Thirty years ago, on July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act came into effect. This important civil rights law prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. Forty-six years earlier, without the protection of law and its accommodations, Alverna Babbs, who had lost both legs as a child, fought to receive a waiver for her student license. When she succeeded, she became the first American pilot with disabilities to earn a pilot’s license.
Early Life and Show Business
Alverna Bennett was born in Farrell, Pennsylvania, on September 3, 1918, to Myrtle and Alvin Bennett, an electrician at the local American Steel Foundry.[i] At thirteen months, she and her aunt were thrown from a car, landing in front of a streetcar. Both survived, but Alverna’s legs were amputated above the knee. She received her first pair of artificial legs at age two, but to her they were “sheer torment.” She preferred just using her hands to move, doing everything the other kids did—baseball, swimming, and even tap dancing with shoes on her hands. [ii]
One of Alverna’s favorite activities was swinging on a vine like Tarzan, so one day as a child, she ran away to Hollywood, trying to find Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan. She only made it fifteen miles across the Pennsylvania-Ohio border before learning that Hollywood was not “just the other side of Akron.” As a teenager, her mother supported her interest in show business, driving her to local carnivals to perform. In 1935, at the age of seventeen, Alverna finally made it to the big top, touring the United States as a featured acrobatic dancer and trapeze artist with Ringling Brothers Circus.
In 1936, Alverna met Louis “Speedy” Babbs, who owned a motordrome, complete with a “wall of death,” where he raced motorcycles and performed aerial tricks. They married a few months later, honeymooning in Honolulu in October 1936.[iii] Babbs and Alverna travelled the country with their various acts, including Alverna performing tricks while riding the handlebars of a motorcycle on treadmill rollers.
Speedy Babbs rebuilt an Austin car so that Alverna could drive. He replaced the body based on a toy model, modified the chassis, and added hand controls, while the clutch was operated by what remained of her leg. Encouraged by this success, Alverna set her sights higher—she wanted to fly![iv]
Enlisting Roscoe Turner for Her Cause
During the winter of 1942, Alverna took at aeronautical course at Youngstown College in Ohio. To celebrate their seventh anniversary, on June 24, 1943, the Babbses bought a General Aircraft Corporation G1-80, popularly known as a Skyfarer. Alverna nicknamed the plane, “Seventh Heaven.” According to the registration card for NC29017, the aircraft already had dual controls installed in 1941. In 1944, the Babbses installed a “Waller Transmitter-Received unit and Handreel Antenna (plus hand brake control).”[v]
On May 22, 1944, Alverna Babbs wrote to Roscoe Turner, famous aviator and president of the National Aviation Trades Association.[vi] She had called Turner three weeks earlier regarding her situation. She had followed all the proper procedures, obtaining a radio license and studying at Parks Air College in East St. Louis on an Ercoupe, another aircraft with hand controls, receiving several letters of recommendation. [vii] To date she had 45 hours and 40 minutes of dual time, but no solo flight. She had even passed the physical examination, but the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) still would not provide the waiver she needed to obtain a student permit.
Turner wrote back on May 25, “I am more than happy to be of assistance to any one whenever I can – but if the letter copies which you attached…will not get you through, I am sure that I could be of no help.” After explaining that his time was limited and he would not be able to accommodate the personal flight check Alverna requested, Turner added, “I greatly admire your determination, and fully believe that the Board will pass you. Will be in Washington [soon] and at the time I will speak with some of the members of the Board….”
Alverna wrote to Turner again on July 3. She had written to the CAA inspectors to determine their specific reason for denying her waiver. Charles Stanton, the Administrator for the CAA, responded: “It is believed that your ability to pilot the Skyfarer and Ercoupe is not due to any compensation of your physical deficiency because of experience, ability and judgment but rather to the mechanical construction of these aircraft which permits manual operations.” Essentially, she was told that the airplanes themselves were the only reason she could fly, not her own capabilities.
Turner responded on July 13, “I have taken your problem up with the National Aviation Trades Association, and either our Executive Director, Mr. John H. Wilson…or myself, will be present at the hearing in Cincinnati, Ohio….” Whatever he and his colleagues said eventually worked. Alverna wrote again on September 30, this time a handwritten letter: “The new C.A.A. Regulations were adopted Sept. 19th and I have received my student permit.” Turner’s response on October 9 was delighted, but cautionary: “I can only say – watch your step, and don’t do anything that could give them a chance to say we were wrong……but I know you won’t.”
Alverna Babbs made her first solo flight on October 30, 1944. She then completed a round trip solo flight from Jacksonville, Florida, to Pomona, California, in June 1945. She finally earned her pilot’s license in 1946. The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) had passed another waiver to allow her to take the commercial pilot examinations. She wrote on May 29, 1946 to thank Roscoe Turner, his warning in the back of her mind, “I have also remembered your advice about being careful and a safe pilot and the more I fly the more I can appreciate how right you are. I shall not ever disappoint you.”
Alverna continued to perform with Speedy Babbs, adding her pilot skills to their act, until their divorce (most likely in 1948 but announced in March 1949). She married Albert “Flash” Williams and their son was born in July 1949. Although she continued for a bit in the carnival and motordrome field, advertising in an August 5, 1951, issue of Billboard for drome riders, Alverna stepped away from aviation until the 1970s.
Read more in the follow up blog: Alverna Williams: Returning to the Skies – Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Part 2.
[i] I will refer to Alverna by her first name throughout and use her preferred surname (most often her husbands’) at the appropriate times. The 1920 United States Census refers to her as Olverna Bennett and the 1930 Census recorded her as Olberna Bennett. Ancestry.com. 1920 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. Ancestry.com. 1930 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2002.
[ii] The early life of Alverna Babbs is told in her 1944 joint autobiography with then-husband Louis “Speedy” Babbs, The Life Story of Miss Alverna and “Speedy” Babbs: Stars of the Dare-Devel Circus, Cincinnati, Ohio: Sidney Printing Works, 1944. I’ve only found two copies: one in Special Collections and Archives at California State University Northridge and the other in the Roscoe Turner Papers, University of Wyoming. American Heritage Center.
[iii] Ancestry.com. Honolulu, Hawaii, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1900-1959 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.
[iv] Speedy Babbs had learned to fly in 1925 from Walter Waterman’s flying school in Ontario, California. He had even incorporated parachuting into his early shows, with almost fatal results in 1928.
[v] The NASM Archives’ Federal Aviation Administration Aircraft Registration Files, NASM.XXXX.0512 contain a record for another Skyfarer (NC29027) purchased by the Babbs “as a wreck” on June 6, 1943. There is also a card for NC16551, an Aeronca C-3 purchased by the Babbs on August 22, 1942. Neither of these were mentioned in Alverna’s autobiography, but she did mention the other Skyfarer in a letter to the editors of The Vintage Airplane in June 1974.
[vi] All correspondence between Alverna Babbs and Roscoe Turner can be found in Box 9, Folder 15, Roscoe Turner Papers, University of Wyoming. American Heritage Center.
[vii] In an oral dictation for his autobiography, From the Ground Up: Autobiography of an Aeronautical Engineer, Fred Weick, designer of the Ercoupe, described specifically how Alverna could fly these aircraft: “These airplanes…do not require operation of rudder pedals with the feet. The rudder controls are coordinated with the aileron and the elevator control, thus eliminating the necessity of foot pedals.” A copy of this transcript can also be found in the NASM Archives collection Fred E. Weick Autobiographical Transcripts, NASM.XXXX.0425.