The First Women’s Air Derby was a transcontinental race that began in Santa Monica, California, and culminated in Cleveland, Ohio, for the 1929 Cleveland National Air Races. Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, Louise Thaden, Bobbi Trout and other women aviators of the era brought international attention to women in aviation. That same year, The Ninety-Nines Women’s Aviation Organization was born… literally under the wing of an airplane in Cleveland.
The history of The Ninety-Nines is deeply rooted in air racing. The Women’s Air Derby on August 13-20, 1929 gave women the opportunity to participate in an area of aviation that had been eluding them. Louise Thaden wrote:
“To us the successful completion of the Derby was of more import than life or death. Airplane and engine construction had advanced remarkably near the end of 1929. Scheduled air transportation was beginning to be a source of worry to the railroad. Nonetheless a pitiful minority were riding air lines. Commercial training schools needed more students. The public was sceptical of airplanes and air travel. We women of the Derby were out to prove that flying was safe; to sell aviation to the layman.”
Seventy women held U.S. Department of Commerce licenses in August 1929, but only 40 met the race requirements. Participants had to have 100 hours of solo flight including 25 hours of solo cross-country to points more than 40 miles from the starting airport. The pilot also had to hold a license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) and an annual sporting license issued by the contest committee of the National Aeronautics Association (NAA). Each participant also had to carry a gallon of water and a three-day food supply.