched but found nothing. Ranchers reported that they had seen an airplane dive into a thick grove of cottonwood trees a short distance from the Gila River near Welton, Arizona.
Details of exactly what happened to Crosson and her Travel Air remain unknown to this day, but carbon monoxide poisoning was high on the list of possible causes. A few days later when fellow flier Louise Thaden landed at Wichita, she was suffering from inhalation of exhaust gases from the Type D4000’s Wright J5 engine. Walter Beech quickly arranged for a tube to be installed that routed fresh air directly into the cockpit.
Crosson’s body was eventually located along with the wreck of the Travel Air. Her body was found near the biplane and the parachute she wore was still packed, giving rise to the theory that she was either forced to jump from the ship at too low an altitude to deploy the parachute, or she was thrown clear of the airplane after it crashed. Marvel was the only pilot killed during the race.
She was buried on August 23 in San Diego, California. The presiding pastor, Reverend Frank Linder, commented that, “Not long ago she wrote a letter to the mother of a friend who had died in a plane crash. In this letter she stated that every pilot would prefer to “go out” in a plane rather than suffer a lingering death.” Louise Thaden, who won the Air Derby’s “Heavy Division” in her Type D4000, later wrote that, “There is one bit of pleasure I will get out of winning. I’ll now be able to make good my promise that I have won the cup for Marvel Crosson, and it will be inscribed with her name and turned over to her family.”
Despite Crosson’s untimely death at the young age of 25, Wichita, and in particular the Travel Air Company, had gained increased national recognition as a major contributor to the advance of aviation in the late 1920s. The National Women’s Air Derby had clearly demonstrated that female pilots were the equal of their male counterparts and, perhaps more importantly, served to open the door to more opportunities for women in aviation.
- The exact designation of Crosson’s Travel Air is uncertain but it may have been a variation of the “Bug,” – the smallest biplane built by the company. Some sources claim it was a “Type D2000” and others that it was a Type B11D, but both are speculative designations. As for the race, the first five biplanes to finish the Air Derby in the “Heavy Division” were all Travel Air ships.