Last month, one of America's truly amazing women died at age 85. Betty Skelton, who was admired for her good looks and her flair for fashion, was often referred to as "the First Lady of Firsts." Her passion was speed, and she set 17 aviation and race car records in an era when they were considered to be "male only" activities (7: Magnificent Obsession). Nearly 35 years after her retirement, she held more combined hallmarks than anyone in history.
Born in Pensacola, Florida, in 1926, she played with model airplanes instead of dolls. From her home's backyard, she could watch the comings and goings of planes from the Pensacola Naval Air Station. When she was only eight years old, she told her parents she wanted to fly, and that's when she began reading anything she could find about aviation (2: An Early Sense of Direction).
Her parents often drove her to the municipal airport, and she would ride with local pilots whenever they had a spare seat. A young Navy Ensign (4: Supportive Someone) began giving her family flying lessons, and when she was only twelve years old, Betty made her first solo flight. She soloed legally on her 16th birthday, and earned her private license; by 18 she had her commercial rating and became a flight instructor, teaching war vets on the GI Bill how to fly. She also earned her sea-plane and multi-engine ratings (10: The Critic Within). She had hoped to qualify for the WASPs, but it was disbanded before she reached the required age of 18 and a half.
She was employed by Eastern Airlines to work as a night clerk, which left her days open for flying. Unfortunately, in the 1940s, there were no commercial airline jobs for women, and the military would not let women be pilots. So Betty turned to professional aerobatics in 1946, and two years later won her first International Feminine Aerobatic Championship (8: Turning No Into Yes). She also won in 1949 and 1950, and she set numerous air speed and altitude records.
Later that year, she bought an experimental single-seat open-cockpit biplane, which was the smallest aerobatic airplane in existence at that time. In her words, " I didn't just sit in that little airplane, I wore it. If I sneezed, it sneezed with me." She painted her plane red and white, and named it "Little Stinker." While flying it, she became the first woman to perform an inverted ribbon cut flying ten feet off the ground (11: Risk Addiction).
By the 1950s, she had achieved the highest rankings in aerobatics, but there were still barriers against women pilots. When she met Bill France, the founder of NASCAR in 1953, he persuaded her to drive at Daytona Beach during Speed Week. Soon she became the auto industry's first female test driver and also earned a total of four Feminine World Land Speed Records, and set a Transcontinental Speed Record (13: More Than Meets the Eye).
Betty Skelton became very active in the auto industry, and set records driving across the South American Andes mountain ranges, as well as from New York to Los Angeles. She became the fastest woman on earth when she drove a jet car on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats at 315 miles per hour.
In 1960, LOOK Magazine ran a cover story that featured her undergoing the same physical and psychological tests that the astronauts faced. The seven original Mercury Astronauts were so impressed with Betty Skelton's skills that they fondly referred to her as "Number 7 1/2."
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