O’Brien, Keith. Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.
In Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History, Keith O’Brien reminds the reader that only one of the names of the women he profiles will be familiar: Amelia Earhart. Even then, Earhart is known more for his defeat by than her conquest of the air. The “friendly sky” described by modern commercial airlines is in reality a jealous mistress: aviators that do not give her total attention or fail to decipher the roles that changing conditions play on flight patterns and aircraft will not enjoy her company very long. The race to tame the sky claimed many lives, male and female.
One of the most poignant episodes in the book comes when an interviewer asks Earhart why she wants to fly. “Why do men ride horses?” she replies. She seems stunned by the idea that women could not share the thirst of adventure felt by men. By the end of the chapter, Earhart’s contribution to that flight would be reduced to that of ballast, with several male aviators claiming it would have been better if she had been left behind and two hundred gallons of fuel loaded in her place. Aviator instruction and training for men and women were the same: they had to complete the same education and tasks to earn flying licenses. Flying while female, however, was often seen as a bigger liability than flying while intoxicated. The various commercial schemes women undertook to be able to get in the cockpit also made them appear to be more interested in fame and fortune than in flying.
Fly Girlslends new lyrics to a familiar tune. As women’s history gains readers and with them, profitability, we can expect to see many more histories of forgotten women in male-dominated spaces. Women made important contributions to early aviation and would continue to make contributions as pilots, mechanics, and engineers during the world wars. They laid the groundwork for pilots like Tammie Jo Shultz, the former Navy fighter pilot who landed a Southwest plane after it lost one of its engines after takeoff earlier this year. O’Brien’s book also reminds us that for every Shultz and Earhart, there are thousands of female pilots who never make it into the papers.