Phoebe Omlie set multiple aviation records and was the first woman in America to become a licensed transport pilot, aircraft mechanic, and hold a government aviation position. She is one of the most respected women in aviation because of her ambition, candor, and focus on aviation education. Her accomplishments led to the advancement of aviation and the inclusion of women as pilots and aviation maintenance technicians.
Phoebe was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 21 November 1902. Her parents divorced not long after. Her mother, Madge, married again to Andrew Fairgrave. She moved to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1914 with her mother, stepfather, and brother. There, Phoebe attended the Mechanic Arts High School.
Interest in Aviation
Close to the end of her senior year, Phoebe developed a passion for aviation. President Woodrow Wilson visited her town, including aircraft in his motorcade. Many say that she was fascinated by the airplanes. After a brief office work job, she decided to learn about flight.
Phoebe traveled to the Curtiss Northwest Flying Company airfield, anxious to get in the air. She directly asked the pilots if they would take her on a short flight. Not disheartened by their rejections, she kept returning to the airfield each day. Finally, a pilot agreed to take her on a flight. Reports mention that the pilot attempted to scare Phoebe by performing rolls and nosedives. None of this dissuaded Phoebe. After a few more flights, she decided she wanted to fly. She bought a Curtiss JN-4D aircraft. The aircraft, often referred to as the Jenny, was a single engine, two seater that had a wood frame and fabric covering.
After learning how to fly and operate the aircraft, Phoebe began exploring what she could do on the wings of the airplane. She taught herself to walk on the wings, eventually getting comfortable enough to actually dance the Charleston on the wings of the plane while another pilot was flying. Phoebe began performing stunts in front of audiences, this was often called barnstorming.
During this time Phoebe became acquainted with Vernon Omlie, a former military flight instructor and veteran of WWI. Vernon became her regular pilot, flying the plane while Phoebe performed stunts. The most dangerous exploit was the parachute jump. To stay out of the way of the aircraft, she used the double parachute method. The shows were performed throughout the Midwest on the fair circuit.
In 1922, Phoebe and Vernon married. The couple had been working on their stunts, in an effort to keep public interest in the shows. That year, Phoebe Omlie performed a record breaking 15,200 foot parachute jump.
The Omlies decided to stop traveling the fair circuit in 1925 and settled in Memphis, Tennessee. At the time, there were no major aviation players in the area, it was considered the capital of the mid-south, and the weather was agreeable. Shows were primarily held at the Memphis Driving Park. The couple began offering private flights and flying lessons after performances. As thr business grew, they opened a dedicated flying school. Phoebe took the necessary steps to obtain her transport pilot and airplane mechanic licenses. She was the first woman to receive each license.
A few years later, the south was ravaged by the Mississippi Flood of 1927. The Omlies knew that there was a way they could help. Many people hadn’t realized the practical role aviation could have in natural disaster relief efforts. They flew throughout otherwise inaccessible areas to deliver mail and medicine. This occurred for eight days straight. Many say that this was a turning point for proving the utility of aviation. Convinced of the practicality of flight, the city decided to start construction on a metro airport.
Off to the Races
In the late 1920’s, Phoebe Omlie got back in pilots seat and started racing. Air races were growing in number and prominence. She flew a monocoupe plane she named Miss Memphis. The National Air Tour for the Edsel B. Ford Reliability Trophy race series was one of her most notable performances. During the 1928 race, she became the first woman to cross the Rocky Mountains in a light aircraft. She was also the only woman that participated in the event. News publications noted that Phoebe didn’t travel with a mechanic. She explained that she didn’t want anyone to assume that she wasn’t operating the plane at all points during the races, so she would work on the aircraft herself.
Phoebe continued racing over the next few years. She also became involved with Aero Digest, accepting an editor position. She encountered a lot of opposition during this time from men that didn’t care support women in aviation. Many female dominated races were referred to as Powder Puff Derbies. Not only were the names patronizing, they gave the false impression that the events were easy. Women races had to deal with issues from planes catching fire to emergency landings.
Career in Government
The Democratic National Committee approached Phoebe Omlie in 1932. They wanted her to act as a personal pilot for a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the presidential campaign. She accepted the job. After wrapping up the campaign, Roosevelt won the vote. He then offered Phoebe a job in the federal government. Phoebe became a liaison between the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (predecessor to NASA) and the Bureau of Air Commerce. One of her key projects was creating a national air grid. The grid would serve to manage flights and enhance aviation safety. She had to relocate to DC. Vernon stayed in Memphis and continued operations at the school. The school was thriving and enrollment kept increasing during this time. Reports mention that Phoebe would regularly travel back to Memphis to see her husband.
In late summer of 1936, Vernon was in an aircraft accident. He was on a commercial flight that was traveling out of St. Louis, Missouri. There were no survivors. Accident reports believe the crash occurred because the pilot lost his bearings. Inspectors cited that a thick ground fog may have led the pilot to believe he was flying at a much higher altitude. Following the crash, Phoebe resigned from her post and returned to Tennessee.
Advancements in Tennessee Aviation
Phoebe dedicated a great deal of her time to advancing aviation throughout Tennessee. She lobbied for the state government to allocate a percentage of aviation taxes to the creation of flight schools and the creation of state sponsored civil aviation pilot training schools. Her efforts paid off and the state agreed. She also advocated for a high school aviation preparatory curriculum that was adopted in Tennessee and other states.
Civil Aeronautics Administration
In 1941 Phoebe Omlie accepted a private flight advisor role with the CAA. She worked on a project for the Office of Education and Works Progress Administration to provide training for airport personnel. As WWII approached, she worked to open pilot schools throughout the country. She opened 66 schools in 46 states.
Phoebe returned to Tennessee to address an expected pilot shortage. She had an idea to train women instructors for the Air Forces of the Army and Navy. Over 1,000 women applied for the job. She selected the top fifteen applicants, and began rigorous training. Phoebe knew that her instructors would be under strict scrutiny, she ensured that their training and skills were at the highest possible level. Her top ten graduates went on to train over 500 military personnel.
Phoebe Omlie Scholarship
The Aerospace Maintenance Competition (hosted at MRO Americas) introduced a Phoebe Omlie scholarship in 2017. The award is named in honor of Phoebe because she was the first woman to get an aircraft maintenance license in the US. Scholarship application requirements include submission of an essay about Phoebe Omlie, a high GPA, recommendations from professors, and demonstration of similar attributes to Phoebes pioneering spirit. One of the 2017 award recipients spoke about the discrimination she has been exposed to in aviation maintenance. She noted that the she hopes that women will continue to overcome gender stereotypes and make advancements in the field of aviation.