History

Women in Flight: Louise McPhetridge Thaden

Louise McPhetridge Thaden

Louise McPhetridge Thaden was born on November 12, 1905 in Bentonville, Arkansas. Louise was a famous American aviator and held multiple speed and endurance records from her competitive flying. She attended the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville intermittently from 1921 to 1926, where she majored first in journalism and then switched to physical education. Thaden left the university to move to Wichita, where she worked for Jack Turner, a businessman and aviation booster. Here, she worked as a sales clerk for Turner’s lumber yard business. Eventually, Turner introduced Thaden to his friend, Walter Beech—who eventually became her employer at his manufacturing company, Travel Air.

While working for Beech, Thaden was able to attend piloting lessons, as free lessons were included as a part of her salary. Although she held onto her passion of aviation for a long time, this was the year she officially began flying herself. In 1928 she earned her pilot’s certificate from the National Aeronautic Association. Additionally, she also received a Transport Pilot rating from the U.S. Department of Commerce. At the time, she was only the fourth woman to receive this.

Throughout her career as a professional pilot, Thaden flew Travel Air demonstration planes. These flight routes were often around the West Coast, although her flights took her elsewhere too. She mostly gained her fame and recognition from the competitions she entered. Upon earning her pilot’s license, Thaden became the first and only pilot to simultaneously hold the women’s altitude, solo endurance and speed records. On December 7, 1928, she set the women’s altitude record to 20,260 feet. She then went on to set the solo endurance record at twenty-two hours, three minutes and twenty-eight seconds from March 16-17, 1929. And on April 18, 1929, she set the speed record to 156 mph.

In August 1929, Thaden won the first National Women’s Air Derby in a customized Travel Air Speedwing. This derby was a cross-country race that went from Santa Monica to Cleveland, and was held in conjunction with the National Air Races in Cleveland—which women were excluded from. After this competition, several contestants decided to create an association for licensed women pilots. This was founded on November 2, 1929, and was called The Ninety-Nines. Here, Thaden served as the organization’s first secretary, alongside Amelia Earhart who was the organization’s first president. The organization is still running today.

In 1932, Thaden joined Frances Marsalis and set a new refuelling endurance record. The two flew for a total of 196 hours over Long Island, New York from August 14-22. This event gained National attention and the two pilots produced a series of live radio broadcasts while flying the aircraft. Lastly, one of Thaden’s largest accolades came in 1936. Thaden and co-pilot Blanche Noyes, became the first women to win the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race on September 4. Because of her achievements in 1936, Thaden was awarded the Harmon Trophy in April, 1937.

Thaden retired from competing in 1938. She channeled her attention to her family, writing her memoir High, Wide and Frightened, and wrote for various newspapers and magazines along the way. Throughout this time, she was involved with aviation organizations and even served on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services from 1959-1961.

By: Briahna McTigue

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