Part of our Women in Motorsport series by guest writer Lara Platman
The year is 1965 and we are at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah. The sun is bright with a thin layer of heat hovering above the crystal ground as the Green Monster Cyclops Jet car reaches the speed of 315.74mph. The driver is Betty Skelton, the First Lady of Firsts.
In this edition for the Women in Motorsport Series, I would like to introduce you to Betty Skelton Frankman Erde, born in June 1926, with her family home under the flight path of the local Naval air station in Florida, USA. Her toys were aeroplanes rather than dolls and she read everything on aviation: her parents realised she was serious about flying. A Navy ensign took interest in the Skeltons, so they had flying tuition together. By the time Betty was twelve she was flying solo in his Taylor Craft aeroplane. Her father also continued his interest in flying with his own aviation tuition company, and at the age of sixteen Betty received her Civil Aviation Authority private pilot’s license and qualified for the Women Airforce Service Pilots program. However, the permitted age for the WASPS was eighteen, so Betty had to wait to be productive in the program.
The young Skelton worked at Eastern Airlines at night and rented planes in the day to increase her hours. At eighteen she received her commercial pilot’s license and qualified for a flying instructor, joining the Civil Air Patrol in 1941.
I recently listened to an interview with Betty Skelton in 1999, from the NASA Oral History Archives (don’t worry, we shall get on to that part of her life shortly!) and I think Betty explains it best.
‘Well, by this time we were in Tampa, Florida. My dad had a flight operation there. They were having a local air show and somebody at the meeting said, “Why don’t we have that little girl out at the airport do some aerobatics.” And my dad was there and he said, “She doesn’t know how.” And another man who was there, Clem Whittenbeck, who was a great aerobatic pilot in the thirties—I’m talking about back in the forties now—he said, “Oh, I’ll teach her how.” with only a couple of weeks left until show time, he taught me how to do one loop and one slow roll.