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Authors: Janann Sherman

Walking on Air

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Walking on Air

Walking on Air

The Aerial Adventures of

Janann Sherman

Willie Morris Books in Memoir and Biography

Designed by Peter D. Halverson

The University Press of Mississippi is a member of the Association of American University Presses.

Photograph on page ii by P. W. Hamilton, photographer for the
Minneapolis Tribune.
Phoebe Omlie Collection.

Copyright © 2011 by University Press of Mississippi
All rights reserved
Manufactured in the United States of America

First printing 2011


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Sherman, Janann.
Walking on air : the aerial adventures of Phoebe Omlie / Janann Sherman.
p. cm. — (Willie Morris books in memoir and biography)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-61703-124-3 (cloth : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-1-61703-125-0 (ebook)

1. Omlie, Phoebe Fairgrave, 1902–1975. 2. Women air pilots—United States—Biography. 3. Air pilots—United States—Biography. 4. Aeronautics—United States—History—20th century. I. Title.

TL540.O45S56 2011

629.13092—dc22 [B]                                      2010053401

British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data available

To Charlie,
who taught me how to live











Finding Phoebe





So many people have helped and guided me throughout this long journey. The following people have helped me find information, read my drafts, kept up my spirits, and most of all, never let me down.

I'm listing names alphabetically but, because I've spent my whole life as an “S,” I'm doing so in reverse order: Pat Thaden Webb, Susan Ware, June Viviano, Steve Trimble, Heather Taylor, Michael Shenk, Matt Shearer, Janet Scott, Thelma Rudd, Cathie Rochau, Patrick Pidgeon, Shirley Oakley, Lisa Norling, Kim Nichols, Dee Navrkal, Vicki Murrell, Lynn Mirassou, Bob Minter, John McWhorter, Chriss Lyon, Marilyn Locke, Betsy Kidd, Jim Kacarides, Jim Johnson, Betty Huehls, Candice Hawkinson, Della May Hartley-Frazier, Ken and Jerry Guthrie, Andrea and Mattie Green, Velma Gillispie, Jim Fulbright, Harry Friedman, Delories Duncan, Patti du Toit, Charles Crawford, Lisa Cotham, Beverly Bond, Meg and Mike Bartlett, Paula Barnes.

I hope I haven't forgotten anyone. I am profoundly grateful to you all.

Walking on Air

Chapter One

Aviation pioneer Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie was once one of the most famous women in America
. In the 1930s, her words and photographs were splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the nation. The press called her “second only to Amelia Earhart Putnam among America's women pilots,” and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt named her among the “eleven women whose achievements make it safe to say that the world is progressing.”

Phoebe Fairgrave began her career in the early 1920s when aviation was unregulated and wide open to those daring enough to take it on, male or female. She bought a plane, established her own flying circus, and did stunts for the movies. She later earned the first commercial pilot's license issued to a woman and became a successful air racer. During the New Deal, she became the first woman to hold an executive position in federal aeronautics. For twenty years, she was centrally involved in the development of commercial and private aviation policy and production.

Yet somehow she got lost to history.

She was forgotten partly because of the long shadow of Amelia Earhart, which has obscured the achievements of many daring women pilots, and partly because of the sad circumstances of her decline and death. She
died in poverty and obscurity. Personal papers, documents of her life and achievements, were scattered and gone.

She grew up rootless and perhaps that helped shape what she was to become, although one should be cautious about overdetermining a life. She was born into a troubled marriage between Madge Traister and Harry John “Jack” Park, a day laborer, in Des Moines, 21 November 1902, two years behind her only sibling, Paul. Named for her maternal grandmother, Phoebe Jane was six when her parents divorced in 1908.
Although Madge told her children that their father had died, Jack Park had a distressing way of turning up occasionally until his actual death in a car accident in Missouri in 1962.
At least twice in later years, Jack tried to make contact with his children: in 1943, he knocked on his son's door in Omaha, and he once tried to speak to Phoebe after an air meet in Cleveland, but she rebuffed him with the remark that he couldn't be her “real” father, her father was dead.

Three years after the Parks divorced, Madge married Andrew E. Fairgrave, who was himself divorced from a childless marriage. In 1915, Andrew and Madge and her two children, Paul, aged fifteen, and thirteen-year-old Phoebe, moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. From 1916 to 1919, Andrew Fairgrave ran a saloon downtown. After that, though his business was still in the same spot, he changed to soft drinks and “near-beer” with the advent of Prohibition.

Phoebe and her brother attended Mechanic Arts High School, which emphasized training in both the liberal arts and manual arts. The approximately 1,500 students were a diverse mix of children from families with modest incomes, including recent and second-generation immigrants from Ireland, Norway, Austria, Germany, Poland, and Sweden, with a handful of African American families.
Mechanic Arts self-consciously saw itself as “a working model of the melting pot,” emphasizing equality of opportunity, regardless of ancestry, race, gender, or economic status. Any student could aspire to leadership in the school.

Phoebe thrived in this environment. She enjoyed working with her hands as well as her mind. In her third year, despite her diminutive size and her gender, she was elected president of her junior class. Her classmates noted that she was “the first girl to hold office as president of a Mechanic Arts class, but we felt that Phoebe was competent and had enough executive ability to manage the class successfully.”
Her friend, Hugh O'Neill, whom she replaced as junior class president when he moved away, included her in his final poem, “History of the Class of 1920.” She appears in the eighth stanza:

I forgot to mention, you'll excuse it, I hope,
A feminine head of suffragette note—
Miss Phoebe J. Fairgrave who took up the stroke
When the masculine head disembarked from the boat.

While at Mechanic Arts, Phoebe was active in the Cogwheel Club, which wrote for and edited the school newspaper, and the Mechanic Arts Literary Society, which compiled and published a periodical of students' stories and poems called
The M
. In addition to creative writing, Phoebe found drama a welcome vehicle to act out her fantasies and build her self-confidence.
She worked on school plays during her junior and senior years, and starred in her senior revue's playlet “When Love is Young,” which her yearbook noted was “exceptionally well acted.” She even briefly enrolled in the Guy Durrel Dramatic School, despite her parents' efforts to discourage her from pursuing drama. They were especially keen for her to go to the university in the fall; her brother Paul had disappointed them by opting out.
But she already had other, grander ideas about her future, formulated during a chance encounter with the greatest adventure she could imagine.

She was in physics class when the idea struck her. The year was 1919, her senior year at Mechanic Arts, and her head was filled with plans to become an actress. The sound that drove her to the window that spring day would change everything. She looked up to see three enormous biplanes, flown by veterans of the recent war, make a low salute to President Woodrow Wilson as his motorcade wound through the streets. The president had come to St. Paul on his tour to promote his League of Nations, determined to win support from the people when he found little in Washington. He received a tumultuous reception in St. Paul where they pulled out all the stops in making him welcome. Wilson arrived by special train and was greeted by “a seething, undulating, cheering mass of humanity.” Some 45,000 people stormed the Kenwood Armory where the president was to speak, although he would be heard only by “the 10,000 vigorous” who got there first.
Among the disappointed were “Toiling and moiling, sweating and swearing, men ready to fight, women hysterical, children almost suffocating … like a great human whirlpool. … Some were there who had come hundreds of miles to listen to Mr. Wilson.”
The president's parade, including “several hundred War Camp Community girls in costume, more than 1000 discharged soldiers in uniform [and] the government's reception committee,” was serenaded by troops of singing schoolchildren along the route. Overhead thundered an aerial escort of military planes. As they followed the procession, the planes
paused from time to time to do aerobatic stunts—steep climbs and rolls—in order to accommodate the speed of the planes to the pace of the parade.
This is what Phoebe saw outside her classroom window. She later described her response to the noise, the power, the sunlight flashing off the spinning propellers, the sheer grandeur of those airplanes.

As the three planes zoomed across the capitol park, on upward against our fabled Minnesota sky-blue back-drop, my heart did a series of nipups which rocked me to depths I didn't know existed in human makeup. And out of the brief, violent inner tempest arose a vast yearning so intense that my very bones ached. Oh, how I wanted to fly! There was no gradual development or emergence, instead it was a vast compulsion such as makes butterflies burst from their cocoons and which defies description. I can only say that long before those airplanes had reached the top of their zooms, I was forever enthralled. Then, as the little clickers of sunlight on the upper surfaces of the top wings beckoned to me to come on up out of this world I recall distinctly saying to myself, “That's what I want to do … this is it!” And from that moment hence my eyes have never been out of the heavens.

The show was life changing, though it is unlikely that it was her first introduction to the romance of flight. While military planes signaled the thrill of sheer power, young women like Phoebe also had female role models among these daring young fliers. The most prominent of these at this time was Ruth Law.
Law's spectacular flying circus made annual appearances in the Twin Cities during Phoebe's formative years, from 1915 (shortly after Phoebe's family moved to St. Paul) into the 1920s, when Phoebe was competing with Law for fair contracts.

BOOK: Walking on Air
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