They took off in wooden crates loaded with gasoline. They flew over mountains, deserts and seas without radar or even radios. When they came down, their landings might be their last.

For pilots of the 1920s and '30s, the challenges were enormous. Multiply that exponentially for women.

Author Keith O'Brien recounts the early years of aviation through a generation of female pilots who carved out a place for themselves and their sisterhood. Despite the sensation they created, each "went missing in her own way."

O'Brien begins his story in the 1920s, when planes were "airships" and all aircraft were experimental. In those heady years, engineers and financiers were busily building planes and sending pilots off to set records in speed, distance and endurance. Minnesota's Charles Lindbergh inflamed the country's imagination in 1927 by completing the first solo transatlantic flight.

It was understandable that his feat would draw more men to test their limits. But why were women coming forward, too? Should women even be allowed to fly? Shouldn't they be married?

The women who stepped up to answer those questions included a New York socialite, an Oakland saleswoman, a Florida dentist's secretary and a Boston social worker who would become world-famous.

"Why do you want to fly the Atlantic?" Amelia Earhart was asked before her first ocean crossing in 1928. "Earhart thought for a minute and smiled. 'Why does a man ride a horse?' " she replied.

Female pilots may have gotten their first chances because of their gender, but they wanted to show what they could do in spite of it. They were greeted with smirks and shrugs.

The press dubbed the first women's national air race "The Powder Puff Derby." When Louise Thaden became the first woman to win the race, Lindbergh fell curiously silent. "I haven't anything to say about that," he said when asked.

The inevitable crashes brought more indignity. No matter that men crashed, too. Marvel Crosson's wreck prompted oilman Erle Halliburton to announce, "Women are lacking in certain qualities that men possess." Florence Klingensmith's crash incited a debate about allowing menstruating women to fly.

Yet they persisted. The story builds to a thrilling climax with the 1936 Bendix race, a cross-country contest that featured Earhart and Thaden and the men heavily favored to beat them. O'Brien's rich details put the reader in the cockpit as pilots confront equipment failures, crash landings and the frenzy of the finish line.

"Fly Girls" winningly revives that contradictory decade of high flight and deepening Depression, when female pilots had to balance their intense rivalry with their need for friends.

"They were the only ones who could understand what they were doing and why; the only ones who appreciated the dangers they faced and how; the only ones who knew what it was like to fly solo into angry headwinds — both figuratively and literally."

Maureen McCarthy is a team leader at the Star Tribune.

Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History
By: Keith O'Brien.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 338 pages, $28.