A special “Meet the Author” program to honor Women’s History Month was held at Barbee Library on Monday, March 27th. Long-time “Friend” of the library, Helen Whittaker, regaled a crowded room with tales of adventure, achievement, and unbelievable gutsiness, as she discussed her book, “Sisters in the Air,” a double biography of pilots Louise Thaden and Phoebe Omlie.
Helen, a retired library director and accomplished writer, explained that she came across the women many years ago while researching the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots who served during WWII. Over the course of her research, which included interviews with Louise’s son Bill Thaden, Helen became particularly drawn to Thaden’s story and admitted that she still carries a torch for her to this day. Helen added Phoebe Omlie to her manuscript when her publisher asked for a longer book with more than one subject.
Helen’s presentation was fascinating and her enthusiastic delivery, while dressed in period costume with helmet, goggles, silk scarf and an aviator jacket, captivated the audience!
Helen explained how Louise and Phoebe defied the odds to earn their pilot’s licenses (signed by Orville Wright!) and the many challenges they continued to face in the air; open cockpits that subjected pilots to rain, wind, sandstorms, and bugs; rudimentary planes with no radar, only maps and compasses; landing on runways that were little more than plowed fields; and blatant discrimination against female pilots that led to unfair criticisms and even sabotage. Strong professional camaraderie amongst these earliest female pilots was key to their continued success.
After 30 years with her subjects, Helen still appeared genuinely awestruck as she talked about their remarkable accomplishments. And who wouldn’t be? Louise Thaden set records for altitude, speed, and solo endurance by the age of 24! She also won the first air race for women in 1929, as well as the prestigious Bendix Transcontinental Air Race in 1935, beating not only the female pilots for the “consolation prize” but all the male pilots as well for the grand trophy!
Phoebe Omlie had the gumption to buy her own plane at age 18, and the nerve to pitch aviation stunts to Fox Moving Picture Company before she even knew how to do them! She became so successful that she was asked to fly for FDR’s presidential campaign.
Thanks, Helen, for bringing these trailblazing women to light – they deserve to be celebrated!
Helen’s book is available at Barbee and Harper, and can be purchased through Overmountain Press by calling (423) 926-2691.