Monday, April 18, 2016

O is for Phoebe Omlie - Pioneer Women in Aviation: A-Z Challenge

Phoebe Omlie would never forget her first air show in 1920. 
Phoebe Omlie (1902-1975)
President Woodrow Wilson had visited Minneapolis and there had been a huge flyover in his honor and air show at the local airfield. The next day, Phoebe graduated from high school, but all she could think about was the amazing air show she had seen.

Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1902. Her parents later divorced, but Andrew Fairgrave adopted Phoebe and her brother when her mother remarried. The family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota when Phoebe turned 12. There she completed grades at Madison School and Mechanic Arts High School. After graduation, she worked as a secretary, but found the job  was boring. 

She began daydreaming about the air show she'd seen awhile back and decided to visit the airfield. Fascinated, she returned again and again, constantly pestering the airfield's manager for an airplane ride each time. The manager finally agreed. He told one of the pilots to give her a ride she’d never forget. Give her “the works,” Phoebe recalled the manager telling the pilot, claiming he only wanted to scare her off. The pilot gave her a hair-raising ride she’d never forget, complete with loops and nosedives, the kind of ride that most might have begged off flying forever afterwards, but Phoebe loved it.

Meanwhile, Phoebe received a small inheritance from her grandfather.
She was 17. It was just enough to buy an airplane, and that's exactly what she did. She bought a Curtis Jenny for $3,500. But worried her parents would object, she convinced the Fox Moving Picture Co. to hire her (for $3,500) as an aerial stunt woman in the "Perils of Pauline" movie serial
Phoebe hired Vernon Omlie, a 25-year-old stunt pilot, to teach her how to fly. The two hit it off, and after some intensive practice, began barnstorming all over the Midwest, performing at airshows for cash. Phoebe played her part well as the petite dare-devil teen, dressed in her silk shirt, riding breeches, and leather helmet with goggles. She dazzled crowds where ever they flew, walking on the wings of the plane (she wore shoes with suction cups)She called her business the Phoebe Fairgrave Flying Circus.

Some of the dangerous "wing-walking" stunts Phoebe performed were:
--Headstands on the wing
--Dancing the Charleston on the wing
 (both while Vernon flew the plane in loops!)
--Hanging by her ankles or her teeth (she had a special mouth piece attached to a rope) 
-- A double parachute drop: she would drop in one parachute, cut the strings and do a free fall; and then as the crowd held their breath below, release a second parachute just in time.

Phoebe wing walking

Phoebe and Vernon married in 1922. The flying circus continued until 1927, when Phoebe decided to try piloting instead.  She loved air racing and entered a number of races. She and Vernon purchased an airport in Memphis and started a flying school. Phoebe also had a job with the Mono Aircraft Corp, and flew around the U.S. and South America promoting their Monocoupe.  

After one of Phoebe's air races

Vernon and Phoebe

Phoebe's Monocoupe

Eleanor Roosevelt took notice and asked if she'd be willing to promote Franklin in his presidential campaign. Phoebe said she would and logged 5000 miles and crossed 20 states during the campaign. Later, Franklin rewarded Phoebe for her service,  appointing her as Special Advisor for Air Intelligence to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. She was the first woman to hold such a position. One of her best known achievements in this position was to conceive the Air Marking Program. Phoebe hired female pilots all over the country to mark runways, rooftops, water tanks , factories, barns, etc., with directional arrows and names of airports in large black and orange letters. She also partnered with her good friend Amelia Earhart to create what would one day become the National Airspace System 

Phoebe on left; the campaign for Franklin D. Roosevelt
Sadly, Vernon was killed in a commercial airliner crash in 1936. Phoebe never fully recovered from the shock. She resigned from her government position. However, she did participate at a state level in 1937co-authoring Tennessee's new aviation act and introducing the first vocational course in aviation into public schools. In 1941, she assisted the federal government in setting up 66 flying schools. After the war, she assisted with research in flight training methods. 

In 1952, when President Truman started assigning non-aviation people to Civil Aeronautics Administration positions, Phoebe quit for good--irritated aviation had become over regulated. A downhill slide from there, she withdrew from friends, started drinking in excess, and moved away. Much later, in 1970, she was found living in poverty in what has been described as a "fleabag" hotel in  Indianapolis 

A list of Phoebe's many accomplishments:
--1920, First flying circus owned by a woman 
--1921, First woman to perform double parachute drop
--1922, Set women's world record for high altitude parachute jump; 15,200 feet
--1925, With Vernon established first airport in Tennessee (Memphis) 
--1927, First woman to earn a transport pilot's license
--1927, First woman to earn an airplane mechanics license. 
--1928, First woman to fly across the Rockies in light aircraft
--1929, Set altitude record for women over Iowa City; 25,400 feet 
--1929, 1930, 1931, Won awards in national women's air races
--1933, First woman appointed to a federal aviation position 

[A nice tribute to Phoebe Omlie]




  1. Hi Sharon - what an amazing woman - so wonderful, yet then so sad ... the love of her life was lost, when he lost his real life ... desperate conditions to sink to - poor woman. Cheers Hilary

    1. Thank you and good to see you Hilary! Missed you in the a-z this year.
      I'm glad Omlie's accomplishments far outshine how she ended up.

  2. That picture of her walking the wing dropped my stomach a few feet! I can't imagine doing that, so in my books that's one intrepid woman.

    1. I've seen the photo before of her wing walking but never knew who. So glad I picked her and learned it was Phoebe!

  3. That was some woman Sharon, a most vivid reading, it was as though I was there. Wonderful post .

    1. Thank you. I really appreciate your support :) Enjoying your poems as well. More than halfway done!

  4. A great, brave lady who knew what she wanted and went out and grabbed it. Sad though that her husband died so early, and her life ended in poverty and loneliness.

    Enjoyed reading and learning.


  5. Yes, it happens to people. We are all human but Her legacy lives on and today here we are reading her story. Thanks for reading!

  6. She led quite an amazing life but how sad to have lost her husband when so young and then to be in such poverty. I hope she still felt proud of all her accomplishments and I think she would have.

    1. I do too. Another source said she wouldn't let friends see her. She was dying of lung cancer. I think she wanted them to remember her in her prime, which I can understand.

  7. What a sad ending to an accomplished life.

    1. Yes very. I almost wanted to leave it out. Thanks for reading!

  8. Wow, that's an amazing story.

  9. This is such a sad story. Someone who did so much deserved better from life.

    The Old Shelter - Jazz Age Jazz

    1. I've always wondered who this wing-walker was. You saw her in old film clips. Hard to know what exactly happened. A victim of illness, poverty, old age, wrong choices? We'll never know. Still, an amazing legacy to leave behind!


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You could call me an eternal optimist, but I'm really just a dreamer. l believe in dream fulfillment, because 'sometimes' dreams come true. This is a blog about my journey as a writer and things that inspire and motivate me.