Aviation Pioneer Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie

Aviation Pioneer Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie

Aviation pioneer Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie, a contemporary of more famous women flyers like Amelia Earhart, Jacqueline Cochran and Florence “Pancho” Barnes, began her career in the early 1920s when barnstorming was one of the few ways to make a living by flying. She progressed beyond this daring and dangerous aspect of aviation to become one of the field’s most ardent supporters and innovators, a central participant in the move to legitimize and eventually bureaucratize commercial and private aviation in America.

She contributed much of it through her work in the federal government – working with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA). Throughout her career, Phoebe used her influence to give other women a chance to prove themselves as capable as men.

Phoebe Fairgrave was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1902. One day just before her high school graduation, she saw her first air show and fell in love with aviation at first sight. She thought about it; she dreamed about it. She began hanging out at the local airfield, begging the manager until he finally agreed to let one of his pilots take her up for a ride. The pilot’s instructions were to give the girl “the works” – a few loops, maybe a nosedive or two – and get her good and sick. Then maybe she would leave them alone. But the pilot’s efforts to discourage Phoebe were counterproductive, to say the least. She loved it!

Not long after, Phoebe showed up at the airfield with a small inheritance from her grandfather and bought herself an airplane, a Curtiss JN-4D, a “Jenny.” Then she dropped into the local offices of the Fox Moving Picture Company and proposed a bold deal to recoup her investment: Fox could film her wing-walking and making parachute jumps. Phoebe came away with a contract to do stunts for such Fox films as the Saturday matinee serial, The Perils of Pauline. Then she hired a young pilot to fly her Jenny for her. He was Vernon Omlie, a 25-year-old veteran of the Great War. He’d been a military flight instructor and dreamed of making his fortune in aviation. In the meantime, the best he could do was fly for the Curtiss Company for $25 a week. After working for Phoebe for a few weeks, Vernon quit his job with Curtiss to become her personal pilot.

In 1920, there were few opportunities for men in aviation and fewer still for women. So Phoebe did the only things she thought she could do: she learned to walk wings, hang by her teeth below the plane, dance the Charleston on the top wing, and parachute. After a couple months of intensive practice, the Phoebe Fairgrave Flying Circus was born. It was the first flying circus owned by a woman.

The thrill show featured the daring Phoebe, wearing riding breeches, a silk shirt, a goggled leather helmet and basketball shoes with suction soles. Once airborne, Phoebe would climb to the top of the upper wing, the wind whipping her clothes, and ride there while Vernon put the plane through a couple loops. She told the press that wing-walking wasn’t much different than climbing up on a table: “You just shimmy up the strut, grab hold of something on the top wing, throw your knee up there, and climb up.”

Phoebe had a special mouth-piece attached to the end of a rope, which she gripped between her teeth as she dangled and twirled in the plane’s slipstream while Vernon swooped low over the crowd. The showstopper, though, was her own invention: a double parachute drop.

The folded parachute was tied to a wing strut. She would crawl out on the wing, put on her harness and jump, the chute opening as she fell. To keep the lines from tangling, the parachute had been interleaved with newspapers. A safety precaution, it was also a crowd pleaser as the newspapers fluttered out like confetti. Once free of the plane, she would cut the lines of her chute loose and free fall. With the crowd holding its breath – thinking her chute had failed- Phoebe would wait until the last possible minute, then pull the cord on a second chute just in time to prevent her descent to certain death.

In many ways, it’s remarkable that Phoebe survived the 1920s, given the chances she took. After a year of so, she and Vernon teamed up with an accomplished stunt flier named Glenn Messer. Phoebe had ideas for newer and tougher stunts; one of them involved changing from plane to plane in the air. She talked Messer into working with her on it. They found a barn in Iowa that had a central runway from end to end. They rigged a trapeze bar hung from the rafters with Messer hanging by his knees and extending his hands. Phoebe stood on the seat of an old buggy as Vernon piloted the team of horses. As Vernon drove the buggy through the barn, Phoebe would grasp Messer’s hands and be pulled up alongside him on the trapeze. Gradually they increased the speed of the horses to a fast trot until she could connect with Messer on every pass. When they had it perfected, they alerted Fox who sent along a camera crew to film it. There were three planes: the upper plane for Messer, Vernon flew the lower plane, and the movie man was in the third.

Messer was hanging from the axle of the upper plane, hands down, ready to grasp Phoebe’s hands, as the two pilots jockeyed into position, trying also to get in a good position for the camera. Suddenly the lower plane hit an up-draft. Phoebe, standing near the right wing tip of the upper wing on the lower plane, with her toes hooked under two guy wires, saw the upper plane’s propeller coming rapidly toward her. She dropped to her knees, reached under the leading edge of the wing, and grabbed a strut. Then she flipped forward and over the edge and shinnied down to the lower wing, safely out of the range of the whirling prop. The turbulent air continued for a few moments, and the propeller of the upper plane sliced into an aileron of the Omlie plane. Fortunately, Vernon was able to land safely and quickly fixed it.

The movie people were still eager for a picture, so they went up and did it all again, this time successfully. Talking it over later, they agreed to make the stunt a bit less dangerous. After that, Messer hung by his knees from the lowest rung of a 20-foot rope ladder to grab Phoebe’s hands, leaving a margin of unoccupied air between the planes. The act became one of the most spectacular and exciting for the Phoebe Fairgrave Flying Circus.

Thousands would come out to see Phoebe’s show, but it was difficult to ensure that all of them paid to see it. The real money was made in encouraging the crowd to take rides at $5 or $10 a trip. It was a tough way to make a living and sometimes the Phoebe Fairgrave Flying Circus would make less than $10 profit a week.

Phoebe and Vernon headed south, hoping to stay one jump ahead of the coming winter weather. By December, they landed in Memphis, where Phoebe spent much of the winter doing speaking engagements about her life in aviation and in the movies.

Phoebe married her pilot in February 1922 and changed the name on the side of her plane to read the Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie Flying Circus. But they continued to struggle. The circus needed to do something spectacular to get the publicity they could not afford to buy.

They came up with the perfect stunt, and on July 10, 1922, Phoebe Omlie was ready. Vernon lifted the plane’s nose and climbed steadily to over three miles up. Then Phoebe crawled to the end of the wing, strapped on the parachute, stood up, hesitated a moment, and jumped. To her dismay, the chute did not open properly in the thin air, and she was in free fall for at least the first 5,000 feet. When she reached the ground a few minutes later, she was a world record holder for a woman’s parachute jump at 15,200 feet. She had gotten sick on the way down, she told reporters, adding, “It was terrible; I never want to try it again.” But there were few things Phoebe would not try at least once.

Phoebe’s flying circus continued for several more summers, but Vernon was eager to settle down and build himself a business around aviation. Memphis was warm, it had no aviation facilities, and he saw that as opportunity. He set up operations first in the middle of a horse track and began offering rides and lessons. He and Phoebe put on shows for the locals. Gradually the Omlies attracted and trained a group of flying enthusiasts who eventually built Memphis’s first real airport.

Vernon was happy to settle down. But Phoebe still craved excitement. She gave up wing-walking and took up piloting. In 1927, she became the first woman to receive a transport pilots license and the first woman to earn an airplane mechanics license. In 1928, when Vernon moved his fixed-base and charter operation to the new Memphis Municipal Airport, Phoebe won new fame on her own. She was flying for the Mono Aircraft Company of Illinois, builders of monocoupe racers. They provided the planes, and she provided the publicity. In the summer of 1928, she took her little 65-hp Monocoupe up to an astonishing 25,400 feet, trying to set a new altitude record. She was still climbing when a spark plug blew out and the main oil line gave way. The spraying oil blinded her and she began fumbling with her oxygen mask, gasping for breath because of the leanness of the oxygen mixture. Almost unconscious she swung the plane once around the field and landed, then collapsed. A physician was waiting when she landed and hurried to check her. Coming to, she remarked, “I feel all right now. I can make the attempt again if I need to.” She didn’t need to-she had set a new world altitude record for women and light aircraft.

Her real passion was air racing, and during the late 1920 she entered dozens of races. She finished first or in the money most of the time. In 1928, she was the only woman competitor in the National Reliability Air Tour for the Edsel Ford trophy. The 6,000-mile tour reached 32 cities in 15 states over regions rough enough to test the stability of any plane and the skill of any pilot. In the tiny black and orange monocoupe she named “Miss Memphis,” Phoebe traveled alone, taking neither navigator nor mechanic. She told reporters: “If I take a mechanic, they’ll say that he flew the ship over the bad spots! No. I’ll be my own mechanic, and I’ll fly my plane myself!”

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