25 February 2007

Lucky To Be With One of the 'Mercury 13'!

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None of the gals who flew in the original Powder Puff Derby in 1929 are alive today, but after meeting Gene Nora Jessen last week, I feel like I've met one of them. (That's Gene Nora on the right in the photo, with director Amanda Pope on the left). A calm, self-assured, steady and smart woman who began flying in the late 1950's, Gene Nora is a former president of the Ninety-Nines group of women pilots and an air racer. What's more, back in 1961, she volunteered for a female human factors research program at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gene Nora and twelve other women were subjected to the same extreme tests as male astronauts, and came through with flying colors. Known collectively as the "Mercury 13", they should have had a shot at flying into space. Instead, that opportunity was not given to an America woman until Sally Ride flew on the Space Shuttle in 1983. I'm sure you can guess the reason why!

In 2002 Gene Nora's love of flying and history led her to write a book about and entitled "The Powder Puff Derby of 1929". During our interview, Gene Nora recounted that the project was actually over ten years in the making. Her unique position as an advocate and activist in the world of women's flight gave her entree to speak to all sorts of people who knew about the Derby, and to collect the kind of details about the event that truly make it come alive. Jessen was privileged to work with and interview aviatrix Bobbi Trout, the last survivor of the group of twenty women who competed in the race, before her death in 2003. The book is available in many bookstores and through Amazon.com.

During the interview, Jessen spoke at length about the strides women made in aviation in the 20's and 30's, and provided some fascinating insights. She also talked about Pancho's unique contributions to the event. The first stage of the race ran from Clover Field in Santa Monica to San Bernardino, a short hop that was really just a warm up for more dangerous, over-the-desert flying. Everyone landed by the late afternoon, and that night a special dinner was put on for the participants. As a special bonus, the movie "The Flying Fool", which featured stunts flown by Pancho, was shown at the dinner. It must have been an extremely exciting banquet, and Pancho must have been terribly proud to be featured...in a feature...in front of all her new aviatrix friends!

Incidentally, let me take a moment and thank a few people who made our interview with Gene Nora Jessen possible. That includes Si Robin of Sensor Systems, who allowed us to use his beautiful Staggerwing as a backdrop. We also owe a debt to Paula Sandling and Michael Sandling, who patiently helped us get situated, and Bob Jessen.