It was the summer of 1929, and for the first time in history, women pilots were racing against each other in a cross-country derby 2800 miles and eight grueling days, from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio.
Pancho Barnes had taken up flying only a year before, but she thought she had a good chance to win.
On the dirt field that August afternoon, the airplanes were strung out in two long lines as a crowd estimated between 100,000 and a quarter of a million waited in the dust and searing heat for the radio-relayed pistol shot from Cleveland to cue the starter on the field. One of the largest aggregations of newspaper reporters, photographers and newsreelers ever to assemble on the west coast was there. Movie and stage comedian Will Rogers, an aviation enthusiast, presided over the ceremonies, entertaining the crowd but not the leather-jacketed flyers by referring to the entrants as "flying flappers" and "petticoat pilots." In the press tent, a reporter turned to his colleagues. "I don't care what you guys write about their bravery, their skill, their sportsmanship or their adaptability to goddamn aeroplanes," he said. "What I'm gonna say is, 'Them women don't look good in pants.'"
At precisely two p.m., the pistol shot in Cleveland sounded over the loudspeaker in Santa Monica, and at one-minute intervals, each contestant took off at the wave of the starter's flag. The first afternoon's flying was a sixty-mile, get-the-bugs-out hop to San Bernadino.
Louise Thaden landed first, twenty-seven minutes later. Marvel Crosson was second. Pancho clocked in with the third fastest time. She felt confident as she flew over familiar southern California turf that first day. She had spent several weeks in June flying the entire course all the way to Cleveland, so she knew well what lay ahead and felt prepared for it. She had not done as much cross-country flying as some of the other women, but what she had done, she had loved. She loved the challenge to wits and stamina, the feeling that she was alone and in charge. That night, the pilots were first feted at a much publicized banquet and then sat through a lengthy briefing on the next day's flight. It was not until after midnight that they were able to go to their rooms and go to sleep. Fatigue, it would turn out, was almost as great a hazard as the flying itself. They were up at four a.m. and in the air by six.
By mid-morning of the second day, flying across the desert toward a refueling stop in Yuma, Arizona, the temperature soaring to the triple digits, the women sat in their open cockpits in their leather jackets flying east into the sun feeling woozy. Landing at Yuma, Amelia Earhart ran into a sand bank and damaged her propeller. Flying over the Gila River country of southern Arizona, Marvel Crosson was overcome by the heat and the turbulence. She suffered a severe bout of airsickness and parachuted out too late and too low. Her body was found two hundred yards from the wreckage of her plane.
The other pilots heard about Marvel's death at their scheduled stop in Phoenix that night. Pancho had flown the fastest leg and now led the field in elapsed time, followed by Louise Thaden, Gladys O'Donnell and then Amelia Earhart. Stunned by the news, the women nonetheless wanted to carry on. Flying was risky. The women knew and accepted that. But the American public was less ready to. Race organizers were immediately pressured to end the event. "Women have conclusively proven that they cannot fly," one newspaper editorialized the next day when it reported on Crosson's death.
The women held firm. "It is now all the more necessary that we keep flying," Earhart told the press. "We all feel terrible about Marvel's death but we know now that we have to finish."
The next day, again battling the desert heat, there were more mishaps. One pilot damaged her biplane in a forced landing. Another ran out of fuel in flight and struggled to bring her plane down safely. A third discovered a fire in the baggage compartment of her plane, landed quickly on a mesquite-covered ridge, put out the fire by throwing sand on it and took off again. On the leg to Pecos, Texas, Pancho made an unscheduled landing near a small town, discovering to her chagrin that she had drifted off course and landed in Mexico. She managed to get airborne again before the authorities had a chance to detain her. But later that day, her luck ran out.
She was flying into Pecos just seconds from touching down at the airfield when she hit something. She had no idea what it was. The airfield had looked clear to her. The approach was smooth. The landing seemed to be routine. But as she came within a few feet of touching down, she heard a crash and a grinding noise as her landing wheels hit and then caught on something. She had no time to react. Her right wing hit whatever was out there, spinning the plane around. Then her left wing hit.
It was only after she jumped from the cockpit and got clear of the plane that she saw what had happened.
The speed cowling on her Travelair was so bulky that it created a blind spot in front of the plane as it nosed down. What she couldn't see, directly in front of her on the runway was an automobile crossing the field. It wasn't there when she scanned the field on her approach, and it shouldn't have been there at all. She and the driver were both shaken up but unhurt. The Travelair, however, was a wash-out. The right wing was demolished, and the supports on the left wing were broken. The plane could not be repaired on the field. It would have to be loaded on a train and shipped to the Travelair company in Wichita for extensive work. For Pancho, the 1929 derby was over.