Thaden, Louise (1905–1979)

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Thaden, Louise (1905–1979)

American aviator. Born Iris Louise McPhetridge on November 12, 1905, in Bentonville, Arkansas; died on November 9, 1979, in High Point, North Carolina; daughter of Roy McPhetridge and Edna (Hobs) McPhetridge; married Herbert von Thaden, on July 21, 1928 (died 1969); children: Bill (b. 1930); Pat (b. 1933).

Set aviation records for consecutive flight, women's speed, and endurance (1928–32); won the first Powder Puff Derby (1929); won the Bendix Race (1936); received Claude B. Harmon Trophy (1936); published High, Wide, and Frightened (1938).

Louise Thaden was a celebrated pilot of the golden age of American aviation, as well known in her time as Amelia Earhart . She was also an instructor and businesswoman, and advocated expanded opportunities for women pilots. Born in 1905 and raised in Bentonville, Arkansas, she attended public schools and then the University of Arkansas from 1921 to 1925, majoring in journalism and physical education. In her junior year, she left school to work for the Travel Air Corporation and moved to San Francisco. She began flying lessons in 1927; her solo pilot's license, signed by Orville Wright, was issued in 1928, making her one of the first women to achieve pilot status. In December 1928, Thaden, who had married army pilot and engineer Herbert von Thaden earlier that year, set a new world record for women's high altitude flying; this was followed by a short-lived endurance record for a 22-hour flight in March 1929. She also set a women's aviation speed record of 156 mph.

A few months later, Thaden went on to beat Amelia Earhart and win the first cross-country Women's Air Derby. The following year, she and Earhart co-founded the Ninety-Nines, an international association of women pilots. Thaden served as secretary and vice-president of the association between 1930 and 1936. In 1930, she moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to work for Pittsburgh Aviation Industries and to serve as director of the women's division of the Pennsylvania School of Aeronautics. In 1935, she took a job with the Bureau of Air Service to promote the expansion of national airfields. The following year, Thaden and co-pilot Blanche Noyes became the first women to enter and to win the Bendix Cup Race, flying from New York to Los Angeles in a record-setting 14 hours, 54 minutes. This brought Thaden the coveted Claude B. Harmon Trophy as the most outstanding woman flyer of 1936. Throughout her career, Thaden was open about the skepticism of male pilots and the general public toward women aviators; in her memoirs she noted: "in an age where some men didn't think a woman should drive a horse and buggy, much less drive an automobile, it was a job to prove that females could fly." Changing the negative perception of women flyers was one of Thaden's lifelong goals.

After setting her last world speed record of 197 mph in 1937, Thaden decided to retire from competition to spend more time with her husband and two small children. She still found time to compose her memoirs, published as High, Wide, and Frightened (1938), and to work as a representative for Beech Aircraft (cofounded by Olive Ann Beech ). During World War II, Thaden served as a pilot in the Civilian Air Patrol, reaching the rank of lieutenant-colonel. She also worked for her husband's new company, Thaden Engineering, first as a purchasing agent, then in research and development for aviation materials. She remained involved in many aviation organizations in both the public and private sectors, including the Red Cross Motor Corps, the National Aeronautic Association, and the Department of Defense's Committee on Women in the Services. She was also very active in training new pilots and establishing programs for aviation instruction, especially for women, and contributed numerous articles to aviation magazines.

In 1955–56, Thaden was vice-president and director of the Thaden Molding Corporation, and became partner in Thaden Engineering in 1961. After Herbert von Thaden's death in 1969, Louise Thaden ran the company as sole owner until her own death from a heart attack at age 73 at her home in High Point, North Carolina.

Louise Thaden received many posthumous honors. Besides the renaming of the Louise Thaden Memorial Airfield in her native town of Bentonville, Arkansas, in 1991 her flying helmet was taken aboard NASA's Atlantis Space Shuttle mission. In 1999, she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and in 2000 was inducted into the Women in Aviation International's Pioneer Hall of Fame.


Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Williams, Nancy A., ed. Arkansas Biography. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California