For many years, three-time Female 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 Female Aerobatic Champion, 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 in the cockpit of the Pitts S-1C Little Stinker. (National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.)

Betty Skelton Frankman Erde was born in Pensacola, Florida, on June 28, 1926, to David and Myrtle Skelton. During her early childhood years, she played with model airplanes and spent every moment of her spare time sitting on the back steps of her home watching the planes soaring overhead 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 Skelton was hopping rides whenever a pilot had a spare seat. Eventually, a young Navy Ensign, Kenneth Wright, began teaching the entire family to fly. 

Skelton made her very first solo flight at the 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 the mid-1940s, Skelton set out to find her own niche in general aviation. When her father began planning an air show as a fundraiser for the local Jaycees, someone suggested that Skelton should fly some aerobatics. Her dad said, “She doesn’t know any.” But Skelton 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.

Setting Records in the Air

After making her aerobatic debut, Skelton 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, Skelton and the Blues flew their first official shows together; they soon named her “Sweetheart of the Blue Angels.” Skelton toured the southeastern air show circuit and became part of the legendary group of performers of the postwar era.  

She won her first International Female Aerobatic Championship 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.” Little Stinker is in the Museum’s collection and is on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

Skelton named this plane Little Stinker and gave it its distinctive paint job. (National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

Skelton won her second and third consecutive International Female Aerobatic Championships in 1949 and 1950. As a result of her superb competition and air show flying, and her excellent public relations skills, people began asking Curtis Pitts to build more Pitts Specials. 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. 

Skelton sought other records too. She borrowed Woody Edmondson’s P-51 Mustang aircraft 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 also a respected columnist for Flying magazine, Air Trails, and other publications and appeared in advertisements. 

There were tragedies along the way and Skelton learned to share in the grief as well as the joy of flying. By late 1950, Skelton 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.

Setting Records on Land

After retiring from her aerobatic career, Skelton worked at her family’s fixed-based operator, a private plane terminal, 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, Skelton had a new career. 

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As the auto industry’s first woman to serve as a test driver, she guided 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, Skelton 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. In 1965, Art Arfons offered Skelton a chance to drive his Green Monster — Cyclops, a race car powered by a J-47 jet engine, 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). Skelton 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. Don died in 2001, and in 2005 Skelton married Allan Erde, a retired Navy doctor. 

Setting Records in Space? (Not Quite) 

Skelton’s personality, beauty, 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 a hangar in Pensacola, their planes 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 long brown hair spilled out; they were stunned to find “he” was a woman. The guys couldn’t believe that a woman 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. Skelton defied stereotypes about women's skills and abilities as aviators, which caused Schirra and his friends great surprise. This encounter, and another when she was learning her way around an F-104 cockpit, established her credibility with Schirra so that when she began taking some of the 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. Schirra and the other Mercury 7 astronauts already knew she was for real and jokingly called her “No. 7 1/2.”  

The Mercury 7 astronauts signed this picture for Skelton, calling her "number eight" for completing some of the astronaut tests in a piece for Look magazine. (National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, NASM-9A11716-A)

Meanwhile Skelton understood that the astronaut fitness 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 reminded 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. 

Betty Skelton's Legacy

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 her 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 Skelton fly his racers Buster and Bonzo — something no one else, besides his own racing pilots, was ever allowed to do. 

This content was migrated from an earlier online exhibit, Women in Aviation and Space History, which shared the stories of the women featured in the Museum in the early 2000s. 

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