The Flight That Led to "Fly Girls"

Seira Wilson on September 04, 2018

FlyGirls200.jpgKeith O'Brien's new book Fly Girls is a fascinating look at a largely unknown piece of aviation history. It's the story of five women who banded together to fight for the chance to compete against male pilots in the dangerous national air races of the 1920s and 1930s. In 1936 one of these women took home the prize. 

Amelia Earhart was a member of this trailblazing group, but the other four women have--until now--been lost to obscurity.  With vivid language and atmospheric style, O'Brien brings these pioneering female flyers back into the spotlight, where they belong.  Fly Girls also includes gorgeous period photographs, including one of Ruth Nichol's pilot's license, signed by Orville Wright.  The women all came from very different backgrounds, but together they changed history.

We wondered where O'Brien first learned about the women pilots he came to write about in Fly Girls and it turns out it was, interestingly enough, on an airplane...

I was on an airplane—of all places—when I stumbled upon the little crumb of an idea that would ultimately lead me down the path to my new book, Fly Girls.

It was the late spring of 2016. I was flying that day from Boston to Pittsburgh for a story I was doing at the time for Politico Magazine. And for the flight I grabbed a book that had been sitting on my bedside stand for some time: Lily Koppel’s The Astronaut’s Wives Club.

One of my favorite books of all-time is Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff—the iconic nonfiction narrative about the rise of the first seven astronauts. Koppel’s book was telling a similar story from an opposite perspective—the perspective of the wives of those seven astronauts. I wanted to see how she had done it. How had she told this story—a story I knew so well—from a new angle?

I was also hoping that Koppel’s book might help distract me from my own anxieties, my own fears. Because, the truth is, I don’t really like to fly. I don’t like turbulence. I don’t like the little sounds that a plane makes for seemingly inexplicable reasons in the middle of a flight. And I definitely don’t like takeoff—that moment when the plane goes barreling down the runway and jumps into the sky. I don’t like that feeling at all.

But I’ve found that a good book can help. If I’m immersed in a story—the story of someone else, somewhere else—I am more at ease on a plane. I’m not thinking about me, hurtling through the sky. So, there I was, shortly after takeoff, in a middle seat somewhere deep on coach, reading Koppel’s book. And that’s when I found it: a line that mentioned an all-female airplane race in 1929, a race that had featured Amelia Earhart. 

The line stopped me cold. Airplane racing? With Amelia Earhart and other women? I had never heard of such a thing. It was the kind of thing that in my day to day life I might write down in a little notebook that I keep on my back pocket. I’m always jotting down story ideas—for radio, magazines and books.

But in this case, I was stuck on a plane—and the plane had wifi. So instead of writing the idea down—and maybe forgetting it—I googled this airplane race from 1929. And then I googled something else about it. I was doing what any curious journalist might do: pulling the threads and seeing what unraveled. By the time I landed in Pittsburgh two hours later, I knew a few things. First, the story was far more interesting than just one airplane race; there had been lots of races. Second, the characters seemed compelling—and they were forgotten. I had never heard of most of them. And third, I needed to get a library—fast.

It was here, in the library, living amid old microfilm from the 1920s and ‘30s, that a new and fascinating world revealed itself to me—the world of the air races. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, races could draw 125,000 paying fans, with 125,000 more watching for free from the hoods of their parked cars on nearby highways. Such crowds made air racing one of the most popular sports in America—like baseball or boxing. And it was definitely the most dangerous. Inevitably, pilots flying single-engine, open-cockpit machines crashed and died—sometimes right in front of the crowd.

Because of the crowds and the stakes and the danger, many men believed air racing was no place for a woman. But a few women refused to listen, pushing their way into the air races in 1929. And most interesting to me, it wasn’t just Amelia Earhart. She wasn’t alone. Earhart was standing shoulder to shoulder with a handful of other female aviators who wanted to race, wanted to win—and were willing to give everything, even their own lives, to do it. They were friends and rivals. They had fought together and even prevailed in the end, beating the men in one of the most celebrated air races of them all. But each of them vanished in their own way. We had forgotten them. Why?

I research a lot of story ideas and book ideas. And most of them—to be honest—don’t lead anywhere. The characters end up being too shallow, the plot too undefined, or the archival material too thin. But from the beginning, this story idea felt different. Early on, I can remember sitting in an empty university library late at night, reading old newspaper stories from the late 1920s, and feeling panic. My heart was actually racing—racing with questions.

How was this story just sitting right here? How had we forgotten it? And how could I bring it back to life? What did I need? Where could I get it?

It was time to start visiting other libraries and archives. It was time to start working on this idea not just at night, but during the day. It was time to go all-in.

Time to start writing.

--Keith O'Brien

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