The 'First Lady Of Firsts' Set Over 400 World Records In Stunt Planes, Race Cars And Speed Boats

Screenshot: Ed Clark (Youtube)

The first time Betty Skelton piloted an aircraft solo, it was the year 1938 and she was a mere 12 years old. Yeah, sure, it was technically illegal, but she'd been hopping in open seats of aircrafts in her spare time for as long as she could remember. She was probably more prepared to be a pilot at age 12 than most of us are to do, like, anything. Ever.

Betty grew up in Pensacola, Florida, so her fascination with flight makes sense. According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the Pensacola Naval Air Station was essentially her backyard, and she would sit for hours watching the N3Ns and Stearmans soaring overhead. Something about the freedom and artistry of the aircraft entranced her. By age eight, Betty knew that flying was her future; she devoured every book about aviation that she could get her hands on and convinced her parents to take her out to the municipal airport at every possible opportunity.

Her original dream, to become a naval aviator, unfortunately wasn't to be. She was soloing flights (legally this time) by age sixteen and had achieved her Women Airforce Service Pilots licence the following year. But before she could officially join WASP (you had to be eighteen and a half), it had disbanded. It was disheartening, but not an end to her career. Instead, Betty started working as a night clerk at Eastern Airlines so that she could fly during the day. At eighteen, she received her commercial rating, followed soon by her flight instructor and multi-engine ratings.

Photo: AP, New York Times

The mid-40s were a frustrating time. Skelton was able to offer flight instruction, but women were prohibited from actually participating in military and commercial aviation, so instruction was about as far as that path would take her. So, she started looking at other options.

Namely, aerobatics.

It was great timing. Betty's father was putting on an air show fundraiser, and it really only made sense that Betty should fly in it. She learned a few tricks from Clem Whittenback, and two weeks later, she was giving her first performance in a borrowed Fairchild PT-19. That was that. Betty fell in love with the thrill of performance and the freedom she had to fly without any pesky prohibitions or laws getting in her way. In 1946, she bought her first plane (a 1929 Great Lakes 2T1A biplane) for an airshow in Jacksonville, and she was in business. For that exposition, she flew alongside the Navy exhibition team, the Blue Angels, which was such a hit with the crowd that Betty was nicknamed "the Sweetheart of the Blue Angels" and went on tour with them throughout the southeast.

She rang in the new year in 1948 with a few big changes. Still flying her Great Lakes, Skelton won her first title as International Feminine Aerobatic Champion. But... her eyes began to stray. One of the other attendees had shown up to the competition with a stunning Pitts Special S-1C biplane, and Skelton fell head-over-heels. The owner stringently refused to let her get a feel in it by taking it out for a quick flight, and they certainly weren't going to let her buy it. But Skelton was entranced. The Pitts Special was the smallest plane of its time, an experimental single-seat open-cockpit craft unlike anything she'd ever seen, and she was determined to have it.

It took time. It took persistence. It took a hell of a lot of patience. But in August of 1948, Skelton was finally able to purchase the Pitts Special. She promptly gave the striking plane an equally striking red and white livery, naming it - with tongue firmly in cheek - Little Stinker. And, just for a little extra oomph, she added her own bright red (nonfunctioning) button to the control panel with a note that read "spin, crash, and burn" as well as a wolf whistle to attract the attention of the airport boys. The Little Stinker was a perfect match for Skelton, a confident and whimsical woman barely breaching 5'3" and 45kg. As she said in a 1999 interview, "I didn't just sit in that little aeroplane, I wore it".

It was in the comfort of Little Stinker that Betty performed her most daring stunts. She was the first woman to complete the inverted ribbon cut, where she flew her plane upside down at 241km/h, just ten feet above the ground, in order to slice through a ribbon held between two poles. On her first attempt completing the trick, her engine failed. With a composure many of us would have immediately lost, Skelton simply righted the plane, landed it, then restarted the engine to complete the trick. She became a huge name in the aviation world, especially when she landed two more International Feminine Acrobatic Championships in the following two years.

She wasn't quite done yet. There were plenty of records left for her to break, after all. So, she made it her mission to break Jacqueline Cochran's World Air Speed Record, a feat that wouldn't have been feasible in Little Stinker but could have been possible in the P-51 Mustang she borrowed from Woody Edmondson. Unfortunately, just as she broke 678km/h, the fastest speed, the plane's engine blew. She was over the Tampa Bay at the time and, realising that she couldn't swim, had to make an emergency landing at MacDill Air Force Base. Because of the engine failure, the record wasn't counted.

In 1949, though, Betty was able to set a women's altitude record. At an airfield in Tampa, she climbed to 29,050 feet in a Piper Club plane - an altitude higher than Mount Everest. The temperature outside the plane at that point is 53 degrees below zero; Ms. Skelton, who often flew barefoot, climbed out of the cockpit and noted that her "feet darn near froze to death!"

By the mid-1950s, the barriers keeping women from advancing in aerobatics meant that Skelton had reached the limits of what she could do in a plane. For someone as devoted to what she called the "art" of flying, it was a tough pill to swallow. She had sold Little Stinker in 1951, then moved to North Carolina where she began to fly charter flights out of Raleigh for several years.

And there, she met a man whose name you might recognise: Bill France.

The founder of NASCAR had been impressed by her skills and invited Skelton out to drive the pace car at the race in Daytona. Not only that, but she was given a chance behind the wheel a 1954 Dodge Red Ram V8 — and promptly set a stock car record. With that, Betty realised that there was a whole new world of speed available for her to take advantage of. And take advantage of it she did.

Betty Skelton became the auto industry's first test driver. She jumped a boat, "L'il Miss Dodge", over a 1955 Custom Royal Lancer in Florida's Cypress Gardens. She was part of the team that set 395 new records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. In 1956, she was the top advertising executives at General Motors. She set the Women's Speed Record of 444km/h average (and a one-way speed record of 509km/h) at the Bonneville Salt Flats behind the wheel of Art Afons's open cockpit F-86-D J-47 Sabre-jet powered "Green Monster — Cyclops". She set three more Feminine Land Speed records as well as a transcontinental speed record. She was unstoppable.

In her spare time, Betty worked as a columnist for various magazines. In perhaps her most notable article for Look magazine, she underwent the same physical aptitude tests that were given to the astronauts on the Mercury 7 to prove that a woman was just as capable as a man at withstanding the physical pressures of space. It seemed like that might be Skelton's next big mission - after all, what bigger accomplishment could there be than becoming the first American woman on the moon? But it wasn't to be. Skelton herself wasn't interested in making space her aim, instead reminding readers that she wasn't actually affiliated with NASA and that the #1 goal should be getting people to the moon generally.

Photo: NYTimes

As the mid-70s approached, Skelton was content to settle down. She had accumulated more combined automotive and aircraft records than anyone in her time — an achievement that has yet to be broken to this day. Her nickname, "the first lady of firsts", was incredibly fitting. In recognition of her achievements, she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, the International Aerobatic Hall of fame, the International Council of Air Shows Hall of Fame, the Corvette Hall of Fame, and the Motorsports Hall of Fame. In 2010, she was the inductee for the Paul E. Garber First Flight Shrine at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. And, to keep her legacy alive, the United States National Aerobatic Championship awards the highest placing female pilot with the coveted Betty Skelton First Lady of Aerobatics award.

Skelton's life was a long and happy one. In 1965, she married TV director and advertising exec Donald Frankman. The two remained married until Frankman passed away in 2001; four years later, Betty remarried to Allan Erde, a retired Navy doctor. She owned her own real estate company in Florida, drove a red convertible, and was able to live comfortably until her peaceful death in 2011.

In a 1999 interview, Skelton was asked what makes her tick. Her answer was simple:

"My heart makes me tick, and it's my heart that makes me do these things. I don't think I have any better answer than that, except that everyone is built a little differently, and my heart and my will and my desires are mixed up with challenge."

I think it's safe to say that Skelton passed away with a heart fulfilled. While the path she took wasn't the easy one, Betty Skelton soared over gender barriers like they didn't exist in the first place. Her confidence demanded that she be recognised for the incredible skills she possessed, and she paved the way for countless women to follow in her footsteps.

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