cover image THE POWDER PUFF DERBY OF 1929: The First All Women's Transcontinental Air Race

THE POWDER PUFF DERBY OF 1929: The First All Women's Transcontinental Air Race

Gene Nora Jessen, . . Sourcebooks, $16.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-1-57071-769-7

"Flight is abiding peace.... It is a spirit totally free," wrote Derby winner Louise Thaden, setting the tone for this fascinating history of the first women's transcontinental air race from Santa Monica, Calif., to Cleveland, Ohio. Nicknamed the "Powder Puff Derby" by Will Rogers, a strong supporter of female aviators (despite the belittling nickname) who volunteered to fly along the route carrying extra luggage, the contest covered 2,759 miles. Jessen, an aviator and former president of the Ninety-Nines (an international women pilots' association), describes each day of the nine-day event and provides captivating short bios of the 19 flyers, including colorful "Pancho" Barnes, glamorous Ruth Elder and Amelia Earhart. Although some of the aircraft were considered "heavy" and a smaller number "light," all were flimsy propeller planes and only two had closed cockpits. The contestants dealt with myriad equipment problems, illness, exhaustion and possible sabotage (Clare Fahy's wing wires were eaten through with acid). Fatigued after the day's flight, the pilots had to attend lengthy banquets hosted by excited locals wherever they stopped. On the third day of the race, the experienced pilot Marvel Crosson, overcome with carbon monoxide poisoning from the exhaust fumes of her Travelair craft, crash-landed and died. According to Jessen, the women's "triumph did not convert all the world to esteem pilots of the 'weaker' sex," and public figures like Charles Lindbergh, for instance, were all but scornful of their endeavor. Although Jessen includes too much fictionalized dialogue, this otherwise well-wrought bit of Americana will appeal to aviation and women's history buffs. Photos. (Oct.)