The Powder Puff Derby

View item information

“Women pilots of the All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race,” 1929. Courtesy of St. Louis University via the Missouri Hub.

Though there had been transcontinental air races in the US since 1919, women were not allowed to compete  until 1929. Though its official title was the Women’s Air Derby, it was nicknamed the “Powder Puff Derby” by humorist Will Rogers when he saw the pilots touching-up their makeup before climbing into the cockpit. The race ran from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio, and boasted a $25,000 prize.

It was dangerous going. Sandstorms or fog plagued visibility at several points. Emergency landings to make repairs were common and one pilot had to land to put out a fire in her plane with sand. There was one fatality in the race—Marvel Crosson, who crashed in the Gila Valley. Officials suspected she’d been poisoned with carbon monoxide by her malfunctioning aircraft.

Nine days after the start of the race, Louise Thaden landed as the winner in Cleveland. She flew the race with her face pressed up to an oxygen pipe to avoid the same carbon monoxide poisoning that had taken Crosson.

Louise Thaden—or, more accurately, her cloth helmet—made another big journey. On one of astronaut Eileen Collins’s missions in 1991, she carried Thaden’s helmet (autographed by Thaden’s fellow Powder Puff racers) into space.