03 April 2008

Day 2: The Powder Puff Derby Becomes a Race

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I believe I left off the last entry noting that Pancho had flown into San Bernardino, the first leg of the Powder Puff Derby, in first place. That is only a half-true statement! In reality, there were two classes of aircraft in the race: light planes and heavy planes. Pancho's Wright J5-powered Travelair biplane was considered a “heavy” plane, as was Amelia Earhart’s J5 Lockheed Vega. Bobbi Trout and Phoebe Omelie, and four other contestants, flew smaller, “sporting” planes with smaller engines. Omlie, in her Monocoupe, led the “light” plane class that first day.

Photo: Pancho, in her Travelair, gives the high-sign to the photographer. This photo was snapped at Clover Field, Santa Monica. Courtesy L.A. Public Library.

The second day of the race, August 19, 1929, would represent a real challenge. With summer temperatures reaching into the 90s and beyond, the women would fly nearly 400 miles from San Bernardino to Calexico, and then on to Yuma. The plan was to have an early start — 6 a.m. — and avoid the worst heat of the day. The light planes took off first, and then the heavy aircraft.

As Gene Nora Jessen writes in the definitive history of the race, The Powder Puff Derby of 1929, this second leg of the race was when it really became a race! The San Bernardino flight was so short that no real strategy could be developed. But this run, over the Banning Pass and Mohave Desert, presented several different routes. Louise Thaden, flying in a Travelair J5 similar to Pancho’s, flew between the town of Hemet and the mountains, riding a cushion of air up to 7,000 feet.

It was during this hop that trouble struck Claire Fahy (wife of Lockheed test pilot Herb Fahy, see 9-30-07 journal entry). Two of the wing wires on her OX-5 powered Travelair parted. Her initial reaction was that her plane was about to shed a wing, and she considered using her parachute and jumping for it. But then she reconsidered, lowered her air speed, and tried to reach Calexico. After she landed, she realized how close she'd come to crashing, and she became distraught. Wing wires don’t just break, and Fahy quickly reached a disheartening conclusion -- that some person or persons had deliberately weakened the wires.

The situation with Fahy's plane was, sadly, not unique. Even before the race started, German pilot Thea Rasche had warned her fellow contestants about the threat of sabotage. A short time after Fahy’s problem, Rasche encountered her own. Her gasoline clarifier was discovered to have debris in it, and her gas lines were fouled. The problem caused her to make an emergency landing, that damaged her plane. She was unhurt, but recognized that in a different circumstance she could easily have been killed.

It's possible that the defects Rasche and Fahy encountered could be explained, simply by the fact that the planes of this era were fragile beasts. Certainly that was how the organizers of the race tried to spin things. But, a threat certainly existed, and it is easy to believe the damage was intentional for two reasons. First, this being the 1920s, there were certainly men who objected to women doing anything but working in the home. By becoming pilots, and competing in a “man's world”, these women had made themselves targets. Second, air races were known to attract bettors. It may seem hard to believe nowadays, but a lot of money probably changed hands on each lap of the Derby. Influencing who might finish first, or who might not finish at all, could be very tempting to a certain element.

For Claire Fahy, the damage to her plane was a show-stopper. She quit the race at Calexico. The others continued on, including Pancho. By 8:00 in the morning she and many of the other women had reached Yuma, where the temperature had already reached 100 degrees.

As she flew on towards Phoenix, Pancho got disoriented, and began flying south of her intended course. Part of Pancho’s strategy in the Yuma-to-Phoenix leg was to follow the railroad tracks. Unfortunately, she’d picked the wrong ones. Finally, her suspicions got the best of her, and she set down in a farmer’s field. That’s when she learned, much to her chagrin, that she’d flown into Mexico. “They were yelling, ‘Hola! Hola!’” Pancho later recounted, “I wheeled around, goosed the throttle, and got outta there.”

Shockingly, despite her Mexican adventure, Pancho managed to get to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport before the early afternoon. It had taken her a little over three hours, twenty minutes from San Bernardino. By the time she landed, she must have been sun-baked, dehydrated, and dead tired. But, she must have also been quite happy. She’d made it and landed safely, and beaten everyone else to Phoenix. She was in first place, for the second consecutive day. She might have celebrated briefly, but more serious news developed as the day wore on. While by nightfall seventeen planes had landed at Phoenix, one pilot remained unaccounted for at the end of the day. It was Pancho’s good friend, Marvel Crosson (see 9-16-07 journal entry). She’d disappeared, somewhere between Yuma and Phoenix.

The Pasadena paper (above) reports on Pancho's achievement, and notes that she is "the grand-daughter of the man for whom Mount Lowe was named." The photo shows her posing with a Vega, and dates from her brief stint as a test pilot for Lockheed.