There was a time—25 years ago, to be precise—when women pilots were more to be pitied than censured. In fact, their first try at a pre-Derby race was scorned by that comedian-male chauvinist Will Rogers as the Powder Puff Derby and, sure enough, the name stuck. But look at the silver anniversary of the same race last week: there were nearly 300 female pilots and copilots in 35 varieties of planes zinging across 2,442.44 statute miles from Canada down to Louisiana for $25,000 in prizes in the biggest Derby that ever took wing. And, naturally, the girls were racing for the "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" trophy.
The Powder Puff Derby is possibly the most female-oriented competition in the world. It is organized and run by the Ninety-Nines, an international group of licensed women pilots whose first president was Amelia Earhart. And while Miss Earhart was always pictured in a flying costume of wrinkled, baggy trousers and nondescript shirts, the ladies of last week had come a long way from that, baby. There were, among the attractively costumed entries from 36 states plus Canada, South Africa and Mexico, such flying stalwarts as a bush pilot, a pylon racer, a wing-walker, an aerobatic champion and row upon row of flying instructors. Three had raced in 19 Derbies, and one entrant, 1951 winner Claire Walters, had logged 22,000 flying hours. On the other hand, or wing, was Fran Salles of Baton Rouge, whose 230 hours barely made her eligible to compete, and who showed up with a tiny Capuchin monkey named Cherie as a copilot. Race officials, awfully touchy about their image, decided to let the monkey race only because of its sex: female.
Most of the racers went about their business very seriously; there were briefings, meteorological lectures and flight plans to file. Experts repeatedly went over the rules: first, the Derby would be a four-day, elapsed-time race from Calgary across eight states to Baton Rouge, with six designated points along the route where the fliers would descend to 200 feet and "fly by" certain towers. There were three must-stops and each of them, Rapid City, S. Dak., Lincoln, Neb., and Little Rock, Ark., had to be made before sundown. All flying was to be VFR (visual flight rules), which means no instrument flying was permitted. Finally, each plane was to be handicapped on its manufacturer's "par speed" statistics.
On takeoff morning the women were up at 4:30 and on the runway at 6, and exactly at 8 a.m. Jerry Roberts of Haddon Heights, N.J., a mother of three, gunned the engine of her Cessna 206 and took off. From that point on—to the finish in Louisiana—the race became a series of vignettes:
All men were chased off the runway by a race official. When a Virginia Slims representative proudly strolled over to look at the little plane sponsored by his cigarette company, he was summarily bounced. "But I happen to be paying a lot for this," he protested. "I know," snapped a lady, "but you are a man." He departed.
Then slender, 29-year-old Trina Jarish, brown hair halfway down her back, scooted up and down the runway, white-booted legs flashing. She was near tears. Despite her 1,000 hours in the air, she was still a woman—and she had absent-mindedly locked the key to her plane door in her personal luggage, which was now on its way to Baton Rouge. Someone was called in to pick the lock. A man.
By 11:30 a.m., the 145 Powder Puff planes were up and away. They scattered quickly down the route and by sundown of the first day, race officials figured that 23 had landed for the night in Denver, six had flown further on their way to either McCook or Lincoln, Neb., 60 were staying over at Rapid City, while 56 others were sitting tight in either Great Falls or Billings, hoping to pick up predicted tailwinds to boost their speeds the next day.
By sundown of the second day eight of the planes had already flashed across the finish line at Baton Rouge's Ryan Airport. The third day brought in 79 more, some arriving in clusters, buzzing overhead like angry mosquitoes as they awaited directions from the tower.
Husbands and friends paced in the airport terminal, trading stories. "I suppose this whole Derby will look a lot different when I get the repair bills," said one bemused spouse whose wife had reported from Great Falls that there was a nick in her prop and that her compass had gone awry.
"I don't really care what Fran's standing in the race is," said Emile Salles, who was festooned with cameras and was peering wistfully at the sky, "but I wish I knew what was happening." The latest word on Fran and Cherie the monkey was that they had been delayed in Colorado with magneto trouble. "That copilot of hers is just monkeying around," somebody said. Salles didn't laugh with the others. The local paper had mistakenly reported in its morning edition that Fran was flying with a chimpanzee. "By the time she gets to the finish line it will be a gorilla," he growled.