Sunday, May 30, 2010

Wingwalker Phoebe Omlie's Costumes on Display

The Memphis Tennessee Pink Palace Museum has a costume display going on right now. Featured in it are two outfits once worn by Phoebe Omlie. Her story is rather a tragic one.

From The Commercial Appeal:
Sense of Style: Tapestry of a life
Memphis wing-walker's costumes on display

Elaborate costumes from Carnival Memphis and an antique mourning outfit will catch your eye at the new "Linen, Cotton & Silk" exhibit at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum.

But the exhibit's most interesting story centers around a simple dress and suit and a single tarnished earring, all retrieved from an Indianapolis flophouse.

They were the last effects of Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie, trailblazing aviator and daredevil wing-walker, who has been called Memphis' Amelia Earhart.

When Jewell Rosenberg, textile conservator, removed her blue linen dress from a suitcase, the stench of smoke was overpowering. She thought the dress was brown until she washed it in Borax.

Omlie and her pilot husband, Vernon, were the paragons of aviation in the Mid-South in the 1920s, operating in Memphis the first flying service in the Southeast. During the great flood of 1927, they delivered mail and medicine all over the Mid-South to the gratitude of many.

Born in Des Moines in 1902, then Phoebe Fairgrave became obsessed with learning to fly and bought her first plane at 17. The petite Fairgrave was one of the first to earn a living as a wing-walker, barnstorming with Vernon, the stunt pilot who became her husband, dancing the Charleston on a wing and hanging from a plane by her teeth. In 1922 she set a woman's world record for high-altitude parachute jumping.

While the more photogenic Amelia Earhart is now much more famous, Omlie was also a press darling. The Omlies settled in Memphis 1925 and in 1927 she became the first licensed female transport pilot, the highest federal designation, and the first woman to earn an airplane mechanic's license. In 1929 she was the winner of the first National Women's Derby. In 1930 she won a race for women in Chicago piloting the "City of Memphis."

In 1933, she was the first woman to be appointed to a federal aviation position, and in 1941, during World War II, she was in charge of a $1.5 million project to train 5,000 aviation ground servicemen.

So what happened to the woman once named by Eleanor Roosevelt "one of the 11 women whose achievements made it safe to say the world is progressing."

In 1936 Vernon Omlie boarded a commercial airplane as a passenger and died in a crash. She never remarried.

Increasingly frustrated at the government's growing regulation of the aviation industry, she resigned her government post. She tried ranching and then running a restaurant, but failed at both. She did speaking tours for a few years, mostly ranting at the government, but her audience steadily dwindled.

In later years, she refused visitors. She became an alcoholic, chain-smoked and developed lung cancer. In 1975 she died broke and alone in a seedy Indianapolis hotel.

Rosenberg said Omlie's last possessions included a typewriter she was using to try to promote herself as a speaker, a stained coffee cup and $3.14. One other item was a single art deco earring with stones missing. "It was the prettiest thing she owned. You wonder why she would keep it . . . what it meant to her," said Rosenberg.

Omlie is buried beside her husband in Forest Hill cemetery. In 1982, the traffic control tower at Memphis International Airport was named in honor of the Omlies.

Maybe we'll hear more about her before long. A new documentary, "Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women's National Air Derby," will be shown June 26 at the terminus of the current women's air race in Frederick, Md. The creator is developing plans to show it across the country. Omlie and Earhart are among its subjects.

If you'd like to know more about Phoebe and Vernon Omlie, check out a fine story about them from Aviation History magazine at

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