Amy Kellestine Reviews “Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History”
Keith O’Brien’s “Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History” chronicles the details of the aviation industry in the US and the fight for women to fly. In it, O’Brien offers a compelling illustration of the almost unimaginable obstacles that women faced on their quest for equality on the ground and in the air.
The book picks up in 1927, just seven years after American women earn the right to vote and almost a decade after the end of World War I, as Charles Lindbergh is poised to make his historic flight across the Pacific between New York and Paris. Air rodeos and races are a source of entertainment and winning pilots become household names. The entire nation is captivated by the thrill and excitement that planes offer. “Fly Girls” outlines the various trials and tribulations of many pilots, but focuses on the rise and fall of five women in particular: Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols, Louise Thaden, Ruth Elder, and Florence Klingensmith. Each had their own way of navigating a life that challenged the status quo and they each saw flying as a way to personal freedom. For example, Earhart was a social worker who became a vocal advocate for women’s rights and Klingensmith pushed so hard to be seen as an equal that she took a calculated risk that ended her life.
Throughout the book, the author does an uncanny job illustrating the dangerous and gruesome reality of the aviation industry during this era. Flying was not a pastime for the faint of heart. Leaky oil tanks, wings that broke mid-air, and getting lost (and therefore not finding a runway before you ran out of gas and crashed) were regular occurrences. Each successful flight seemed all the more miraculous as the failures added up. I developed a real appreciation for the guts, skill, determination, and luck required by all pilots.
I was also impressed with how well the author illustrated the injustices of how the female pilots were treated. Despite earning the right to vote a few years earlier, women were still largely considered an inferior sex, and they were treated as such. For example, when Klingensmith’s high performance plane crashed, clearly due to its right wing breaking, the coroner’s inquest questioned her mental stamina and whether or not she was menstruating at the time. Women were banned from races, had additional rules applied to their flights, and were treated harshly by the media. The entire book served as a stark reminder of the battles waged on the journey women’s equality.
Of the women included in this well-researched account, I had only ever heard of Amelia Earhart. As it turns out, she wasn’t necessarily the best overall pilot in the bunch, just the one with the best publicist! Each of the women profiled could be considered leaders of the movement at different times. For example, Elder was the first woman to try and fly across the Atlantic and Thaden won the first Women’s Air Derby. I love that O’Brien profiled five key women as well as a supporting cast of additional characters; it really showed how important the community was to their overall success.
However, while O’Brien excelled at the technical details as the events unfolded, I wanted more insight into the connection and camaraderie between the leading ladies. There were occasional notes about their support, encouragement and (at times) jealousy or fear for one another. However, these accounts felt clinical to me and they left me wondering about the true nature of the relationships between the women.
I also wanted more information on the organization formed by the women pilots, the Ninety-Nines. Most notably, the group lobbied for the rights of women pilots and did research on women’s employment in all career paths. More details about the group and their activities would have been a wonderful complement to the narrative.
Though many of the names have been lost from our collective memory, these ordinary women and their single mindedness, passion, and determination changed the course of history. “Fly Girls” showcases these forgotten heroes and how they challenged and transformed the establishment. Though I might have preferred a less clinical, more heartfelt read, “Fly Girls” is still an inspiring illustration of how the sky truly is the limit.
Amy Kellestine is an educator, engineer, Arati life coach and entrepreneur living in Edmonton, Alberta. She spends her free time camping, gardening, and volunteering for causes such as Cystic Fibrosis and nature conservation. She is a devoted mother and is passionate about helping others and writing.