Dusty Relics of Arkansas History
January 13-19, 2020
By Bob Denman
We all know the story of Amelia Earhart – the famous aviatrix who won the hearts of the world when she was lost over the Pacific Ocean in route from Papua New Guinea to Howland Island in 1937. Her disappearance remains a mystery even today.
Wonder who was the second most famous female aviator from the golden age of aviation? Arguably she was best friends with Earhart, and she won more races and held more records than her famous friend. For me her name was a Dusty Relic of Arkansas history.
Born in the very rural Bentonville, Arkansas in 1905, 14-year-old Louise McPethridge cobbled together $5 to take a ride with a traveling daredevil and barnstormer igniting her interest in aviation.
She was introduced to Walter Beech who gave her a job and flying lessons, married Herbert von Thaden who designed the first American all metal aircraft, and the rest is aviation history.
She became only the 4th woman to hold a transport pilots license and by the age of 20 became a major figure in the aviation world. She won dozens of flying races and held many world records including the first ever pilot to hold the women’s altitude, endurance and speed records simultaneously.
The newly married Mrs. Louise Thaden raced against the fastest women in the world in the 1929 Women’s Air Derby – a transcontinental race from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio – beating her good friends Amelia Earhart and Pancho Barnes.
From 1930-1935 women were barred from air racing, so, she went out and set another world endurance record flying over Long Island for 196 hours which included a remarkable 78 air to air refueling. Food, water, oil, and fuel were lowered to her on a rope from a support plane. The national press named her plane the “Flying Boudoir”.
Thankfully in 1936, women were again allowed to compete against men. Thaden promptly won the coveted Bendix Trophy setting yet another world record in the New York to Los Angeles race. Time magazine said of her victory “the $7,000 in prize money was far less gratifying than the pleasure of beating the men, who for years have been the front-line fire fighters in aviation’s battle of the sexes.” For her achievements the 30-year-old curly headed blonde from Bentonville won the Harmon Trophy, aviation’s highest honor.
Boston Globe reporter and author of the book “Fly Girls,” told the Smithsonian’s Air and Space magazine that newspapers across America were full of stories about Thaden and her contemporaries Ruth Elder, Florence Kingsmith, and Ruth Grace.
Louise Thaden became the National Secretary of the National Aeronautics Association, was inducted into many state aviation halls of fames, the Smithsonian Aviation Hall of Fame, and the International Aerospace Hall of Fame.
In 1991, the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis carried her flying helmet into space on STS flight 37 to honor her pioneering and innovative aviation spirit.
Louise Thaden loved her home state of Arkansas and today we remember her with hopes she will remain a Dusty Relic of Arkansas History.
Thaden retired from competition in 1938 to spend more time with her two children, Bill and Pat, and write her memoirs, High, Wide and Frightened,
detailing the years from 1927 to 1937. (Photo courtesy of Encyclopedia of Arkansas)