Walking on Air

Walking on Air: The Aerial Adventures of Phoebe Omlie

Janann Sherman
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 196
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tvhnz
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  • Book Info
    Walking on Air
    Book Description:

    Aviation pioneer Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie (1902-1975) was once one of the most famous women in America. In the 1930s, her words and photographs were splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the nation. The press labeled her "second only to Amelia Earhart among America's women pilots," and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt named her among the "eleven women whose achievements make it safe to say that the world is progressing."

    Omlie began her career in the early 1920s when aviation was unregulated and open to those daring enough to take it on, male or female. She earned the first commercial pilot's license issued to a woman and became a successful air racer. During the New Deal, she became the first woman to hold an executive position in federal aeronautics.

    InWalking on Air, author Janann Sherman presents a thorough and entertaining biography of Omlie. In 1920, the Des Moines, Iowa, native bought herself a Curtiss JN-4D airplane and began learning how to fly and perform stunts with her future husband, pilot Vernon Omlie. She danced the Charleston on the top wing, hung by her teeth below the plane, and performed parachute jumps in the Phoebe Fairgrave Flying Circus.

    Using interviews, contemporary newspaper articles, archived radio transcripts, and other archival materials, Sherman creates a complex portrait of a daring aviator struggling for recognition in the early days of flight and a detailed examination of how American flying changed over the twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-125-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Chapter One
    (pp. 3-23)

    Aviation pioneer Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie was once one of the most famous women in America. In the 1930s, her words and photographs were splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the nation. The press called her “second only to Amelia Earhart Putnam among America’s women pilots,” and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt named her among the “eleven women whose achievements make it safe to say that the world is progressing.”

    Phoebe Fairgrave began her career in the early 1920s when aviation was unregulated and wide open to those daring enough to take it on, male or female. She bought a...

  5. Chapter Two
    (pp. 24-37)

    It was time to reassess their options. Two summers of barnstorming had failed to provide a viable income. The Omlies landed in Memphis in late fall, hoping the Mid-South Fair and local exhibitions would provide their last chance to make some money to see them through the winter, but bad weather kept them grounded as their meager funds trickled away. They had to hock their clothes and luggage to the Arlington Hotel where they were staying until they could resume flying and discharge their bill.¹

    They talked about settling down. Vernon wanted to make a living from aviation that didn’t...

  6. Chapter Three
    (pp. 38-62)

    Phoebe had gone to Bettendorf hoping to convince the company to allow her to market the Monocoupe in Memphis. She got the franchise and a lot more. Phoebe became a consultant for the company and ultimately the plane’s “ambassadoress,” as she demonstrated the Monocoupe in a variety of activities over the next few years.¹ Monocoupes had a “pixie-like” quality, described in ad copy as “pert … an airplane [with] wholesome charm … a jolly, friendly sort of airplane,” not unlike that of Phoebe herself.² Although Phoebe was a highly skilled pilot with at least 1,000 hours of accumulated flight time...

  7. Chapter Four
    (pp. 63-78)

    Phoebe loved the challenge and adventure of competitive flying. It was also a business for her, one she was good at and one that offered large purses to skillful pilots. “My aviation career started early in 1921 when I entered the game to make money,” she told the press. “There was no commercial aviation in those days to speak of and we got what we could doing exhibition work.”¹ During the spring of 1930, she continued her work as a liaison between the Monocoupe factory and its distributors around the country. She flewMiss Molinein several state aviation tours,...

  8. Chapter Five
    (pp. 79-96)

    Phoebe Omlie, whom the press deemed ‟second only to Amelia Earhart Putnam among America’s women pilots,” was sworn in on her thirty-first birthday, 21 November 1933, to become the first woman to hold an executive job in federal aeronautics.¹ Her accomplishment was owing to her long experience and distinguished service to aviation. “She had won the trophies and scars of a decade when flying was new, the nation’s airways uncharted, the aeronautical industry a game … Had she served in war instead of peace, she would have been decorated with a D. S. O. … She owes her position not...

  9. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  10. Chapter Six
    (pp. 97-117)

    On 6 August 1936, ‟one of the famous romances of the air came to an end.”Phoebe received the devastating phone call in the early hours of the morning telling her that Vernon was dead; he had been killed in a plane crash. As she caught her breath, she asked: was he at the controls? They told her no, that Vernon had been a passenger on a commercial flight.¹

    He had bought a one-way ticket. Vernon was on his way to Detroit to pick up a new plane. The flight originated in New Orleans; he climbed aboard at Memphis, the...

  11. Chapter Seven
    (pp. 118-133)

    Almost as soon as she touched down in Memphis, Phoebe joined the staff of Free Enterprises, Inc., an organization dedicated to saving ‟this country from socialism and communism.”She was put in charge of a television “Freedom Series,” a Sunday afternoon talk show. “It was a real thrill,” she told the press, “to come back home and find that our people here have not been unaware of the dangers confronting them … I am instilled with the old spirit and am now joining the fight to help in any way I can to re-establish constitutional government in this country.”¹

    At...

  12. Epilogue
    (pp. 134-138)

    Soon after Phoebe returned to Memphis for the last time, local columnist Eldon Roark suggested naming the Memphis International Airport for the Omlies. The Memphis chapter of the Ninety-Nines enthusiastically endorsed the idea, saying that Memphis-Omlie International “has a nice ring, don’t you think?”¹

    Aviation enthusiast James T. Kacarides, editor of theMemphis Flyer, the publication of the Memphis Experimental Aircraft Association, had already been working for several years on a fitting memorial for Memphis’ most famous woman aviator.² Kacarides had widespread support from the aviation community. Groups like the Experimental Aircraft Association, the Civil Air Patrol, the Ninety-Nines, the...

  13. Afterword FINDING PHOEBE
    (pp. 139-146)

    Phoebe Omlie came into my life in 1994. I had no sooner begun my new job as assistant professor of history at the University of Memphis when a colleague, who had noted from my resume that I had a private pilot’s license as well as an abiding interest in the history of women, told me that the control tower at Memphis International Airport had been named for a woman.

    I was just finishing up a very large project, a biography of Senator Margaret Chase Smith, to which I had devoted nearly ten years of graduate and postgraduate work. Looking for...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 147-184)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 185-191)
  16. Index
    (pp. 192-196)