PHOEBE, NR8917 AND THE 1929 "POWDER
PUFF" AIR DERBY
Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie (1902-1975) wove her own zodiac throughout
her flying career. Early on, in the early 1920s, she was a barnstormer, parachutist and wing walker.
She was 26 years old when she participated
in the women’s division of the 1929 National Air Races.
She was an aggressive and successful air racer, an early
female aviation mechanic (her certificate, #422, is dated
July 31, 1933), and a charter member of The Ninety-Nines.
She landed at the Davis-Monthan Field 4 times flying Monocoupes.
Besides NR8917, above, she landed with NC5877 and NC518W (twice).
She flew 518W to victory in the 1931 Derby. She was flying
NC5878, at an airport dedication in Paragould, AR and
was involved in a crash (see below). A brief biography, current to 1934, was in Popular Aviation, March, 1934 at the link (PDF 880Kb).
Who can resist “Miss Moline”? It landed at the
Davis-Monthan Field on a hot Thursday, August 15, 1929, flown
solo by Phoebe (transport license #199). She signed the register
at 11:00AM and departed the same day at 1:30 PM for Santa
Monica to begin the 1929 Powder Puff Derby to Cleveland, OH
(image above from Juptner, v. 9, p. 127 at the 1929 Derby,
with Phoebe resting casually on the wing strut).
Her beautiful airplane is a Monocoupe Model 113 Special,
with a 110 HP Warner engine. Given “Group 2 Approval”
on September 6, 1929 (it did not have an “Approved Type
Certificate”), this fact was used by one male critic
in an attempt to cancel the women’s race. Before arrival
at the Field, NR8917 had logged about 50 hours.
Today NR8917 rests near Cheney, KS, hangared among sepia
wheat fields, a long way from its birthplace in Moline. The
fuselage had a tree growing through it when its present owners
salvaged it in 1987 from a hedgerow on the Kansas-Oklahoma
border. They rebuilt the fuselage. Then a storm in 1996 blew
their hangar down and bent longerons. “Miss Moline”
exists today outside Wichita as a fuselage and tail feathers, without wings,
awaiting restoration. They plan to rebuild
her to flyable condition “soon.”
The airplane's owner and I carried the airframe out of the
hangar to get this image of “Miss Moline” before
wheat fields in Kansas, June 7, 2002 (your Webmaster mirrors
One of her events is commemorated in the following U.S. postal cachet shared by site visitor Joe Kranz. The cachet is postmarked August 23, 1930 and celebrates the National Air Races Women's Dixie Derby of the same date. According to the Aircraft Yearbook for 1931, Omlie took first place flying one of her Monocoupes and won $2,000 for her effort.
U.S. Postal Cachet, Phoebe Omlie, August 23, 1930 (Source: Kranz)
AN ACCIDENT WITH ANOTHER REGISTER MONOCOUPE,
Phoebe flew Monocoupe NC5877 to the Davis-Monthan Airfield
on July 10, 1928 during her participation in the 1928 Ford
Reliability Tour. A sister ship, NC5878
also landed at Tucson as a Tour participant (7/14/28, piloted
by L.H. Atkinson). On the weekend of October 13-14, 1928 she
took NC5878 to Paragould, AR where she assisted in the dedication
of the West-Nash Airlines
at the Paragould airport.
It is unclear what her "assistance" was, but a
contemporary newspaper article states that, "Another
possible feature on the program well be a young girl to swing
suspended from a speeding airplane by a pair of ladies' silk
stockings...." Since Phoebe was a parachutist and performed
such barnstorming tricks, she may have been the "young
On Sunday the 14th she was flying her Monocoupe with a passenger
at low altitude when, she later reported, "...the controls
jammed." The airplane spun to the ground and she suffered
two broken legs, burns on both arms, and lacerations on her
face. Her passenger suffered a broken leg and skull fracture.
She was flown to Memphis, TN by her husband and treated.
Less than a year later she was flying again in the 1929 Air
Derby (see photo top of page).
Phoebe Omlie died July 17, 1975 at age 73.
UPLOADED: 5/2/05 REVISED: 6/28/05, 03/26/08, 07/02/11, 09/13/14