In the annals of American aviation history, to say nothing of the history of Arkansas, few individuals stand taller than the willowy Louise McPhetridge Thaden. During the 1920s and 1930s, Thaden was one of the most famous and captivating figures of a romantic and dangerous era in American flight.
Mentioned in the same breath as Amelia Earhart, Thaden yielded not an inch to her more well-known counterpart. In fact, in two of the signature events of her career, Thaden bested Earhart and also became, by 1929, the first and only pilot to simultaneously hold the women’s records for speed, altitude and solo endurance.
Given social attitudes of the day, Thaden’s rise to international prominence was the unlikeliest of accomplishments, underscored by being born in the cowtown of 1905 Bentonville. As she herself wrote in her 1938 autobiography, High, Wide and Frightened: “Since I can remember, from the time when I was seven and jumped off the barn under an oversized umbrella, I’ve wanted to fly. For years it was merely a passive ambition. It was like the moon — completely unattainable.”
She was born to a farm life, the daughter of Roy McPhetridge, a traveling Mentholatum salesman and Edna McPhetridge, a housewife. As Keith O’Brien writes in Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History, her parents unabashedly wanted a boy. They came close, as Louise flouted the societal norms and limitations set for girls at the time in favor of what was unflatteringly termed tomboyish pursuits. Still, despite his later disapproval of her vocation, Roy taught his daughter how to hunt, fish and fix a car growing up and indulged her with a childhood airplane ride with a barnstormer that sealed her ambition to fly.
She attended the University of Arkansas where she majored in journalism but fell short of graduation, leaving early to take a sales job in Wichita, Kan. There, she started hanging around a local airplane factory, Travel Air. Seeing this, the plant’s owner, Walter Beech, was so taken with the gutsy Arkie’s determination to fly, that he hired her for his Oakland, Calif., office with the agreement that part of her salary would be paid in flying lessons. She earned her pilot’s certificate in 1928, number 850, signed by Orville Wright.
Almost immediately, Thaden (she’d married former U.S. Army pilot and engineer Herbert von Thaden in July 1928) began racing and other pursuits that pushed the limits of both pilot and machine. In 1928, she set a women’s altitude record of 20,260 feet and the following year, set separately a new women’s endurance record of 22 hours, 3 minutes and 28 seconds in the air and a speed record of 156 miles per hour. Also in 1929, she won the first all-women’s transcontinental race, the National Women’s Air Derby, in a field that included Earhart.
Three years later, she teamed up with Frances Marsalis to set a new refueling endurance record of 196 hours over Long Island. The flight featured 78 air-to-air refueling maneuvers whereby food, water, oil and fuel were passed down by a rope from another aircraft. The pair also made a series of live radio broadcasts while aloft. It was a remarkable achievement that gained national attention, even as the local press glibly dubbed it, “The Flying Boudoir.”
Such digs underscored the sexism that existed across all parts of society, aviation included. Thaden put her accomplishments to work toward advancing opportunities for women in aviation. In 1929, she and Earhart founded the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for female pilots, for which Thaden served as vice president and secretary. Beginning in 1930, she also went to work as the public relations director of Pittsburgh Aviation Industries and became the director of the Women’s Division of the Penn School of Aeronautics.
Amid these activities, she solidified her place as one of the greatest pilots of her era during the Depression-ravaged 1930s. In 1936, after setting a new light-plane speed record, she and co-pilot Blanche Noyes became the first women to win the co-ed Bendix Transcontinental Air Race, again at the expense of Earhart as well as some of the top male pilots of the day, setting a new transcontinental record in the process. It was an achievement of which Time magazine wrote, “To Pilots Thaden & Noyes the $7,000 prize money was far less gratifying than the pleasure of beating the men. Among the first ten U.S. women to earn transport licenses, they have for years been front-line fighters in aviation’s ‘battle of the sexes.’”
Achieving in one year what many failed to approach in an entire career, Thaden received the Harmon Trophy, aviation’s highest honor given to a female pilot, in April 1937.
By the following year, she was done — committed to spending her time raising two small children. She became a prolific writer; in addition to her memoirs, she wrote hundreds of articles on all manner of aviation. And while she’d be lured back into the cockpit over the years, flying everything from jets to gliders, the true daredevil days were over, relegated to the tributes of multiple halls of fame to which she was enshrined. These include founding inductee of the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame, plus the Smithsonian Institution’s Aviation Hall of Fame and the National Aviation Hall of Fame, to name a few.
Her legacy also lives on in her hometown. In 1951, the Bentonville airport was renamed Louise M. Thaden Field in her honor. In 1976, she returned to Bentonville for a rededication ceremony at Thaden Field during which Gov. David Pryor declared Aug. 22, 1976, as Louise M. Thaden Day. Three years later, she died of a heart attack.
In her memoir, Thaden detailed the sacrifices of a woman caught between two passions — her vocation and her family — in a manner all too familiar to women still today. Her writing was equally resolute regarding both, even telling of the protracted debates she and Earhart had over the merits of domesticity.
“I vowed that when the time came for raising a family, I would devote full-time to being a mother and say farewell to aviation as a vocation,” she wrote. “Amelia Earhart thought the decision was filled with fallacies and tried on several occasions to make me see the light. She was wrong.”
But at the same time, Thaden never lost her fascination and love affair with aviation, nor her unabashed grit and directness over a woman’s place in the sky.
“Men pilots as a class are not superior to women pilots,” she wrote. “Generally speaking, women are innately better pilots than men; first, because they have a more sensitive touch; second, they are born with a more acute sense of rhythm; and third they are fundamentally more conservative.
“I have set down a few of the exciting things which have happened in my career. They constitute a very small part of my flying. Most of the work has been routine, rather monotonous as a whole, yet interspersed with high points of exquisite beauty and woven through with a satisfying peace.”