August 18th, 1929 was the first day of the 1st Women’s Air Derby at Santa Monica Airport. Taking place at Clover Field, it was the first race for all women pilots. This transcontinental air race that began at Santa Monica Airport and ended 8 days later in Cleveland, Ohio. 20 women competed, yet only 15 finished.
The women pilots were often called “Ladybirds”, “Angels” or “Sweethearts of the Air.” Amelia Earhart wrote, “We are still trying to get ourselves called just ‘pilots'." The “star” of the show was clearly Amelia Earhart, who thrilled the crowd when she landed her Lockheed Vega at the airport.
This was a difficult race, with equipment challenges for some. Blanche Noyes’ plane went down somewhere in Texas. Her plane caught fire in the air. There was one casualty in the race, Marvel Crosson, who crashed in the Gila Valley. Officials suspected she’d been poisoned with carbon monoxide by her malfunctioning aircraft.
There was a $20,000 prize to the winner, Louise Thaden. She was also an aviation pioneer, holder of numerous aviation records, and the first woman to win the Bendix trophy, aeronautical racing competition. Women were first allowed to compete for the trophy in 1936. She was inducted into the Arkansas Aviation Historical Society's Hall of Fame in 1980. 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 were barred from air racing from 1930 to 1935, due to sexism.
Gladys O’Donnell finished second while Amelia Earhart finished third. Other participants included Pancho Barnes, Blanche Noyes, Ruth Elder, Neva Paris, Mary Haizlip, Opal Kunz, Mary von Mach, and Vera Dawn Walker.
Will Rogers coined the name "Powder Puff Derby" for the race from Santa Monica to Cleveland, Ohio. Only propeller driven planes were flown. The last AWTAR (All Woman Transcontinental Air Race) was held in 1977.