The young girl looked up as another N3N roared over the top of her parents’ house. Almost surely, she made the model airplane in her hand mimic the big plane’s nose. And equally as surely, she would never have imagined that one day her own plane, Little Stinker, would hang proudly in the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center, a monument to the woman who had become “the first lady of firsts.”
Betty Skelton was born in Pensacola, Florida, on June 28, 1926. Even as a child, she was fascinated with the art of flying, trading dolls for model airplanes. She spent every moment she could watching the Stearmans from nearby Naval Air Station Pensacola roaring over her house. By the age of 8, she began reading every aviation book she could find. In short order, she convinced her parents that she was going to be a pilot. Soon, her parents were driving her out to the local airport, and she was hopping in for rides whenever a pilot had a spare seat.
At the age of 12, a local Navy pilot began teaching Skelton to fly. As soon as she reached 16, she soloed, and she began working toward her private pilot’s certificate, which she pocketed shortly thereafter. By the age of 17, Skelton had acquired the hours to qualify for the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. She was heartbroken when the WASPs disbanded before she reached the required age of 18 and a half.
But Skelton knew she wanted an aviation career and began working as a clerk for Eastern Airlines during the night and flying during the day. At the age of 18, she received her commercial rating as well as her flight instructor and multi-engine ratings. The aviation world was still largely cut off for women, though. Eager to do anything that meant more time at the controls of an airplane, she began learning aerobatics.
“By the age of 17, Skelton had acquired the hours to qualify for the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. She was heartbroken when the WASPs disbanded before she reached the required age of 18 and a half.”
By 1946, Skelton began her professional aerobatic career, touring the southeastern airshow circuit. Her first performance coincided with the Blue Angels’ first performance, and she was “adopted” by them, earning the nickname “The Sweetheart of the Blue Angels.” In 1948, Skelton won her first International Feminine Aerobatic Championship.
At the contest, Skelton noticed a little biplane, the Pitts Special S-1C. Taken by the plane, she approached the owner, who at first refused to even let her fly it. But Skelton knew this was the plane for her, and she eventually purchased the Pitts, naming it Little Stinker. Skelton later said, “I didn’t just sit in that little airplane; I wore it. If I sneezed, it sneezed with me.”
Her oneness with the plane enabled Skelton to achieve great heights. In Little Stinker, Skelton became the first woman to perform an inverted ribbon cut a mere 10 feet above the ground. Skelton also used her tiny biplane to take home the 1949 and 1950 Feminine International Aerobatic Championship. Her success in the plane helped the Pitts Special become one of the top-selling aerobatic airplanes.
Skelton’s sights weren’t only set on aerobatic flying. She wanted a few records, too, and she set out to get them. In 1949, Skelton set the world light plane altitude record, and then later in 1951, set a new altitude record for light planes, achieving a height of 29,050 feet in a Piper Cub.
But by late 1950, Skelton had become burned out by the grueling air show schedule and was looking for a change. Skelton soon found herself in the world of automobile racing and demonstration, where she earned a total of four Feminine World Land Speed records, as well as a transcontinental speed record. Skelton may have been burned out by airshow life, but she wasn’t done with aviation. In 1959, she successfully completed the tests given to the Mercury astronauts, which earned her the nickname “No. 7 ½.”
Skelton passed away in 2011 at the age of 85. After setting 17 aviation and racecar records, she still holds more combined aircraft and automotive records than anyone, and along the way, Skelton helped open a path for women’s equality in aviation, sports and business at a time when such paths were nearly impossible to blaze.