You've heard of Charles Lindbergh. How about Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie?
Both were born in 1902, and both embarked on aviation careers after graduating from Minnesota high schools. Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean landed him an enduring place in history. Omlie, who set several early aviation records and was once described by the Washington Post as “second only to Amelia Earhart Putnam among America’s women pilots,” died in relative obscurity.
Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie's passion for flying took hold in September 1919 during her senior year at St. Paul's Mechanic Arts High School. President Woodrow Wilson was in town to promote his League of Nations. The presidential motorcade passed near the school, accompanied by three military biplanes soaring overhead. She watched from a classroom window as the planes paused to perform aerial stunts. She was transfixed and transformed. “That’s what I want to do … this is it!” she later recalled thinking. “And from that moment hence my eyes have never been out of the heavens.”
Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie
By the following summer, she was spending her Sundays at Curtiss field, a short airstrip near Larpenteur and Snelling Avenues, to watch planes take off and land. After a few months, yearning for a chance to fly, she offered to buy a plane and asked for a demonstration flight. The salesman said she would need to pay $15 for a ride, with the money going toward the purchase price of $3,500 – about $46,000 in today’s money.
She didn't have $15 with her, let alone $3,500. In the months since graduation, she had saved only a few hundred dollars working a series of unsatisfying office jobs. She eventually turned to her mother for help, assuring her of the profit potential of exhibition flying. In January 1921, using money her mother and stepfather had been saving to purchase a tavern, Phoebe bought her first plane, a refurbished Curtiss JN-4D.
A strict repayment schedule meant she needed to start earning money quickly. Flying lessons would have to wait. First she learned to perform aerial stunts, wing walking and parachuting. In her first parachute attempt, in April 1921, she landed in a tree, dangling but unhurt.
On July 10, 1921, she climbed out onto the wing of a Curtiss Oriole biplane nearly three miles above the Twin Cities. She stepped off, opened her chute and landed, 20 minutes later, in a field in north Minneapolis. Her 15,200-foot jump earned a place in the record books and a spot on the Minneapolis Tribune’s front page. The paper misspelled her maiden name as “Fairgraves”; it has been corrected to “Fairgrave” throughout.
With future husband Vernon Omlie at the controls, Phoebe Fairgrave hooked her toes under a wire on the upper wing and braced for a series of stunts. (From a series of photos taken by P.W. Hamilton, Minneapolis Tribune photographer)
18-year-old St. Paul Girl Sets World Record
By 15,200-foot Parachute Jump From Plane
Phoebe Fairgrave, an 18-year-old St. Paul high school girl, who had not ridden in an airplane six months ago, yesterday broke all existing records for women parachute jumpers, when she leaped from a plane at a height of 15,200 feet over North Minneapolis, and landed safely 20 minutes later in a field about a mile from New Brighton. The jump was made shortly after 6 p.m. and was observed by hundreds of city residents.
The record-making jump, 4,200 feet higher than any made before by a woman, came after the Curtiss Oriole plane, piloted by V.C. Omlie, had climbed steadily for 65 minutes, from its starting point at Curtiss field, Snelling and Larpenteur avenues, St. Paul.
At 10,000 feet the girl and her pilot began to feel the cold. As they still climbed upward, out of sight of the ground, the cold intensified, and they were both [numbed] when the time came to jump.
|Vernon Omlie and Phoebe Fairgrave before a jump. A partly inflated inner tube was wrapped around her chest in case she landed in a lake. (Omlie Collection, Memphis Public Library)|
“I wasn’t afraid to jump,” said the girl after she had landed safely, “but my hands were so cold that I hated to walk out on the wings. But I got out all right and fastened on my chute. Then I just let go and the wind carried me off.
“For the first 100 feet, I fell like a flash. Then the chute opened out and I began to swing back and forth through the air, as if I were in a swing. The motion, and the rapid change from icy cold to heat, sickened me at first. But at 12,000 feet I began to feel better.
“At 9,000 feet I struck an air pocket and dropped quickly again, but was soon out of it. The planes kept circling around me and made me feel less lonesome.
“I dropped to the ground so easily that I wasn’t even shaken. It was just like jumping from a 10-foot wall. The planes couldn’t land, but an automobile picked me up and I rode back to the field.”
Miss Fairgrave was extraordinarily calm and unexcited after her experience and refused to believe she had done anything particularly brave.
“But isn’t it terribly warm?” she asked. “Up there it was freezing and down here it is almost 100.”
The new record-holder is just five feet tall, and weighs a little less than 100 pounds. She was dressed for the jump in an army uniform, [olive drab] riding breeches and an aviator’s coat. Wrapped twice around her, she wore an inflated automobile inner tube against falling into a lake.
After the jump, Phoebe Fairgrave teamed up with her pilot, Vernon Omlie, for a barnstorming tour of the Midwest. They married the next year and then spent another grueling and dangerous summer crisscrossing the country, earning barely enough to cover expenses. They decided to quit barnstorming and settled in Memphis, Tenn., an early hub of aviation. Vernon taught Omlie to fly, and together they established a business offering flight lessons, mechanical services and plane rides. They later added aerial photography, charter flights and crop-dusting to their list of services.
In 1927, Phoebe Omlie became the first woman to earn an airplane mechanic's license and the first to earn a transport pilot’s license. She competed in cross-country races, won major trophies and set a world altitude record for women, reaching 25,400 feet in 1928.
Her success as a pilot led to a series of government posts. After his inauguration in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. She quit the position in 1936 after her husband was killed in a plane crash in St. Louis. She took a year off to campaign for Roosevelt’s re-election, then developed the curriculum for Tennessee’s new civilian pilot training program.
In 1941, she returned to Washington and won appointment to the Civil Aeronautics Administration, where she was put in charge of establishing a training program for airport ground personnel. In just eight weeks, she set up more than a hundred schools in 38 states. She also directed the establishment of scores of flying schools around the country.
Frustrated by increasing government regulation of the aviation industry, at age 50 she left the Civil Aeronautics Administration. She bought a cattle farm and, later, a small cafe and hotel in Mississippi. Both ventures failed. She earned some money as a public speaker, but after many years out of the aviation spotlight she found that demand for her services was limited. She spent her last five years in Indianapolis, destitute and in declining health. On July 17, 1975, Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie, 72, died of lung cancer in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis. She is buried next to her husband at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis.
[Many thanks to Janann Sherman, on whose meticulously researched “Walking on Air: The Aerial Adventures of Phoebe Omlie” I have relied for much of the background in this post.]