Louise Thaden

Last updated
Iris Louise McPhetridge Thaden
Louise thaden 2b.jpg
Thaden, circa 1930s
Born(1905-11-12)November 12, 1905
DiedNovember 9, 1979(1979-11-09) (aged 73)
Occupation Aviator
Spouse(s)Herbert von Thaden
ChildrenWilliam von Thaden
Patricia Thaden Webb

Iris Louise McPhetridge Thaden (November 12, 1905 – November 9, 1979) was an American aviation pioneer, holder of numerous aviation records, and the first woman to win the Bendix trophy, alongside Blanche Noyes. [1] She was inducted into the Arkansas Aviation Historical Society's Hall of Fame in 1980. [2]

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the largest city by population is New York City. Forty-eight states and the capital's federal district are contiguous in North America between Canada and Mexico. The State of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine official time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.

Arkansas Aviation Historical Society is a non-profit organization promoting aviation. It created the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame in 1980, and recently created college scholarships in hopes of encouraging young people to pursue aviation careers. The Aviation Hall of Fame honors individuals who played a great role in aviation and aerospace history on the national or Arkansas scene. Records are hosted by Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Arkansas Studies Institute, Central Arkansas Library System, in Little Rock, Arkansas.


Birth and education

Louise McPhetridge was born in Bentonville, Arkansas and attended Bentonville public schools. McPhetridge attended the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Arkansas from 1921 to 1926 and studied as a journalism, physical education, and pre-medical major.

Bentonville, Arkansas City in Arkansas, United States

Bentonville is the ninth-largest city in Arkansas, United States and the county seat of Benton County. The city is centrally located in the county with Rogers adjacent to the east. The city is the birthplace and world headquarters of Walmart, the world's largest retailer. It is one of the four main cities in the four-county Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Statistical Area, which is ranked 109th in terms of population in the United States with 463,204 residents in 2010, according to the United States Census Bureau. The city itself had a population of 35,301 at the 2010 Census, with an estimated population of 49,298 in 2017.

University of Arkansas Public research university in Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA

The University of Arkansas is a public land-grant, research university in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It is the flagship campus of the University of Arkansas System and the largest, best-known university in the state. Founded as Arkansas Industrial University in 1871, its present name was adopted in 1899 and classes were first held on January 22, 1872. It is noted for its strong architecture, agriculture, business, communication disorders, creative writing, history, law, and Middle Eastern studies programs.

Fayetteville, Arkansas City in Arkansas, United States

Fayetteville is the third-largest city in Arkansas and county seat of Washington County. The city is centrally located within the county and has been home of the University of Arkansas since the institution's founding in 1871. Fayetteville is on the outskirts of the Boston Mountains, deep within the Ozarks. Known as Washington until 1829, the city was named after Fayetteville, Tennessee, from which many of the settlers had come. It was incorporated on November 3, 1836 and was rechartered in 1867. The four-county Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Statistical Area is ranked 105th in terms of population in the United States with 463,204 in 2010 according to the United States Census Bureau. The city had a population of 73,580 at the 2010 Census.


In 1926, McPhetridge was working for the J.H.J. Turner Coal Co. where one of her main customers was the Travel Air Corporation in Wichita, Kansas, owned by Walter Beech. Beech liked McPhetridge and offered her a job as a sales representative in San Francisco, California, which she accepted. Her salary included free pilot's lessons, and she earned her pilot's certificate in 1928. She was the first female pilot to be licensed by the state of Ohio.

Wichita, Kansas City and county seat in Kansas, United States

Wichita is the largest city in the U.S. state of Kansas and the county seat of Sedgwick County. As of 2017, the estimated population of the city was 390,591. Wichita is the principal city of the Wichita metropolitan area which had an estimated population of 644,610 in 2015.

Walter Beech American pioneer aviator and co-founder of Beech Aircraft Company

Walter Herschel Beech was an American aviator and aviation entrepreneur who co-founded the Beech Aircraft Company in 1932 with his wife, Olive Ann Beech, and a team of three others.

San Francisco Consolidated city-county in California, US

San Francisco, officially the City and County of San Francisco, is a city in, and the cultural, commercial, and financial center of, Northern California. San Francisco is the 13th-most populous city in the United States, and the fourth-most populous in California, with 884,363 residents as of 2017. It covers an area of about 46.89 square miles (121.4 km2), mostly at the north end of the San Francisco Peninsula in the San Francisco Bay Area, making it the second-most densely populated large US city, and the fifth-most densely populated U.S. county, behind only four of the five New York City boroughs. San Francisco is also part of the fifth-most populous primary statistical area in the United States, the San Jose–San Francisco–Oakland, CA Combined Statistical Area.


McPhetridge met Herbert von Thaden, who was a United States Army Signal Corps pilot and engineer who worked on developing the first American all-metal aircraft, the Thaden T-2. McPhetridge and von Thaden were married in San Francisco on June 19, 1928. [3] By 1929, Louise Thaden had become only the fourth woman to hold a transport pilot rating.

Thaden T-2

The Thaden T-2 was a 1920s American four-seat all-metal cabin monoplane built by the Thaden Metal Aircraft Company of San Francisco, California.


Thaden rapidly became a major figure in the aviation world and set many world performance records and won many major flying events. In 1929, she became the first pilot to hold the women's altitude, endurance and speed records in light planes simultaneously. Thaden set the women's altitude record in December 1928 with a mark of 20,260 feet. In March 1929, she set the women's endurance record with a flight of 22 hours, 3 minutes, 12 seconds.

Women were barred from air racing from 1930 to 1935, due to sexism. [4]

Women's Air Derby

Thaden was a friend and rival of pioneer aviators Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, Opal Kunz, and Blanche Noyes. Thaden defeated her colleagues in the first Women's Air Derby, also known as the Powder Puff Derby, in 1929. The Air Derby was a transcontinental race from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio, which was the site of the National Air Races that year. It took place from August 13–20, 1929. Twenty women were entered in the race. Marvel Crosson was killed. Earhart damaged her aircraft at Yuma, Arizona, Barnes became lost and flew into Mexico and damaged her plane attempting to get back on course, and Noyes suffered an in-flight fire over Texas. [5]

Amelia Earhart American aviation pioneer and author

Amelia Mary Earhart was an American aviation pioneer and author. Earhart was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She received the United States Distinguished Flying Cross for this accomplishment. She set many other records, wrote best-selling books about her flying experiences and was instrumental in the formation of The Ninety-Nines, an organization for female pilots. In 1935, Earhart became a visiting faculty member at Purdue University as an advisor to aeronautical engineering and a career counselor to women students. She was also a member of the National Woman's Party and an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Pancho Barnes American aviator

Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes was a pioneer aviator, the founder of the first movie stunt pilots' union. In 1930, she broke Amelia Earhart's air speed record. Barnes raced in the Women's Air Derby and was a member of the Ninety-Nines. In later years, she was known as the owner of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a bar and restaurant in the Mojave Desert, Southern California, catering to the legendary test pilots and aviators who worked nearby.

Opal Kunz Aviator, feminist

Opal Kunz was an early American aviator, the chief organizer of the Betsy Ross Air Corps, and a charter member of the Ninety-Nines organization of women pilots. In 1930, she became the first woman pilot to race with men in an open competition. She made many public appearances to urge more women to take up flying.

Middle career

In 1930, Thaden went to work as the public relations director of Pittsburgh Aviation Industries (which had recently purchased her husband's Thaden Metal Aircraft Company) and became the director of the Women's Division of the Penn School of Aeronautics. That same year, Thaden and Earhart participated in the founding of an international organization for women pilots called the Ninety-Nines. Thaden turned down the presidency of the organization but served as the treasurer and vice-president. The Ninety-Nine organization still exists. In 1991, astronaut Eileen Collins carried Thaden's flying helmet into space on the space shuttle to honor her achievements and the early women pioneers of flight. In 1935, Phoebe Omlie, another pioneer female aviator, asked Thaden to become a field representative for the National Air Marking Program.

1936 Bendix Trophy Race

In 1936, Thaden won the Bendix Trophy Race in the first year women were allowed access to compete against men. She set a new world record of 14 hours, 55 minutes from New York City to Los Angeles, California. In her astonishing victory, she flew a Beech C17R Staggerwing biplane and defeated twin-engine planes specifically designed for racing. Laura Ingalls, another aviator, came in second by 45 minutes flying a Lockheed Orion. First prize was $4,500, and she also won the $2,500 prize for a woman finishing. Time magazine wrote on September 14, 1936:

To Pilots Thaden & Noyes the $7,000 prize money was far less gratifying than the pleasure of beating the men. Among the first ten U.S. women to earn transport licenses, they have for years been front-line fighters in aviation's "battle of the sexes." A fuzzy-haired blonde of 30, Mrs. Thaden has been flying since 1927, has held the women's speed, altitude and endurance records, is the mother of a 6-year-old son. She and Flyer Noyes both work regularly as air-marking pilots for the Department of Commerce. Short, brunette Mrs. Noyes is better known as the only pilot ever to fly John D. Rockefeller Sr. In the National Air Races, men contestants have always patronized women, in 1934 ousted them altogether. Smilingly observed Pilots Thaden and Noyes last week when they found they had won one of the two most important events of the Races: "Well, that's a surprise! We expected to be the cow's tail."

For her achievements Thaden won aviation's highest honor given to women, the Harmon Trophy.

Aviation career

Thaden teamed up with Frances Marsalis and set another endurance record by flying a Curtiss Thrush biplane over Long Island, New York for 196 hours. The pair made seventy-eight air-to-air refueling maneuvers. Food and water were lowered to the two by means of a rope from another aircraft. The event gained national attention and the pair made a series of live radio broadcasts from the aircraft.

In 1937, she became the National Secretary of the National Aeronautics Association. Just prior to her retirement, she returned to Beech Aircraft Corporation as a factory representative and demonstration pilot.


Thaden retired from competition in 1938. She worked for a time with the Bureau of Air Commerce to promote the creation of airfields. She also wrote her memoirs, High, Wide and Frightened soon after her retirement. In addition to her memoirs, she wrote numerous newspaper and magazine articles dealing with aviation issues. Thaden said women were "innately better pilots than men." The final chapter of her autobiography, "Noble Experiment," omitted from the 1973 and 2004 reissues of the book, is a short story giving a dystopian vision of the use of women in combat. It gains particular pertinence in its implicit criticism of the strategic bombing theories of Giulio Douhet and William ("Billy") Mitchell. [6]

The Arkansas Aviation Historical Society selected Thaden in 1980 as one of five initial inductees in the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame.


Thaden died of a heart attack at High Point, North Carolina on November 9, 1979.


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  1. Corn, Joseph. "Making Flying "Thinkable": Women Pilots and the Selling of Aviation, 1927-1940". The Johns Hopkins University Press. JSTOR   2712272.Missing or empty |url= (help)
  2. "Louise McPhetridge Thaden". Arkansas Aviation Historical Society. Retrieved February 11, 2019.
  3. Jeannie M. Whayne (2000). Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives. University of Arkansas Press. pp. 286–. ISBN   978-1-55728-587-4.
  4. "Terry Von Thaden – 2004 Convention" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 August 2006. Retrieved 12 July 2012.
  5. http://aerofiles.com/powderpuff.html
  6. Erisman, Fred (December 2014). "Louise Thaden's 'Noble Experiment': An American Aviation Dystopia". Journal of American Culture 37:4.
  7. Sprekelmeyer, Linda, editor. These We Honor: The International Aerospace Hall of Fame. Donning Co. Publishers, 2006. ISBN   978-1-57864-397-4.