First Women's Air Derby, Powder Puff Derby

Earhart subsequently made her first attempt at competitive air racing in 1929 during the first Santa Monica-to-Cleveland Women's Air Derby (later nicknamed the "Powder Puff Derby" by Will Rogers). During the race, at the last intermediate stop before the finish in Cleveland, Earhart and her friend Ruth Nichols were tied for first place. Nichols was to take off right before Earhart, but her aircraft hit a tractor at the end of the runway and flipped over. Instead of taking off, Earhart ran to the wrecked aircraft and dragged her friend out. Only when she was sure that Nichols was uninjured did Amelia take off for Cleveland but due to the time lost, she finished third. Her courageous act was symbolic of Earhart's selflessness; typically, she rarely referred to the incident in later years.

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.

The first Women's Air Derby on August 13-20, 1929, was a transcontinental race as part of the National Air Races at Cleveland that was entered by 20 women flyers. While at the time there were 70 US-licensed women pilots, only 40 met the race requirements of having 100 hours of solo flight, including 25 hours of solo cross-country, a license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), and an annual sporting license issued by the National Aeronautics Association (NAA). Of that group, there were 20 entrants in the Derby.

It took eight days to fly and navigate the route using only dead reckoning and road maps. Louise Thaden came in first, and 14 others who completed the race in one of the two aircraft categories were Amelia Earhart, Ruth Elder, Edith Foltz, Mary Haizlip, Jessie Keith-Miller, Opal Kunz, Blanche Noyes, Gladys O'Donnell, Phoebe Omlie, Neva Paris, Thea Rasche, Bobbi Trout (out of the competition with two forced landings), Mary von March, and Vera Dawn Walker.

1929 was also the year the Ninety-Nines women's aviation organization was born, which would enter this picture 18 years later.