The Reader’s Nook: “Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History” by Keith O’Brien

Book Review by Michelle Goetzl 

We take airplanes and air travel for granted today, but in the 1920s and ‘30s airplanes were still new and exciting. Most people have heard the names Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart – not necessarily because of their skill as pilots, but rather because of the tragedies that befell them. In his new and exciting book, journalist Keith O’Brien tells the story of the world of aviation in those years and the dangers it held while focusing on five female pilots who worked to crack the glass ceiling.

O’Brien spent countless hours researching Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History, assembling these facts into a captivating story. Each of the women that O’Brien focuses on could be the subject of a book herself. One was Louise Thaden, a well-educated woman in the time when many were not, was a serious pilot, but also a mother and wife. Ruth Nichols was a girl who came from money and was supposed to marry well, but was seduced by the feeling of flight. She was willing to do pretty much anything to be the best. Amelia Earhart was out to prove that women could achieve anything and had the power of money behind her. The beautiful and stylish Ruth Elder used her charm to her advantage, while Florence Klingensmith – the best mechanic of the bunch – could give the boys a run for their money in speed races.

O’Brien gives readers the backgrounds on each of these women and how they wound up with a love of flight. Every story needs an antagonist and in Fly Girls, Cliff Henderson assumes that role. Henderson was a successful promoter of the national air races – a race where the women wanted equal access and treatment. Fly Girls follows the races as well as other aviation records that the women pursued over the years.

The history of aeronautics is as fascinating as the history of women’s rights. Planes were dangerous at times and not enclosed, so warm layers and goggles were necessary. Air races were as popular as NASCAR. And given that you can now fly from Los Angeles to New York in a touch over five hours, it is hard to imagine a time when that same flight took 19 hours if a pilot undertook it nonstop. Even transatlantic travel required a stop in Newfoundland.

In terms of the rights of these pilots, they had to fight for equal treatment and people were always looking for some reason to blame the pilot instead of the airplane when they were involved. Men didn’t want them in their races; didn’t want them in their territory. The women had to tread lightly, but they organized and worked together to achieve parity.

O’Brien has crafted a readable and exciting book about the adventure, tragedy and determination faced by pilots, male and female, during the ‘20s and ‘30s. If you liked Boys in the Boat or Unbroken, you will love Fly Girls.

Michelle Goetzl writes an online blog—“Books My Kids Read.” She loves books and sharing that love of reading with children. She can be reached at booksmykidsread@gmail.co