Monday, September 5, 2011

Betty Skelton, ‘fastest woman on Earth,’ dies at 85

From Sept 3

From Washington Post, Post Local: Betty Skelton, ‘fastest woman on Earth,’ dies at 85
Betty Skelton, a daredevil pilot who was a three-time national aerobatics champion and became known as the “fastest woman on Earth” when she set speed records in airplanes and automobiles, died Aug. 31 at her home in The Villages, Fla. She was 85.

She had cancer, said Dorothy S. Cochrane, a friend and the curator of general aviation at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Ms. Skelton, who made her first solo flight — illegally — at age 12, went on to become a pioneering and charismatic pilot in the days of propellers and open cockpits. She gave her first aerobatics performance when she was 19, appearing in the same show in Jacksonville, Fla., in which the Navy’s precision flight team, the Blue Angels, made its debut in 1946.

In her brightly painted Pitts Special biplane, the Little Stinker, Ms. Skelton performed awe-inspiring feats of airborne daring. She was the first woman to attempt the “inverted ribbon cut,” in which she would fly upside down only 10 feet off the ground, slicing a ribbon with her propeller.

The first time Ms. Skelton attempted the stunt, Cochrane said, her engine died. She calmly righted her plane and landed on the wheels. She then started it up and went back into the air.

“She enjoyed challenges, she enjoyed speed, she enjoyed technology,” Cochrane said.

From 1949 through 1951, when she retired from competitive flying, Ms. Skelton was the international women’s aerobatics champion. Years later, she donated her biplane to the National Air and Space Museum. Restored and repainted in its original red-and-white pattern, the Little Stinker now hangs in the entrance of the museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport.

When she wasn’t astonishing crowds at air shows, Ms. Skelton pursued the outer limits of what airplanes — and pilots — could accomplish. She twice set light-plane altitude records, reaching a maximum height of 29,050 feet in a Piper Cub in 1951 — higher than Mount Everest.

At that altitude, the temperature outside her airplane was 53 degrees below zero.

“I usually fly bare-footed,” Ms. Skelton said in 1999 interview for a NASA oral history project, “and my feet darn near froze to death.”

She set an unofficial women’s air speed record of 421 mph in a P-51 Mustang, but the engine exploded in mid-flight, and she had to guide the plane back to the ground at an Air Force base in Florida. She did not get credit for the record because she did not land where she took off.

Nevertheless, Ms. Skelton broke so many barriers in the air and on land that she became known as the “first lady of firsts.”

In 1954, she became the first woman to be a test driver for the auto industry. She was the first female boat jumper in the United States, memorably flying a boat over a Dodge convertible in a publicity stunt in 1955.

As an advertising executive in the 1950s and 1960s, she worked on the Corvette account as a test driver and as a spokeswoman at auto shows. In 1957, driving a translucent, custom-made gold Corvette, she became the first woman to drive a pace car at the Daytona 500.

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