SI Vault
Bill Mauldin
July 18, 1955
Flying in his speedy Tri-Pacer, SI's Sunday pilot sets out to cover the Ninth Annual All Woman Transcontinental Air Race. He got his story, but he couldn't keep up with the full-throttle, thunder-and-lightning girls
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July 18, 1955

Across America With The Powder Puffs

Flying in his speedy Tri-Pacer, SI's Sunday pilot sets out to cover the Ninth Annual All Woman Transcontinental Air Race. He got his story, but he couldn't keep up with the full-throttle, thunder-and-lightning girls

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l Frances S. Bera, Los Angeles
Edna Bower, Long Beach

Cessna 180


2 Alice Roberts, Phoenix
Iris Critchell, Palos Verdes Est., Calif.



3 Esther H. Gardiner, Waterford, Conn.
Clarissa H. Holcomb, Westfield, Mass.



4 Margaret Callaway, Ft. Worth
Lindy Boyes, Piedmont, Calif.

Cessna 140


5 Marian E. Burke, San Antonio

Super Cub


6 Olive McCormick, Muncie, Ind.
Audrey McCormick (Daughter), Muncie, Ind.



7 Alice Hammond, Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich.
Jean Pearson, Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich.

Cessna 170


8 Sylvia Roth, Chicago
Helen Sailer, Evanston

Cessna 140A


9 Shirley B. Froyd, Inglewood, Calif.
Joyce Agee, Inglewood, Calif.



10 Doris Eacret, Elko, Nevada
Helen McIntosh, Sunland, Calif.

Cessna 140A


* Average mph above 75% hp sea level cruise

The Los Angeles area undoubtedly has the worst flying weather in the United States, a fact that qualifies it to be the starting point of the Annual All Woman Transcontinental Air Race, sometimes known as the Powder Puff Derby. It is sponsored by the "99's," the international lady-pilot organization founded by Amelia Earhart. This year's edition of the race—the ninth, by the way—was from Long Beach, Calif. to Springfield, Mass. I started out with the girls on July 2, under my own power, and finished with them on July 6, not under my own power. It was a rough go.

Starting time in the morning of the first day found the usual greasy, smoggy overcast backed up all the way to the San Jacinto mountains. The weatherman predicted a break around noon. The entire race had to be flown VFR, or Visual Flight Rules, which means visibility had to be at least three miles, ceiling no lower than 1,000 ft. above terrain and no flying before official sunrise or later than one half hour after official sunset.

Out of an original 56 entries, 51 planes clustered at the end of the starting runway on Long Beach Municipal Airport. Cessnas predominated, 27 of them, including a big, radial-engine 195, 12 four-place 180s and 170s and 14 perky, two-place 140s. There were four Beechcraft Bonanzas, three Stinsons, one Navion, one Swift, three Luscombes, three Bellancas and nine Pipers, mostly Pacers and Tri-Pacers. The single Super Cub among the Pipers carried in its back seat the only other male besides me allowed on the race—a lifesize dummy of Popeye the Sailor. The pilot was Marian Burke, of San Antonio, sponsored by Crystal City, Tex., which wishes to be known for its spinach, judging from placards and brochures burdening the otherwise attractive Miss Burke and her ship.

Most entries were sponsored. Few of the girls were rich enough to race on their own—first prize was $800, less than the average pilot's fuel, oil and living expenses, since many had come out from the East to enter. This reporter was flying a Piper Tri-Pacer and was sponsored by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, which did not require me to paint signs on my plane or sell subscriptions on the way.


Everything short of illegal modifications had been done to make the planes fly faster (they must be stock machines and are carefully inspected by CAA officials before and after the race) and they all glittered with wax. The contestants glittered, too, despite their tenseness at the weather delay. Helmets and coveralls are as pass� for women pilots as goggles and dusters for female drivers. The Powder Puff Derby discourages sloppy dress, including slacks, and the gals looked almost too cute to check their own oil.

The variety of age, experience and occupation was really startling. There were grandmothers, housewives, schoolgirls and lady crop-dusters. Frances Bera of Los Angeles, mother of two children, had 6,000 hours' experience and a commercial license with Instrument and Flight Instructor ratings. Ruby Potter of San Diego, a housewife with three kids, had only 225 hours. A 16-year-old named Carol Hauk had 20 hours, barely enough to have soloed. Carol was flying copilot for her mother, who had 900 hours with Commercial and Instructor's ratings. Some were ex-WASPs who piloted during the war; some had only recently taken up flying just to get off the dangerous highways. Ninety-five women in all, seven going solo and 44 pilot-copilot teams.

It might seem odd that all this can add up to a race, with such a variety of capability among pilots and speed among planes. For instance, the Bonanza's par speed is 167 mph, while the little Luscombe 8-A grinds along at 96 mph. The plane which averages the highest ground speed for the 2,800-mile course in relation to its par speed wins. There is no neck-and-neck stuff with a checkered flag at the end; in past races some of the lowest scores have crossed the finish line two days ahead of the winners. As to the pilots, of course experience pays off; but on a long trip like this, one with 300 hours who has diligently applied herself to precision navigation can beat the socks off a 3,000-hour pro whose specialty is aerobatics.

We were off at 2 o'clock, planes being flagged off as fast as the girls could get their racing logs stamped at the official time clock. For a few minutes the sky was alive with brightly colored little planes and it really looked like a conventional race. But it spread fast. Some jolted through the desert right down on the deck with their teeth rattling, not wanting to waste time climbing, since Weather's "winds aloft" report had said the prevailing westerlies would not increase with altitude as they usually do. While the contestants had differing techniques on many things, they were agreed on one: each lady I talked to intended to shove the throttle all the way to the firewall and keep it there.

A number of contestants in ships which could have made El Paso nonstop put down in Phoenix, where there's a motel with a pool right on the field. Being leisurely this way didn't cost them a thing, so long as they did their lollygagging at legitimate stops. It is important to explain here that only flying time counts in the Powder Puff Derby: that is, time between the take-off and landing stamps in the logbook. At Blythe, Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, Midland (a mandatory stop), Wichita Falls, Tulsa, Springfield, Mo., St. Louis, Terre Haute, Dayton, Wheeling, Reading, Pa. (mandatory), or Springfield, Mass. (finish line), the girls could relax once they were stamped in. But only these places had the official time clocks, and as far as the Derby was concerned, every minute spent elsewhere was flying time. A miscalculation on fuel which caused an unexpected 15-minute landing at any other field was just that much time against the contestant. Minutes spent in maneuvering for a landing, waiting for tower clearance on the radio and taxiing are counted against the entrant, also time spent stopping the engine and opening the door. So is running time to the clock. Once the book is stamped, all is O.K., and girls who a moment before were hell-bent for leather can light a cigarette and go to town for a leg-wax. It is a standing joke in the Derby that the race is really won on foot, not in the air, and that the smart contestant picks a copilot for sprinting, not flying, ability.

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