Louise McPhetridge Thaden (1905–1979)
Louise McPhetridge Thaden was an aviation pioneer and holder of numerous flight records during the late 1920s and 1930s. At one point, she was the most famous female American aviator only after Amelia Earhart.
Louise McPhetridge was born in Bentonville (Benton County) on November 12, 1905, to Roy McPhetridge, a travelling Mentholatum salesman who taught Louise to hunt, fish, and fix a car, and Edna McPhetridge, a housewife. She had one sister. Raised on the family farm, McPhetridge discovered an early interest in aviation long before learning to fly. A ride in a plane with a barnstormer fuelled her desire to fly.
After attending local public schools, McPhetridge attended the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) from 1922 to 1925, majoring first in journalism and then physical education. Leaving school without a degree, she moved to Wichita, Kansas, to work for Jack Turner, a local businessman and aviation booster. McPhetridge, a sales clerk, sold coal, fuel oil, and building materials from Turner’s lumber yard business.
Through her sales work, McPhetridge travelled around Wichita and ended up spending much of her time around the local airplane factory, Travel Air. Turner introduced her to his friend and Travel Air’s owner, Walter Beech. Impressed with her passion and resolve to fly, Beech contacted his west coast distributor, and soon McPhetridge had a job as a salesperson and office manager with Beech’s dealership in Oakland, California. As part of her salary, free pilot’s lessons were included. She earned her pilot’s certificate in 1928—number 850, signed by Orville Wright.
Upon gaining her pilot’s license, she became the first and only pilot to hold the women’s altitude, solo endurance, and speed records simultaneously. She set the women’s altitude record (20,260 feet) on December 7, 1928, the solo endurance record on March 16–17, 1929 (twenty-two hours, three minutes, twenty-eight seconds), and the speed record on April 18, 1929 (156 mph).
In California, McPhetridge met Herbert von Thaden, a former United States Army pilot and engineer who was developing one of America’s first all-metal aircraft. McPhetridge and Herbert Thaden were married on July 21, 1928, in Reno, Nevada.
Thaden competed and won against fellow aviators Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, Blanche Noyes, and others in the first all-women’s transcontinental race, the National Women’s Air Derby held August 19–26, 1929. Later that year, Thaden, Earhart, and others founded the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for female pilots, for which Thaden served as vice-president and secretary.
Thaden teamed up with Frances Marsalis and set a new refueling endurance record of 196 hours over Long Island, New York August 14–22, 1932. The pair made seventy-eight air-to-air refueling maneuvers. Food, water, oil, and fuel were passed down to the two by means of a rope from another aircraft. The event, dubbed by the press as the “The Flying Boudoir,” gained national attention, and the pair made a series of live radio broadcasts from the aircraft.
Feeling the pinch of the Great Depression, Thaden helped organize and took part in the National Air Marking Program with the Bureau of Air Commerce from 1934 to 1935. The program promoted the creation and marking of airfields and landmarks across the nation.
After a ban on women in top air races was lifted in 1935, Thaden and co-pilot Blanche Noyes became the first women to win the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race, on September 4, 1936. The two women set a new transcontinental record in the race from New York to Los Angeles. When their plane landed, Thaden and Noyes, believing they had flown too slow to win because of weather-related and mechanical problems, did not know they had won and did not understand the swarm of people around their plane. For her achievements in 1936, Thaden won aviation’s highest honor given to a female pilot, the Harmon Trophy, in April 1937.
Thaden retired from competition in 1938 to spend more time with her two children, Bill and Pat, and write her memoirs, High, Wide and Frightened, detailing the years from 1927 to 1937. In addition to her memoirs, she wrote numerous newspaper and magazine articles dealing with various aviation issues, continued to be active in several aviation organizations, and flew everything from jets to gliders.
In 1951, the Bentonville airport was renamed Louise M. Thaden Field in her honor. She is a founding inductee in the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame and is a member of the Smithsonian Institution’s Aviation Hall of Fame. In 1976, Thaden returned to Bentonville for a rededication ceremony at Thaden Field, and Governor David Pryor declared August 22, 1976, as Louise M. Thaden Day. She died of heart attack in High Point, North Carolina, on November 9, 1979. In 2017, the private Thaden School, named in her honor, opened in downtown Bentonville. In 2019, Thaden was inducted into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.
For additional information:
Dwiggins, Don. They Flew the Bendix Race: The History of Competition for the Bendix Trophy. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1965.
Erisman, Fred. “Louise Thaden’s ‘Noble Experiment’: An American Aviation Dystopia.” Journal of American Culture 37 (December 2014): 385–392.
Jessen, Gene Nora. The Powder Puff Derby of 1929: The First All Women’s Transcontinental Race. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Inc, 2002
Louise Thaden File. Arkansas Aviation Historical Society, Aerospace Branch. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Louise Thaden File. Arkansas Aviation Museum, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
O’Brien, Keith. Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.
Thaden, Louise McPhetridge. High, Wide and Frightened. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2004.
Whittaker, Helen DeWitt. Sisters in the Air: Louise McPhetridge Thaden, Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie. Johnson City, TN: Overmountain Press, 2002.
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