Louise Thaden

Louise Thaden

Infobox Person
name = Iris Louise McPhetridge Thaden

image_size = 250px
caption =
birth_date = November 12, 1905
birth_place = Bentonville, Arkansas
death_date = November 9, 1979
death_place = High Point, North Carolina
occupation = Aviator
spouse = Herbert von Thaden
parents =
children = William v. Thaden

Iris Louise McPhetridge Thaden (November 12, 1905 – November 9, 1979) was an aviation pioneer, holder of numerous aviation records, and the first woman to win the Bendix Trophy.

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 1925 as a journalism and physical education major among other majors.


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. Part of her salary included free pilot's lessons and she earned her pilot's certificate in 1927. She was the first female pilot to be licensed by the state of Ohio.


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


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's Air Derby

Thaden was a friend and rival of pioneer aviators Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, 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. 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.

Middle career

In 1930 Thaden went to work as public relations director of Pittsburgh Aviation Industries and became the director of the Women's Division of the Penn School of Aeronautics. That same year Thaden and Earhart founded 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 pioneer's 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 she won the Bendix Trophy Race in the first year women were allowed 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 aviatrix, 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 stated that women were "innately better pilots than men".

During World War II Thaden attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel with the Civil Air Patrol.


Thaden died of a heart attack at High Point, North Carolina.


*In 1951 the Bentonville, Arkansas airport was renamed "Louise Thaden Field" in her honor. A building at the National Staggerwing Museum in Tullahoma, Tennessee is also named for Thaden in 1974.
*The University of Arkansas Press re-published High, Wide, and Frightened, the autobigraphy of Louise Thaden, in 2004.


*"A pilot who says he has never been frightened in an airplane is, I’m afraid, lying."

*"There is a decided prejudice on the part of the general public against being piloted by a woman, and as great an aversion, partially because of this, by executives of those companies whose activities require employing pilots."

*"To a psychoanalyst, a woman pilot, particularly a married one with children, must prove an interesting as well as an inexhaustible subject. Torn between two loves, emotionally confused, the desire to fly an incurable disease eating out your life in the slow torture of frustration -- she cannot be a simple, natural personality."

*"If you have flown, perhaps you can understand the love a pilot develops for flight. It is much the same emotion a man feels for a woman, or a wife for her husband."


* [http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Explorers_Record_Setters_and_Daredevils/trophies/EX10.htm "The Major Trophy Races of the Golden Age of Air Racing"] by David H. Onkst, "US Centennial of Flight Commission", retrieved January 6, 2006
* [http://www.airracinghistory.freeola.com/Between%20the%20wars(2).htm "The Bendix Trophy"] , "Air Racing History", retrieved January 6, 2006

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