When aerobatic pilot Betty Skelton first tried the daring inverted ribbon cut, she flew underneath the strip and felt the engine quit.
She was just few feet off the ground and upside down to boot.
"I never made that mistake again," Skelton said, laughing during a 1999 interview for a National Aeronautics and Space Administration oral history project. "But I've made quite a few. All pilots do."
Skelton (1926-2011) became the first woman to perform that stunt in the late 1940s when only a handful of men could make the cut. A ribbon is strung between two fishing poles held by men on the ground. The pilot slices the band with the plane's propeller while flying less than 10 feet off the ground.
When the engine died, she righted the plane and landed. "Then she went right back out and started flying again," Dorothy Cochrane, the National Air & Space Museum curator and friend of Skelton, told IBD. "She had a lot of guts."
It's that kind of steely nerve that earned the Pensacola, Fla., native the moniker First Lady of Firsts.
She has more combined aircraft and automotive records than anyone in history, Cochran says.
* The First Lady of Firsts, she amassed more combined plane and car records than anyone in history. She even trained with the Mercury 7 astronauts in 1959, earning the nickname No. 7-1/2.
* "You consider danger only from the standpoint that it's up to you to know what you're doing, to do your best, to be very careful about it and very thorough about it, and learn everything you can about it."
Skelton even trained with the Mercury 7 astronauts in 1959, earning the nickname No. 7-1/2.
Skelton is in the National Aviation Hall of Fame, International Aerobatic Hall of Fame, International Council of Air Shows Hall of Fame, Corvette Hall of Fame and Motorsports Hall of Fame.
She was inducted into the Paul E. Garber First Flight Shrine at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina in 2010.
Her namesake award — the Betty Skelton First Lady of Aerobatics — goes to the top female pilot each year at the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships.
Aviation fans walk underneath Skelton's Pitts S-1C as they enter the hanger of the National Air & Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center outside Washington. The red-and-white single-prop plane called Little Stinker by Skelton hangs upside down, of course.
It was planes all the way for her, Cochrane says. As a child, Skelton played with model airplanes, not dolls. She soloed at age 12, before it was legal. But she had few opportunities to fly for a living in the 1940s.
The military didn't allow women pilots — its Women Air Force Service Pilots program closed down months shy of Skelton becoming eligible during World War II — and commercial airlines didn't hire women pilots back then.