Cover image for Fly girls : how five daring women defied all odds and made aviation history / Keith O'Brien.
Fly girls : how five daring women defied all odds and made aviation history / Keith O'Brien.
Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

Physical Description:
xiv, 338 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, portraits ; 24 cm
General Note:
"An Eamon Dolan book."


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
629.13092520973 OBR Book Adult General Collection
629.13092520973 OBR Book Adult General Collection

On Order




"Exhilarating." -- New York Times Book Review

" Riveting. " -- People

"Keith O'Brien has brought these women--mostly long-hidden and forgotten--back into the light where they belong. And he's done it with grace, sensitivity and a cinematic eye for detail that makes Fly Girls both exhilarating and heartbreaking." -- USA Today

The untold story of five women who fought to compete against men in the high-stakes national air races of the 1920s and 1930s -- and won

Between the world wars, no sport was more popular, or more dangerous, than airplane racing. Thousands of fans flocked to multi‑day events, and cities vied with one another to host them. The pilots themselves were hailed as dashing heroes who cheerfully stared death in the face. Well, the men were hailed. Female pilots were more often ridiculed than praised for what the press portrayed as silly efforts to horn in on a manly, and deadly, pursuit. Fly Girls recounts how a cadre of women banded together to break the original glass ceiling: the entrenched prejudice that conspired to keep them out of the sky.

O'Brien weaves together the stories of five remarkable women: Florence Klingensmith, a high‑school dropout who worked for a dry cleaner in Fargo, North Dakota; Ruth Elder, an Alabama divorcee; Amelia Earhart, the most famous, but not necessarily the most skilled; Ruth Nichols, who chafed at the constraints of her blue‑blood family's expectations; and Louise Thaden, the mother of two young kids who got her start selling coal in Wichita. Together, they fought for the chance to race against the men -- and in 1936 one of them would triumph in the toughest race of all.

Like Hidden Figures and Girls of Atomic City , Fly Girls celebrates a little-known slice of history in which tenacious, trail-blazing women braved all obstacles to achieve greatness.

Author Notes

Keith O'Brien is a journalist and writer, born in 1973 and based in New Hampshire. He is a former reporter for the Boston Globe. He contributes to National Public Radio and Politico. His work appears in the New York Times and This American Life. He is the author of Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History, published August 2018.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Journalist O'Brien (Outside Shot) tells the exciting story of aviators who, though they did not break the aviation industry's glass ceiling, put a large crack in it. He focuses mostly on five important fliers: Louise Thaden, a studious pilot, mother, and wife; Ruth Nichols, who was brave and willing to do anything to be the best; Amelia Earhart, the smartest of the bunch, with average flying ability, but the weight of powerful money behind her; Ruth Elder, gorgeous and bright, who went on to star in films; and Florence Klingensmith, a high school dropout and a naturally talented pilot and mechanic who could challenge the men head-to-head in speed racing. They fought against rudimentary technology, severe weather, and undermining men to accomplish their goals. Primary among their many antagonists in this account is Cliff Henderson, millionaire promoter and organizer of the national air races, who first manipulates women to promote his sport and then has them banned from competing in it. The women's victorious fight against his ban opens the door to even greater success and recognition as equals to men in the air. This fast-paced, meticulously researched history will appeal to a wide audience both as an entertaining tale of bravery and as an insightful look at early aviation. Agent: Richard Abate, 3 Arts Entertainment. (Aug.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

WINNERS TAKE ALL: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Giridharadas. (Knopf, $26.95.) Giridharadas examines the worlds of Davos and Aspen, where an elite intent on "changing the world" hang out, emerging with a quietly scathing report on how little they actually do to make a difference when it comes to the big structural problems. They are instead the enablers of the rich and powerful. NINETY-NINE GLIMPSES OF PRINCESS MARGARET, by Craig Brown. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.) A sometimes fanciful, always gossipy portrait of Queen Elizabeth's younger sister, who loved to appear rebellious and bohemian but was also intensely devoted to the privileges that accompanied royal life. THE HUSBAND HUNTERS: American Heiresses Who Married Into the British Aristocracy, by Anne de Courcy. (St. Martin's, $27.99.) A glittering account of the Gilded Age-era young women whose fortunes rescued some of England's penurious peers. THE FIGHTERS: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, by C.J. Chivers. (Simon & Schuster, $28.) In Chivers's powerful narrative of America's recent wars, soldiers who began their military service in a blaze of patriotism after 9/11 end up cynical, betrayed and often disfigured or dead. THE TRAITOR'S NICHE, by Ismail Kadare. (Counterpoint, $25.) The quest for a rebel pasha's severed head becomes a grimly comic comment in John Hodgson's translation of this brilliant and laconic 1978 Albanian novel, an allegorical fable about 20th-century authoritarianism. IF YOU SEE ME, DON'T SAY HI, by Neel Patel. (Flatiron, $24.99.) The Indian-Americans in this debut story collection are less troubled by cultural clashes than they are by the unraveling of emotions. As friendships fester, marriages combust and families fall into civilized distemper, all the ties in Patel's world unravel according to their own precise logic: none at all. FLY GIRLS, by Keith O'Brien. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28.) The title honors the female aviators who were hindered by the deep gender inequities of the golden age of flying. These are women few of us have heard of before; as O'Brien explains of their forgotten histories, each woman "went missing in her own way." I WILL BE COMPLETE, by Glen David Gold. (Knopf, $29.95.) In Gold's ambitious and brave memoir (which takes us only to his early 30s), just about all of the unanticipated ramifications emanate from his complex, mysterious and manipulative mother. MIRROR, SHOULDER, SIGNAL, by Dorthe Nors. (Graywolf, paper, $16.) In her sparkling novel - shortlisted for the International Man Booker - Nors trains her gaze on a woman many people would look past, a middle-aged translator learning to drive. The full reviews of these and other recent books are on the web:

Library Journal Review

In the 1920s and 1930s, the nation was gripped by air race fever. These extremely dangerous races, both short distance and cross country, drew tens of thousands of spectators, even during the Great Depression. While the 19th Amendment granted American women the right to vote in 1920, accomplished aviators Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols, Louise Thaden, Ruth Elder, and Florence Klingensmith knew earning this right was no true guarantee of gender equality. These passionate female aviators refused to be marginalized to the "Powder Puff Derby" and waged PR campaigns to be included in races with the men. O'Brien (Catching the Sky) portrays the plight of the "fly girls," as they were dismissively called, as they fought for the same opportunities as men in the fledgling aviation industry. Despite the number of subjects and events covered, O'Brien's narrative flows smoothly, and Erin Bennett deftly switches pace as she relates the compelling backgrounds of the women, the excitement of the races, and the tragedy that often followed. Despite the horror of the numerous crashes, this story is ultimately an inspiring tribute to these brave females who refused to accept the "you don't belong here" rebuke from a sneering patriarchal society. VERDICT This thrilling title should have wide appeal, especially to those interested in gender equality, history, and aviation. ["Highly recommended for readers with an interest in aviation history, women's history, cultural history, and 20th-century history": LJ 6/15/18 starred review of the Houghton Harcourt hc.]-Beth Farrell, Cleveland State Univ. Law Lib. © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The Miracle of Witchita The coal peddlers west of town, on the banks of the Arkansas River, took note of the new saleswoman from the moment she appeared outside the plate-glass window. It was hard not to notice Louise McPhetridge. She was young, tall, and slender, with distinct features that made her memorable if not beautiful. She had a tangle of brown hair, high cheekbones, deep blue eyes, thin lips programmed to smirk, and surprising height for a woman. At five foot eight and a quarter inches ​-- ​ she took pride in that quarter inch ​-- ​McPhetridge was usually the tallest woman in the room and sometimes taller than the cowboys, drifters, cattlemen, and businessmen she passed on the sidewalks of Wichita, Kansas. But it wasn't just how she looked that made her remarkable to the men selling coal near the river; it was the way she talked. McPhetridge was educated. She'd had a couple years of college and spoke with perfect grammar. Perhaps more notable, she had a warm Southern accent, a hint that she wasn't from around Wichita. She was born in Arkansas, two hundred and fifty miles east, raised in tiny Bentonville, and different from most women in at least one other way: Louise was boyish. That's how her mother put it. Her daughter, she told others, "was a follower of boyish pursuits" ​-- ​and that wasn't meant as a compliment. It was, for the McPhetridges, cruel irony. Louise's parents, Roy and Edna, had wanted a boy from the beginning. They prayed on it, making clear their desires before the Lord, and they believed their faith would be rewarded. "Somehow," her mother said, "we were sure our prayers would be answered." The McPhetridges had even chosen a boy's name for the baby. And then they got Louise. Edna could doll her daughter up in white dresses as much as she wanted; Louise would inevitably find a way to slip into pants or overalls and scramble outside to get dirty. She rounded up stray dogs. She tinkered with the engine of her father's car, and sometimes she joined him on his trips selling Mentholatum products across the plains and rural South, work that had finally landed the McPhetridges here in Wichita in the summer of 1925 and placed Louise outside the coal company near the river. It was a hard time to be a woman looking for work, with men doing almost all the hiring and setting all the standards. Even for menial jobs, like selling toiletries or cleaning houses, employers in Wichita advertised that they wanted "attractive girls" with pleasing personalities and good complexions. "Write, stating age, height, weight and where last employed." The man who owned the coal company had different standards, however. Jack Turner had come from England around the turn of the century with nothing but a change of clothes and seven dollars in his pocket. He quickly lost the money. But Turner, bookish and bespectacled in round glasses, made it back over time by investing in horses and real estate and the city he came to love. "Wichita," he said, "is destined to become a metropolis of the plains." By 1925, people went to him for just about everything: hay, alfalfa, bricks, stove wood, and advice. While others were still debating the worth of female employees, Turner argued as early as 1922 that workers should be paid what they were worth, no matter their gender. He predicted a future where men and women would be paid equally, based on skill ​-- ​where they would demand such a thing, in fact. And with his worldly experience, Turner weighed in on everything from war to politics. But he was known, most of all, for coal. "Everything in Coal," his advertisements declared. In winter, when the stiff prairie winds howled across the barren landscape, the people of Wichita came to Turner for coal. In summer, they did too. It was never too early to begin stockpiling that vital fuel, he argued. "Coal Is Scarce," Turner told customers in his ads. "Fill Your Coal Bin Now." He hired Louise McPhetridge not long after she arrived in town, and she was thankful for the work. For a while, McPhetridge, just nineteen, was able to stay focused on her job, selling the coal, selling fuel. But by the following summer, her mind was wandering, following Turner out the door, down the street, and into a brick building nearby, just half a block away. The sign outside was impossible to miss. travel air airplane mfg. co., it said. aerial transportation to all points. It was a humble place, squat and small, but the name, Travel Air, was almost magical, and the executive toiling away on the factory floor inside was the most unusual sort. He was a pilot.   Walter Beech was just thirty-five that summer, but already he was losing his hair. His long, oval face was weathered from too much time spent in an open cockpit, baking in the prairie sun, and his years of hard living in a boarding house on South Water Street were beginning to show. He smoked. He drank. He flew. On weekends, he attended fights and wrestling matches at the Forum downtown. In the smoky crowd, shoulder to shoulder with mechanics and leather workers, there was the aviator Walter Beech, a long way from his native Tennessee but in Kansas for good. "I want to stay in Wichita," he told people, "if Wichita wants me to stay." The reason was strictly professional. In town, there were two airplane factories, and Beech was the exact kind of employee they were looking to hire. He had learned all about engines while flying for the US Army in Texas. If Beech pronounced a plane safe, anyone would fly it. Better still, he'd fly it himself, working with zeal; "untiring zeal," one colleague said. And thanks to these skills ​-- ​a unique combination of flying experience, stunting talent, and personal drive ​-- ​Beech had managed to move up to vice president and general manager at Travel Air. He worked not only for Turner but for a man named Clyde Cessna, and Beech's job was mostly just to fly. He was supposed to sell Travel Air ships by winning races, especially the 1926 Ford Reliability Tour, a twenty-six-hundred-mile contest featuring twenty-five pilots flying to fourteen cities across the Midwest, with all of Wichita watching. "Now ​-- ​right now ​-- ​is Wichita's chance," one newspaper declared on the eve of the race. "Neglected, it will not come again ​-- ​forever." Beech, flying with a young navigator named Brice "Goldy" Goldsborough, felt a similar urgency. The company had invested $12,000 in the Travel Air plane he was flying, a massive amount, equivalent to roughly $160,000 today. If he failed in the reliability race ​-- ​if he lost or, worse, crashed ​-- ​he would have to answer to Cessna and Turner, and he knew there were plenty of ways to fail. "A loose nut," he said, "or a similar seemingly inconsequential thing has lost many a race," and so he awoke early the day the contest began and went to the airfield in Detroit. Observers would have seen a quiet shadow near the starting line checking every bolt, instrument, and, of course, the engine: a $5,700 contraption, nearly half the price of the expensive plane. "Don't save this motor," the engine man advised Beech before he took off on the first leg of the journey, urging him to open it up. "Let's win the race." Beech pushed the throttle as far as it would go. He was first into Kalamazoo, first into Chicago. With Goldsborough's help, he flew without hesitation into the fog around St. Paul, coming so close to the ground and the lakes below that journalists reported that fish leaped out of the water at Beech's plane. While some pilots got lost or waited out the weather in Milwaukee, Beech won again, defeating the field by more than twenty minutes. He prevailed as well in Des Moines and Lincoln and, finally, the midway point in the race, Wichita, winning that leg by almost seven minutes despite a leaking carburetor. "It's certainly good to be back home again," Beech said to the crowd of five thousand people after stepping out of the cockpit. Excerpted from Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History by Keith O'Brien All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.