women in aviation and space history

Betty Skelton

Betty Skelton Piloting Pitts S-1C <i>Little Stinker</i>
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Betty Skelton

See Betty Skelton's Pitts Special "Little Stinker" at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. The aircraft was formerly on display at the Museum in Washington DC as part of the past exhibition "Aerobatic Champions."

For many years three-time Feminine Aerobatic Champion Betty Skelton was known as the “First Lady of Firsts.” The Florida native earned her nickname the hard way, whether as the International Feminine Aerobatic Champion (in her Pitts S-1C Little Stinker), flying at 8,839 meters (29,000 feet), or traveling at speeds greater than 486 kph (300 mph) in a jet-powered car. In the process of setting 17 aviation and race car records, she also paved the way for women to enjoy equal opportunities in aviation, sports, and business.

Betty Skelton Frankman Erde was born in Pensacola, Florida, June 28, 1926 to David and Myrtle Skelton. During her early childhood years, she played with model airplanes, not dolls, and spent every moment of her spare time sitting on the back steps of her home watching the N3Ns and Stearmans soaring over head from the Pensacola Naval Air Station. At age eight, she convinced her parents that she wanted to fly and began reading every aviation book she could find. But she didn’t just want to be a pilot; she wanted to be a naval aviator. Though that was not to be, the Skeltons drove her out to the municipal airport at every opportunity and soon Betty was hopping rides whenever a pilot had a spare seat. Eventually, a young Navy Ensign, Kenneth Wright, began teaching the entire family to fly.

Betty made her very first solo flight at the tender age of 12, when Wright let her take the controls of his 40-hp Taylorcraft. She soloed legally on her 16th birthday and quickly earned her private license. At 17, she had acquired the flight hours to qualify for the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) but she was crushed when it was disbanded before she reached the required age of 18 and a half. Nonetheless she wanted a career in aviation and began working as a clerk for Eastern Airlines at night so she could fly during the day. She received her commercial rating at 18, and, in short order, her flight instructor and multi-engine ratings. She began instructing at the Pete O’Knight Airport in Tampa. Frustrated over the prohibition of women from military aviation and commercial airline jobs in mid-1940s, she set out to find her own niche in general aviation. When her father began planning an air show as a fund raiser for the local Jaycees, someone suggested that Betty should fly some aerobatics. Her dad said, “She doesn’t know any.” But Betty was game and aerobatic pilot Clem Whittenback easily taught her a loop and a roll; she was in business. Two weeks later she gave her first public performance in a borrowed Fairchild PT-19

She then bought her own aircraft, a 1929 Great Lakes 2T1A biplane and began her professional aerobatic career in 1946 at the Southeastern Air Exposition in Jacksonville along with a new U.S. Navy exhibition team, the Blue Angels. In fact, Betty and the Blues flew their first official shows together; they soon named her “Sweetheart of the Blue Angels.” Betty toured the southeastern air show circuit and became part of the legendary group of performers of the postwar era including Steve Wittman, Woody Edmondson, Bevo Howard and the Cole Brothers. These were the days when pilots crisscrossed the countryside performing at the National Air Races in Cleveland and the Miami All American Maneuvers or in three different small towns in just one day.

She won her first International Feminine Aerobatic Champion on January 1, 1948 flying her Great Lakes. It was there that she noticed a striking new little biplane, the Pitts Special S-1C. Skelton approached the owner who at first refused to let her fly the aircraft, let alone buy it, but she persisted and bought it in August 1948. It was an experimental single-seat open-cockpit biplane, and the smallest aerobatic airplane in existence at the time. She named the plane Little Stinker and eventually gave it a brilliant red and white paint scheme. She said: “I didn’t just sit in that little airplane, I wore it. If I sneezed, it sneezed with me.” Displaying her sense of humor, and her confidence, she attached a bright red, and nonfunctioning, button to her Pitts instrument panel that read: “Spin, crash and burn.” She also installed a “wolf whistle” to attract the attention of the young airport line boys. In it she became the first woman to perform an inverted ribbon cut with friends Steve Wittman and Bill Brennan holding the poles. During her first attempt her engine quit and she barely had time to right the aircraft and land; she went right up again, rolled to inverted, and cut the ribbon. Skelton won her second and third consecutive International Feminine Aerobatic Championships in 1949 and 1950. As a result of Betty’s superb competition and air show flying, and her excellent public relations skills, people began asking Curtis Pitts to build Pitts Specials for them. The Pitts line of aerobatic aircraft became the top aerobatic competition aircraft in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and today, flying one is still part of anyone’s advanced aerobatic training regime.

Betty sought other records too. She borrowed Woody Edmondson’s P-51 Mustang to try and break Jacqueline Cochran’s World Air Speed Record, but just as she reached a new record at 678 kph (421 mph), the Rolls Royce engine exploded. She was over Tampa Bay, and should have bailed out, but then remembered she couldn’t swim. So instead she made a dead-stick landing at MacDill AFB but did not get credit for the record. She raced in the 1949 Cleveland Air Races and set a women’s altitude record of 8,854 meters (29,050 feet) in a Piper Super Cub. Walter and Olive Ann Beech asked her to fly demonstration flights of the Beech T-34 for an Air Force evaluation team and Beech won the contract. She was the princess of numerous peach and magnolia festivals across the south but she was also a respected columnist for Flying magazine, Air Trails and other publications and appeared in advertisements.

There were tragedies along the way and Betty learned to share in the grief as well as the joy of flying. By late 1950, Betty had achieved the highest marks in aerobatics but, with the barriers in place against women, she had little incentive to continue. So she sold Little Stinker in 1951 and moved on; but she didn’t stop flying for fun.

She, worked at her family’s FBO, and then moved to North Carolina where she eventually flew charter flights out of Raleigh. There she met Bill France, the founder of NASCAR, who talked her into driving at Daytona Beach during Speed Week. Not only did she drive the pace car at Daytona, she also set a stock car record in a 1954 Dodge Red Ram V8 on the beach. All of a sudden, Betty had a new career. As auto industry’s first female test driver, she guided “L’il Miss Dodge,” a jump boat, over a 1955 Custom Royal Lancer on a ramp at Florida’s Cypress Gardens and she was part of a team that drove a 1955 Dodge to 395 new records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. In 1956, Betty became one of the top women advertising executives working with the General Motors Company as a technical narrator at shows with the Corvette in print, television, and automobile demonstration runs. Art Arfons offered Betty a chance in 1965 to drive his open cockpit; F-86-D J-47 Sabre-jet powered “Green Monster — Cyclops” on the Bonneville Salt Flats. She went on to set the Women’s Land Speed Record with a 430 kph (276 mph) average — while posting a one-way run of 509 kph (316 mph). Betty earned a total of four Feminine World Land Speed Records and set a transcontinental speed record.

Skelton married TV director/producer and Navy veteran Donald A. Frankman in 1965; in 1971, they returned to Florida where they flew a Taylorcraft on floats and a Lake Buccaneer. Betty and Donald reacquired her Pitts and later donated it to the National Air and Space Museum. It is now the first aircraft you see upon entering the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport. It is suspended inverted. Don died in 2001, and in 2005 Betty married Allan Erde, a retired Navy doctor.

Betty’s beauty, personality, and flying skills ensured that she charmed and surprised everyone she met. Astronaut and former naval aviator Wally Schirra recalled the day in 1948 when he and his buddies were sitting in around a hangar in Pensacola, their SNJs grounded as rain poured down. They heard a little engine and spied a tiny biplane taxiing toward the hangar and wondered who was out there in the rain. They crowded around as it reached the safety of the dry hangar and found an equally small pilot emerging from the plane. All of a sudden, the helmet came off and lovely long brown hair spilled out; they were stunned to find “he” was a girl The guys couldn’t believe that a girl was flying in this weather and had managed to land at the naval air base! They were even more impressed when they took a “tour” of the cockpit and saw her aerobatic sequence card. This encounter, and another when she was learning her way around an F-104 cockpit, established her credibility with Wally so that when she began taking some of same physical tests as those given to the original Mercury 7 astronauts for an article for Look magazine, she didn’t have to prove herself. Wally and the other Mercury 7 astronauts already knew she was for real and jokingly called her “No. 7 1/2.” Meanwhile Skelton understood that the tests were just for a media piece and that NASA did not owe her place in the program. After Valentina Tereskova became the first woman in space, some of the American women pilots who had taken similar tests and thought they should be included in the astronaut program, made an appearance before Congress. Skelton saw things in a different light. She set the record straight by reminding everyone that neither hers nor the other women’s tests were officially connected with NASA. And secondly, with the standards in place at that time, she said “If there were women in our space program today, they would be an addition, not a substitution,” and went on to cite the cost in terms of funding, the inappropriateness of special treatment for women, and the far more serious issue of getting to the Moon within the decade.

Skelton still holds more combined aircraft and automotive records than anyone in history. Betty Skelton was a 2005 inductee into the National Aviation Hall of Fame and earlier honors include the International Aerobatic Hall of Fame (IAC), the International Council of Air Shows Hall of Fame (ICAS), the Corvette Hall of Fame, and the Motorsports Hall of Fame. She was the 2010 inductee into the Paul E. Garber First Flight Shrine at Wright Brothers National Memorial. Each year the United States National Aerobatic Championships honors the highest placing female pilot with the Betty Skelton First Lady of Aerobatics award. Her old friend and racing designer/pilot Steve Wittman summed up her contributions:

“She not only superbly demonstrated aerobatics to the highest degree of excellence but she also became a legendary inspiration to the art of precision aerobatics. Her competitive spirit, determination to be the best, willingness to accept dangerous challenges, and ability to execute aerobatic maneuvers with unbelievable preciseness separated her from others. She made a legendary name for women in the field of aerobatics when there was no such thing as women’s lib. She made the Pitts Special famous.” Words are important, but it was Wittman’s action that showed his true faith and admiration: he let Betty fly his racers Buster and Bonzo — something no one else, besides his own racing pilots, was ever allowed to do.

When asked about being a woman competing with men in two male dominated fields, Betty said: “Competing? No, I didn’t really do that. I found that once I demonstrated I was capable, had the ability, I was accepted. And I found that true everywhere I’ve ever been and in everything I’ve ever done.”

(information compiled by D. Cochrane)