“Neta Snook” is likely a name you haven’t heard, even though, as the instructor for Amelia Earhart, the most famous female aviator ever, she is one degree of separation away from great renown.
But even without her connection to aviation royalty, Snook’s flying career was a short but spectacular one. In an aviation arc that spanned just more than five years, she became the first female pilot in the state of Iowa, and later, when she went to flying school in earnest, she became the first female pilot in the United States to be accepted to a prestigious flying school. After that, she returned to Iowa and built her first plane, in which she barnstormed. A few years later, she became one of the world’s first female flight test pilots.
Snook wasn’t like the other girls in her hometown of Mount Carroll, Illinois, where she was born in 1896. Machinery fascinated her from an early age, and it was an interest her father encouraged. In 1915, when Snook was 19 years old, the family moved to Ames, Iowa, and Snook soon enrolled in what is now Iowa State University.
There, she pursued her unconventional interests, enrolling in many classes considered “unfeminine” for the time, saying she wanted to choose “courses that I really wanted— mechanical drawing, combustion engines and a course in the repair, maintenance and overhaul of farm tractors.” While attending college, Snook began perusing the local library for information about flying. She was soon infatuated and knew she would do whatever it took to become a pilot.
But the path wasn’t an easy one. To many, the idea of a female pilot was unthinkable. Following her rejection from the Curtiss Flying School in Newport News, Virginia, Snook’s hopes were dashed. But fate intervened. Snook happened across an ad for a new flight school in Davenport, Iowa, promising competent instructors and superb equipment. She headed that way.
There was no superb equipment to be found. The students first had to build the airplane they would fly. Snook took her first flight on July 21, 1917. But the Davenport Flying School was soon forced to shut down after a fatal crash that ruined the airplane the students had built. The male students in Davenport transferred to Newport News, promising Snook they would put in a good word for her. It worked. Snook gained entry to the Curtiss Aviation School, but World War I intervened, and all civilian flying was banned for the remainder of the war.
Snook finally took her first solo in 1920 in a Canuck that she had rebuilt in her parents’ backyard. Like many pilots of the era, Snook turned to barnstorming. Her pilot’s license stated the number of passengers she could carry was “none,” but with the help of an eraser, Snook’s license soon read “one,” and she began taking 15-minute rides for the price of $15. Eventually, Snook received her full pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Snook has said this “was the climax of my aviation career. Now I was a recognized pilot before all the world.”
But Iowa winters were tough on barnstorming, and Snook jumped at the chance to head to Los Angeles. She made a deal with famed aircraft designer Bert Kinner to test-fly his planes in return for full commercial use of his airfield.
On a Sunday in December 1920, a woman named Amelia approached Snook requesting lessons. That woman, last name Earhart, would become the most famous female pilot in the world. Snook taught Earhart how to fly in a Kinner Airster that Earhart had purchased. It was in this plane that Snook endured her first crash, after Earhart stalled trying to clear a eucalyptus grove on takeoff. Snook later remarked, “Perhaps I had misjudged her abilities,” but kept her reservations to herself.
While Earhart’s arc skyrocketed toward fame, in 1922, Snook made the difficult decision to give up flying. She was married and expecting her first child. With a new mother’s worry, she vowed, “If I could just have a healthy baby, I would give up flying forever.” Snook never saw her most famous student again, but Earhart still played a role in Snook’s life. After Earhart’s disappearance in 1937, Snook became a popular lecturer, speaking about both her flying and Earhart’s.
Snook passed away in 1991, at the age of 95. Her legacy lives on in her autobiography, I Taught Amelia to Fly. One year after her passing, Snook was inducted into the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame. Snook will always be remembered for her brilliant aviation career, her tenacity and, of course, for her most famous student.
Do you want to read about more Incredible Pilots? Check out “Harrison Ford: A Pilot Who Gives Back To Aviation” here.