Tomboy of the Air

American aviator Blanche Stuart Scott, between ca. 1910 and 1915. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-B2-1234]
by Julie Cummins

The newspaper headline declared: “Stop this child from driving a dangerous vehicle.” The year was 1902, and the proclamation was made by the Rochester, New York, City Council. The young daredevil in question was not a rambunctious young boy as expected, but, scandalously, a 13-year old girl named Blanche Stuart Scott. No one could have predicted that her attraction to and obsession with speed would propel her into history – aviation history.

Even as a child, Scott was fascinated with all kinds of speeding, from figure skating to bike riding to automobile driving, flouting the expected ladylike behavior of the times. She was an only child whose father catered to her every whim. She was determined to become a trick bicycle rider, but after she crashed her seventh bike, her father said he wouldn’t buy her any more – although he could certainly have afforded to, as he had become wealthy from the sale of a patented horse medicine. Instead, he bought her a Cadillac, one of about 100 cars in Rochester.

In those days, streets were not paved and driving licenses were not required. Driving a car was considered improper for a grown woman, much less a teenage girl. Did Scott care? Not a bit. Her reckless driving startled carriage horses and frightened pedestrians, which led to the city council statement. Did Scott slow down? Of course not.

When her father died, Scott’s mother sent her to boarding school in New England, but instruction in ladylike behavior failed to diminish her pursuit of adventure and her intrepid nature.

Scott was a master at self-promotion. In 1910, she wrote a letter to the Willys-Overland Motor Company, a premier manufacturer of automobiles. She suggested they sponsor her in a transcontinental driving trip that would promote women’s interest in the value of motorcar driving and prove that even a woman could drive a car. The company agreed.

Her send-off was a media blitz. The streets of Fifth Avenue in New York City were lined with spectators set to watch this 5’ 1” woman with red hair and freckles make history – or make a fool of herself. On May 16, 1910, The Car, The Girl, and the Wide, Wide World hit the road on a historic trip.

Cars were a rarity in those days, and “The Lady Overland” was top-of-the-line, with a 25-horsepower engine and four cylinders. It was equipped with two spare tires, cans of oil, and gas, water bottles, lamps for night driving and compressed air in case of a flat.

Scott had a sidekick, a woman journalist named Gertrude Phillips, who was assigned to record the trip. Scott drove all 6,000 miles herself, only 218 of them paved. An escort car of photographers drove in front of her and one car followed behind in case of emergencies.

One necessity of the trip had been overlooked: calls from Mother Nature. There were no rest stops along the way, posing a problem for the women. But the inventive Scott solved the ladies’ dilemma one evening while walking past a hardware store. She bought a funnel and a hose, cut a hole in the floorboard of the car, and problem solved! The men were flabbergasted as to how two women could ride all day without a pit stop. Scott answered them by saying, “Cast-iron kidneys, boys!”

Scott and Phillips completed the trip to great acclaim. But Scott wanted more. How did she make the leap from cars to planes? It took a bit of serendipity and a lot of stubborn determination.

The press agent who had publicized the automobile trip for Willys Overland thought Scott could do the same thing for women flying that she had done for driving – prove that women could fly just like men. Off to Glenn Curtiss’ flying school she went.

Aviation was literally just getting off the ground. Men generally believed that a woman’s place was in the home, and definitely not up in the air. Scott’s arrival was far from rosy or welcoming. Curtiss was furious. He believed that allowing women to fly would be disastrous. He told Scott that if she were injured or killed while flying, it would set back aviation 20 years. She smiled and said, “Here I am, and I have a contract.”

Scott’s first lessons involved taxiing down the grass runway with Curtiss running beside her shouting instructions. Once she reached the end, a mechanic would turn the plane around so she could taxi back. To keep the plane on the ground, a block of wood was wedged under the foot throttle.

After four days of grass cutting, the next step was “hopping” – swooping into the air for a few feet and coming back down. Scott was chomping at the bit to get off the ground and one day it happened. On September 2, 1910, she hopped high enough to take off. Curtiss nearly tore his hair out and demanded to know where the block of wood was. Scott replied, “Something must have happened to that block.” That day marked Scott’s first solo flight. She had flown into aviation history.

One thing Scott hadn’t considered was her attire. While she was fashionably dressed in a tailored suit with an ankle-length pleated skirt, the four yards of material proved to be a hindrance. Once she was up in the air, the wind blew the voluminous skirt over her head. Borrowed bicycle clips from a mechanic solved the problem.

After her first foray up into the air, Scott was zealous about wanting to fly publicly. Despite a slight mishap when she banked over Keuka Lake, leaving her with a fear of flying over water, she was finally allowed to join Curtiss’ exhibition team. Her first appearance was to fly over a field in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but a plowing demonstration the previous week had churned the dirt fairgrounds into ruts, making take-offs extremely dangerous. Should she or shouldn’t she? Daredevil Scott was willing to take the risk.

She took off, jolting and bumping over the rough ground, flew eight circles over the infield and landed on the racetrack – with no mishaps. She had done it. On October 23, 1920, Scott had made the first public flight in an airplane by a woman. It wouldn’t be the only “first” in flying that she achieved.

She joined several flying exhibition teams where she earned her nickname from the dangerous stunts that she loved to perform, such as flying upside-down under a bridge or performing the thrilling “Daring Death Dive,” heading straight toward the ground. Audiences of 100,000 or more held their breath.

Some people did not take kindly to Scott’s flying. Three attempts were made on her life. Twice a disgruntled and jealous mechanic deliberately dropped a wrench into the motor of her plane, and once the wife of a pilot held a gun on her. Thankfully, nearby pilots came to her rescue. Each time, Scott was convinced that wearing her lucky red sweater saved her.

One terrible accident did manage to shake up Scott. She and Harriet Quimby were the only two women in an aerial show near Boston. Quimby had a passenger in her plane, a large man seated behind her. A sandbag was placed to maintain gravity, but when the man leaned forward to talk, the sandbag shifted and the plane nose-dived into a shallow bay. Both pilot and passenger were killed. Scott was in the air at the time and didn’t see the crash, but hearing about it unnerved her just the same.

Scott’s luck ran out on Memorial Day 1913 whlie performing in Madison, Wisconsin. It was a warm day, and she took off her red sweater. Midair, the throttle wire on the plane broke, sending Scott nose-first into a swamp. She broke 41 bones and spent eight months in a cast. She insisted it was due to the left-behind sweater.

Scott’s lifetime spanned the evolution of aviation. Airplanes were just being invented when she was born, and she lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

She was quoted in the New York Herald on July 16, 1911: “Women should wake up and take a serious, intelligent, articulate, practical interest in what makes the world tick.” Scott did just that by making the world tick a little better and faster.

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