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PANCHO BARNES (1901 – 1975) Pilot, Proprietor, Partier

In American History, Ballooning, California History, Feminists, Hollywood, Pilots, women on March 16, 2011 at 9:17 AM

Pancho Barnes

Pancho Barnes was a force of nature, and she didn’t do anything in a predictable way.  She was born into wealth, but couldn’t stand the obligations living in high society demanded.  Her first marriage was arranged, but subsequent ones were based on passion.  Her friends, mostly men, included movie stars, test pilots and anyone who could keep up with her adventuresome spirit.  There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do except for one: conform to what other people expected of her.

Barnes’ grandfather, Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe, was an inventor and pioneer balloonist.  He was the first person to take photographs from a balloon and helped the Union Army with reconnaissance during the Civil War.  When he moved his family from Pennsylvania to Pasadena, California in 1888 they settled in a 24,000 square foot mansion on Millionaire’s Row.  Among other business ventures, he created the Mount Lowe Railway in the local San Gabriel Mountains which ended up costing him his entire fortune, and he died poor.

Barnes’ father was Thad Junior, the seventh child of ten.  He worked in his father’s businesses, but he preferred to spend his time outdoors and was an excellent horseman.  He married Florence Mae Dobbins, a staunch Episcopalian from another moneyed family who also had moved west from Pennsylvania.  The bride’s parents gave the couple a house in neighboring San Marino and eight years later upgraded it to a 35 room estate with servants, a pool, tennis courts and stables.  Barnes’ older brother, William Emmert, was constantly sick and died when Barnes was 12 years old.  While her mother cared for her brother, the rambunctious tomboy was spoiled by her father.

Barnes inherited her passions from her grandfather and father, and they treated her like the boy they wanted.  When she was three, her father gave her a pony.  For her fifth birthday, she got a Thoroughbred, and she won her first equestrian trophy that year.  When she was nine, her grandfather took her to the first American aviation exhibition near Long Beach.  From her mother, she inherited her name and, unfortunately, her masculine looks.

GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN       After a few years of home schooling, Barnes was enrolled in the Pasadena Elementary School, the only girl in a class of 23 boys.  She could run faster, spit, curse and fight better than most of her classmates.  Her behavior became an issue, but her parents didn’t know what to do about it, so they moved her to a prestigious prep school, Westridge School for Girls.  Barnes proved that she just wanted to have fun and didn’t care much about rules, so her parents moved her to a nearby Catholic boarding school, Ramona Convent.  During her second year there she ran away on horseback to Tijuana.  Now her parents were desperate, but the only option they could think of was to move their daughter away to the Bishop School in La Jolla, an Episcopalian boarding school.  Somehow Barnes managed to survive the two years until graduation.

After she graduated, Barnes announced that she wanted to be a veterinarian.  That was such an appalling idea to her mother that she promptly enrolled the teenager in Stickney School of Art for a more ladylike course of study.  This did not offer any real long term prospects, however, so Barnes’ maternal grandmother arranged for her to marry the rector of the local Episcopal church.  It seemed like a win-win situation, if not a perfect match.  The groom would be appeasing a major contributor to the church and get a new bell tower.  The bride would be able to stop living with her parents and have a shot at independence.

THAT’S NOT A LADY, IT’S MY WIFE          Barnes and Reverend C. Rankin Barnes were married in January 1921.  The first time the couple kissed was at the wedding, and the only time they were intimate was on the honeymoon.  Nine months later a baby boy, William Emmert Barnes (“Billy”), was born.

As was to be expected, Barnes was totally bored being a poor pastor’s wife, but she tried to fill the role for a while.  She taught Sunday school and bribed the kids in catechism class with jackknives to entice them to behave.  She had no maternal instinct, and nurturing a baby was asking too much of her.

Relief came from the burgeoning film industry in Hollywood.  Barnes started riding her horses in movies and was so adept she could carry a camera on her shoulder while riding.  She was earning at least $100 a day, and as soon as she could she hired a cook, housekeeper and full time nanny.  She was so successful Aimee Semple McPherson hired Barnes as her stunt double in shows.

When Barnes was 22 years old, her mother died.  Her father’s way of coping with the loss was to marry a woman only three years older than his daughter and move to Lake Arrowhead.  Barnes coped by running away, traveling across the country by herself for several months.  When she returned she took up with a college student and discovered how much fun physical intimacy could be.  Their affair lasted several months, and it was followed by another.  Barnes’ occasional attempts to act like a pastor’s wife didn’t overshadow her indiscretions, and she became an embarrassment to her upstanding family.  She left again, under pressure, on a cruise to South America.

A LONG WALK HOME          When she returned, she moved into her parents’ house, but she didn’t stay put for long.  When some friends got the idea to get hired on as crew on a banana boat bound for South America, Barnes, the only woman, didn’t hesitate to join them.  She dressed as a man and signed on as “Jacob Crane.”  As soon as the boat left the dock, the adventurers discovered they were running guns and ammunition to revolutionaries in Mexico.  When they arrived in San Blas, the ship was boarded by armed guards who used the vehicle to shelter the town’s money from the rebels.  The crew was held hostage for six weeks.  Barnes and the helmsman, Roger Chute, were the only two courageous enough to escape.

The pair stole a horse and burro and set out through the Mexican countryside.  Barnes quipped that her partner looked like Don Quixote, and he said that made her “Pancho.”  She corrected his reference, saying the character’s name was “Sancho Panza,” but Chute liked “Pancho” better.  Barnes liked the sound of Pancho Barnes, and the name stuck.

The journey continued on foot, and Barnes and Chute walked over 250 miles from Mexico City to Vera Cruz where they became stowaways on a boat.  With help from a connection at the American Embassy, they eventually got on another boat to New Orleans.  From there they walked, hoboed and hitchhiked to California.  For all of the challenges of the trip, Barnes saw it as a total adventure, and finally she knew who she was and what she was capable of.

TAKING FLIGHT         It didn’t take Barnes long to need another adventure, and she turned her attention skyward.  In spring of 1928 she started taking pilot’s lessons.  Her instructor was a World War I pilot, and the airplane had one instrument in it: an oil gauge.  A key chain hung from the control board to determine if they were flying straight, and they looked over the side to judge altitude.  To know how much gas they had, they dipped a string in the tank and estimated how far they could go.  Barnes was immediately hooked, and she bought herself a Travel Air biplane for $5,500.  She was more captivated by the thrill of the early days of flying than deterred by the dangers.  In 1928 on a trip to San Francisco her engine quit, and she had to make eight emergency landings.

The enterprising woman found various ways to earn income as a pilot: test pilot for airplane manufacturers, making promotional flights for Union Oil, and stunt pilot and technical director for the movies.  Barnes helped Howard Hughes capture authentic audio of planes for Hell’s Angels by flying past tethered balloons with sound equipment attached to them.

Her interests took a political bent when she founded the Association of Motion Picture Pilots (AMPP) in 1932 so the pilots could get fair wages for their often death defying work.  That year she also tried to parlay her popularity into a bid for Supervisor for the Third District in Los Angeles.  Even with an endorsement from fellow pilot Amelia Earhart, Barnes wasn’t able to convert her generosity and clout into political office.

Barnes worked constantly, but she was better at spending money than saving it.  Her home was party central, constantly full of flying and movie industry friends.  She had an open door, open bar policy, and she never expected her guests to help foot the bill.  In addition to spending lavishly, she used her house and other properties as collateral to buy more real estate investments without any regard as to how she would make payments.

STARTING OVER  By 1935 Barnes was broke.  Conceding that she would never become famous because she didn’t have the requisite good looks or personal backers, she decided it was time to reinvent herself.  She rented out the San Marino estate until she was ready to sell it, and she traded an apartment building in Los Angeles for a four-room house and hay barn on an 80-acre alfalfa ranch in the Antelope Valley near Muroc Dry Lake.  She moved her horses and airplane to the middle of nowhere.  The nearest town was 20 miles away from her Rancho Oro Verde, but there was an encampment for an Army Air Corps squadron to conduct exercises and bombing practice.

Barnes was by no means isolated in this desert wasteland.  She created an air strip out of the hard earth and built guest quarters so her friends could fly in for a visit.  By 1941 she had 360 acres with a farmhouse, stables and swimming pool.  She knew nothing about alfalfa farming, so she expanded her venture with dairy cows and pigs.  Billy had been living with his dad, but the teenager joined his mom to help out and enjoy new freedom, and Barnes tried to act more like a mother to him.  Barnes opened her home and heart to the local fly boys, and even Colonel Clarence Shoop, the commanding officer of the Flight Test Center, used Barnes’ facilities to host parties for visiting dignitaries.

In 1939 the Civilian Pilot Training Program was established to train pilots, and Barnes got a government contract to supply planes and instructors for the local school.  One of the students distinguished himself from the others.  Barnes had had many lovers, but she met Robert Hudson Nichols, Jr. (“Nicky”), about the time her husband asked for a divorce, freeing her and Nicky to get married.  The pilot training program lasted two years.  The marriage lasted two weeks.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the government discontinued the civilian training program and the Muroc Army Air Base became Edwards Air Force Base.  With the influx of Air Force test pilots, there were even more guys who joined Barnes’ Hollywood friends to hang out, get a good meal and be entertained.  She could match them with flying stories, jokes, drinking, smoking and swearing, and they loved her.  Barnes was totally unaware of how much it cost her to host her friends.  She often ran out of money to feed the horses or pay bills, and she accrued several liens on her property.  But, if all you need is love, Barnes was happy.  In 1944 she met Don Shalita, a very handsome show dancer six years her junior.  His career was winding down so he moved to the ranch, and a year later they were married.  This time Barnes broke a longevity record for actually living with a husband: four months.

HAPPY BOTTOM RIDING CLUB            Barnes received an inheritance from her uncle, and after World War II she used it to improve her property, calling it Pancho’s Fly-Inn.  On 300 acres she opened her own airfield with two runways.  Anyone could tie down their plane for free, but they had to buy gas and oil from Barnes.  There was a hanger, repair shop and flight school.  She added rooms with air conditioning and private baths to her guest house.  Barnes built a racetrack, and there was even a fishpond in the shape of the Air Force emblem.  She advertised in the Los Angeles newspapers for families to enjoy her “modern flying dude ranch” for $49 a week, per person, meals included.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, the likes of General Al Boyd, Commander of Edwards AFB, and Chuck Yeager were regulars at Barnes’ place, but it had become so popular that she felt she was missing the spirit of the old days.  She converted the bar and grill into a private club for her Edwards AFB and Hollywood friends and called it the Happy Bottom Riding Club.

One of the newer Happy Bottom guests was pilot Eugene McKendry (“Mac”), who ended up at the ranch after returning from a tour of duty overseas.  His wife was divorcing him and giving him custody of their son, and Mac needed some encouragement and a place to live.  He found both with Barnes, and he was there for her when she needed support.

When Barnes was 45 years old, she suffered from hypertension and had a retinal hemorrhage.  She ignored the symptoms until she collapsed and a ranch hand called the doctor.  Barnes consented to experimental surgery called sympathectomy which destroys nerves in the sympathetic nervous system to increase blood flow.  It required two operations with 18-inch incisions on both sides of the spine and partial removal of four ribs.  Mac was by her side during her lengthy recovery from the operation and a bout of pneumonia.

Life at the Club continued to be one big party, and liquor was flown in illegally from Mexico.  Barnes sponsored air shows, rodeos and aerial treasure hunts with other airports.  She hired hostesses to wait tables and dance with the men.  Barnes denied that she was running a brothel, but the wives of the pilots resented that they spent their free time there, regardless of what they were doing.

In addition to the usual carousing, in June 1952 Barnes was involved in planning another bash, her fourth wedding, to Mac.  The bride was 51 years old, and the groom was 32.  Commander Al Boyd gave the bride away, and Chuck Yeager stood up as her attendant.  The 58 second ceremony was presided over by Judge J. G. Sherrill and witnessed by 650 guests.  Then the couple exchanged vows again in a Native American ceremony officiated by Chief Lucky and Little Snow White of the Blackfoot tribe.  The wedding banquet included four whole roasted pigs, 80 pounds of potato salad, 16 gallons of Jell-O and a 50 pound wedding cake.  One of the entertainers at the reception was Lassie.

DEALING WITH CHANGE    That same year the leadership of Edwards changed, and Brigadier General J. Stanley Holtoner took command.  He was all business and didn’t enjoy Barnes’ hospitality as his predecessors had.  In addition, the government was buying up all the property adjoining the air base.  This seriously jeopardized what took Barnes almost 20 years to build.  The FBI investigated Barnes for possible illegal activity, but the worst they could accuse her of was bad credit.  There were enough law suits and counter suits to keep both sides busy for a long time, and Barnes always acted as her own attorney.  The government finally got legal title to Barnes’ land and gave her $185,000.

A few months later, Barnes was driving home from shopping when she saw smoke coming from her property.  She lost everything in the house, barn and dance hall to the fire.  Conspiracy theories circulating around implicated the government, Barnes and even a drifter who was hanging around.

The disastrous fire was the beginning of the end for Barnes.  She tried to start over a few miles north in the Mojave Desert and took out mortgages on over 1,000 acres with a little café and gas station.  She treated herself to horses, a Stinson airplane and catamaran, but she lived in an abandoned rock building with a dirt floor and broken windows.  She had big plans for Gypsy Springs, but she still hadn’t learned to manage her money, and Edwards Air Force Base had grown into a self sufficient community and no longer needed her hospitality.

To compound her problems, Barnes had health issues and relationship issues.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy.  Mac moved to Gypsy Springs and was there for her during the two surgeries, but their relationship was rapidly deteriorating beyond reconciliation.  In 1962, Barnes sued her husband for divorce.

In her late 60s, Barnes found herself alone.  An old friend offered to let her live rent free in a 20 by 25 square foot house.  She started breeding Yorkshire terriers, but they just contributed to the increased squalor that she lived in.  Her best asset was storytelling, and she was invited to speak at local clubs and banquets, regaling audiences with the spellbinding tales of her life.  In the summer of 1971 some of her old friends at Edwards, including Buzz Aldrin, threw a party for her 70th birthday on the base.

Barnes could not create a future for herself, and she ended up living off memories and dreams.  In the spring of 1975, she never showed up for a speaking engagement and was found dead in her home surrounded by putrid filth.  Two friends got permission to fly over the old Rancho Oro Verde and scatter her remains.  As the ashes started to drift toward the ground, a crosswind came up and redirected them back into the cockpit of the Cessna.  Even in death Barnes still loved a good joy ride.

QUESTION:  How are you different than what you think other people expect you to be?

© 2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

Kessler, Lauren, The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes.  New York: Random House, 2000.

Tate, Grover Ted, The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus.  Maverick Publications, 1984.

Schultz, Barbara Hunter, Pancho, The Biography of Florence Lowe Barnes.  Lancaster, California: Little Buttes Publishing Co., 1996.

http://www.panchobarnes.com/index.html

http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Explorers_Record_Setters_and_Daredevils/Barnes/EX17.htm

http://happybottomridingclub.com/#/home/

http://www.surgeryencyclopedia.com/St-Wr/Sympathectomy.html

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SOPHIE BLANCHARD (1778 –1819) First Women to Fly Solo in a Hot Air Balloon

In adventure, Ballooning, Biography, Feminists, French History, People, Pilots, Uncategorized, women on September 15, 2010 at 9:34 AM

Sophie Blanchard

In the 1960s, The 5th Dimension sang, “Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?”  When Sophie Blanchard’s husband said that to her, she said, “Yes,” and they were Up, Up and Away.  Sophie felt most comfortable in the air, but what goes up must come down.

Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant came to the world’s attention when she married Jean-Pierre Blanchard, an inventor and pioneer in French aviation, specifically ballooning.  Other than the fact that she was born to Protestant parents in western France, almost nothing is known about her young life.

Blanchard was about 16 years old when she married, 35 years younger than her husband, becoming his second wife.  She was described as a small, nervous woman who startled easily when she heard loud noises.  When she started flying with Jean-Pierre, she felt more at home in the quiet, peaceful sky than on terra firma.

TAKING TO THE SKIES                Blanchard made her first balloon ascent in 1804 with her husband as a stunt to raise money.  Even though Jean-Pierre was the world’s first professional balloonist and had made demonstration tours all over Europe, he wasn’t a very good businessman.  They hoped that having a woman in the basket would attract more fans.  Blanchard wasn’t the first woman to ride in a balloon.  Three other women had gone up in tethered balloons, and two women had previously gone up untethered, but seeing a woman aloft was still a novelty.

In 1809, Jean-Pierre was flying over The Hague when he had a heart attack and fell from his balloon.  He died from his injuries.  He had adopted the Latin phrase Sic itur ad astra (“Such is the path to the stars”) as his personal motto.  Blanchard decided to follow her husband’s path and became the first woman to fly solo in a balloon.

Blanchard still needed to pay off the debt left by her husband, so her balloon of choice was a hydrogen-filled gas balloon.  The benefits of using gas (instead of hot air) generally outweighed the risks.  She wouldn’t have to tend to a fire to keep the balloon airborne and, since she was a petite woman, she could use a small basket about the size of a chair and minimal gas to inflate the balloon.

WORTH THE RISK                          Even though ballooning had been popular for almost 30 years, the inherent dangers still made it a risky endeavor.  Blanchard passed out during several flights because of the high altitude, and she encountered freezing temperatures when she cruised at 12,000 feet.  In 1811, she had to stay airborne for over 14 hours to avoid a hail storm.  And sometimes landing was just as risky.  One time her balloon made a crash landing in a marsh, and she almost drowned.

Blanchard’s husband had experimented with parachutes, dropping dogs out of the basket to demonstrate floating down to earth safely.  One time when flying solo his balloon ruptured, and he was grateful for the parachute as his only way to escape.  None of Jean-Pierre’s mishaps deterred Blanchard from her own desire to be a pilot.  When she had the opportunity to fly solo, Blanchard also tested the flotation devices using dogs, but she never had the occasion to need one herself.  When she flew exhibitions at events, she spiced things up by attaching small baskets of fireworks to parachutes to light up the sky as they were falling.

Engraving of Sophie Blanchard in 1811

GETTING OFFICIAL RECOGNITION      Napoleon was a big fan of Madame Blanchard, and he appointed her as the “Aeronaut of the Official Festivals,” making her responsible for organizing balloon demonstrations at official events.  In 1810, she flew over the Champs de Mars (today near the Eiffel Tower) in honor of Napoleon’s marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria.  To commemorate the birth of their son, Blanchard flew over Paris dropping announcements of the birth.  One year later, Blanchard made an ascent over the palace Château de Saint-Cloud during the official celebration of the boy’s baptism, and she set off fireworks from her balloon.  There’s speculation that she also devised plans with Napoleon to use hot air balloons for an aerial invasion of England, which were never carried out.

Blanchard’s popularity outlasted Napoleon’s rule.  When Louis XVIII returned to Paris in 1814 to regain the throne, she participated in the official procession, making her ascent from Pont Neuf.  King Louis was so impressed by her performance that he named her the “Official Aeronaut of the Restoration.”

Blanchard was also known throughout Europe, and large crowds came to watch her.  For the opening night of the opera in Frankfurt in 1810, she was allegedly responsible for a poor audience, as most of the city turned out to see her rather than attend the opera’s debut.

AN UNPLANNED DESCENT          In 1819, when Blanchard was 42 years old, she made an ascent over the Tivoli Gardens (now the site of the Saint-Lazare station), an area she was very familiar with.  She was warned repeatedly about the dangers of using pyrotechnics in her exhibitions.  She had never had an incident, but on the night of July 6, she was uncharacteristically nervous.  She went ahead with the demonstration, wearing a white dress and white hat topped with ostrich feathers and waving a white flag.  There was a strong wind and the balloon had difficulty rising.  It bounced off a tree in the attempt.  Blanchard threw ballast overboard, reducing the weight but also jeopardizing her stability.

When she had cleared the trees, Blanchard began her show using “Bengal Fire” fireworks to illuminate the balloon.  While she was still rising, the hydrogen caught on fire and the balloon started to fall.  The wind carried her off course, and Blanchard continued to eliminate ballast to become lighter and keep from plunging to the ground.

The balloon drifted above the rooftops of the Rue de Provence where the hydrogen gas finally burned up, causing the balloon to drop onto the roof of a house.  Blanchard was tossed out of her small basket, fell to the street below and was killed.  Speculation after the fact determined that the pyrotechnics were knocked out of position by the tree the balloon hit on the way up.

The crowd was stunned, and the rest of the event was cancelled.  The owners of Tivoli Gardens donated the admission fees to the support of Blanchard’s children.  When they found out that she didn’t have any children, the money was used to build a memorial to her over her grave, which was engraved with epitaph “victime de son art et de son intrépidité” (“victim of her art and intrepidity”).

QUESTION:  How do you feel about flying?  Would you like to be a pilot?  Why or why not?

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophie_Blanchard

http://www.mindensoaringclub.com/int2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=115&Itemid=1

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Pierre_Blanchard

http://www.eballoon.org/history/history-of-ballooning.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_XVIII_of_France

http://www.latin-dictionary.org/Sic_itur_ad_astra

http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=2059

LI XIAQING (1912-1998) Aviatrix & Actress

In adventure, Biography, Chinese history, Feminists, Movies, People, People from China, Pilots, Trivia, Uncategorized, women on May 3, 2010 at 9:02 PM

Li XiaQing

 

Li was born in the Canton province of China to a wealthy, patriotic family. She was given the nickname “Dandan,” a homophone for the Chinese word for “bomb,” because her family used her baby carriage to stealthily transport explosives.  

At age 14, she wandered onto a movie set, and the director was smitten with her stunning looks.  He offered her the opportunity to act in a silent film, and she thought it would be fun.  Despite her lack of experience, Li, using the stage name Li Dandan, quickly won the admiration of audiences, which she capitalized on for six more films.   

Her most famous role was the title character in Hua Mulan Joins the Army in 1928.  Hua Mulan was the young girl who dressed as a boy to go to war, the basis for the Disney animated movie Mulan.  In order to play the role convincingly, Li learned martial arts, archery, boxing, fencing and horseback riding.  

Li XiaQing as Mulan

 

These new skills gave her an edge off the set as well and made her a hero to the production company.   One night while they were on location, robbers snuck into the camp and stole the production money.  Li jumped on a horse, prevented the thieves from crossing a bridge, and after fighting with them for a while, tossed them over the bridge into the river.  

Li’s father wanted her to continue her education, so he sent her to Europe.  He was also ready to pass off responsibility for her to a husband.  He changed her name back to Li Xiaqing and hired a matchmaker.  She picked Zheng Baifeng who was educated at the Sorbonne in Paris and worked for China’s Foreign Service. This seemed like a match made in heaven, and the couple was married in 1929 and made their first home in Geneva.  Li was 17 years old and Zheng was almost 30.  

By 1932, Li had become a mother to a son and a daughter.  This new responsibility did not, however, interfere with her love of travel.  In 1933, Li attended the Paris Air Show and was enamored by flying.  Immediately upon returning to Geneva, she enrolled in flying lessons. One year later, Li made her first solo flight and was the first woman to receive a private pilot’s license in Geneva.  

Li’s reason for learning to fly was patriotic: to help her country advance through aviation.  In order to accomplish that, she needed to become a more proficient pilot and mechanic.  She enrolled at the Boeing School of Aeronautics in Oakland, California for advanced training.  By the time she graduated she could dismantle and reassemble an airplane engine and was versed in aerodynamics, meteorology, aircraft design and radiotelephony.  

The biggest thrill in flight for Li was aerobatics.  On May 15, 1935 she went up with instructor LeRoy B. Gregg over San Francisco Bay.  At about 2,200 feet Gregg started a barrel roll and turned the plane upside down.  When he looked back, he saw Li falling out of her seat trying to hang on.  Then, in shock, he watched her fall.  After a free fall of about 900 feet, Li remembered to pull the rip cord and activate the parachute she was wearing.  This eased her splash down into the icy cold bay.   

Li was an experienced swimmer, but her water-logged leather suit and the freezing water made it difficult for her to move.  Gregg dropped life preservers, but Li couldn’t get to them.  Luckily, airmen at the U.S. Naval Reserve Base in Alameda saw her fall and were on their way to rescue her in a Loening amphibious plane.  Unfortunately, the pontoons were stuck on this aircraft, and Li had to continue to tread water until a second one could arrive.  Li was in the water for 20 minutes until she climbed aboard the rescue aircraft.  A credit to her gender, Li only had two complaints: she was cold, and she lost a shoe.  In order to “get back on the horse,” Li went up over the Bay in the same stunt plane the following day.  Apparently, the cause of Li’s involuntary ejection was a broken seat belt, although she admitted to a reporter many years later that it was possible she had forgotten to fasten it.  

This harrowing experience earned Li membership in the Caterpillar Club, an exclusive organization of about 100,000 people with only one requirement to join.  You must have saved your own life through an emergency parachute exit from an airplane.   

On November 5, 1935, Li was the first woman to graduate from the prestigious Boeing School of aeronautics.  With a diploma, private pilot’s license and impressive experience, she returned to China.  

In 1934, General Chaing Kai-shek authorized private flying in China for the first time. After passing a demanding test, Li was the first woman to be issued a government pilot’s license, handed to her by General Chaing himself.  With this honor came responsibility.  She was given the use of a government plane and charged with inspecting all the airfields throughout China.   

Li didn’t really have time for family, and didn’t live with her husband and children. This independence had consequences.  In 1935 she divorced Zheng under the new constitutional laws which made Zheng lose face.  As a result, Li had to forfeit seeing her children until they were adults.   

Li wasn’t at a loss for romance, however.  She had met Peter Doo when she was in Europe and they corresponded while she was lived Oakland.  With Li finally a free woman, Doo went to work for her father to encourage a commitment from her.  The most she was willing to commit to was a long distance romance for eight years.  

In Shanghai, Li primarily taught flying and continued to be an example for women. For Chaing Kai-shek’s fiftieth birthday celebration she performed the first aerobatic flight by a woman.  For the finale, she dove straight at the podium full of dignitaries and pulled up at last minute, just a few feet above their heads.  Her popularity skyrocketed.  

In 1937 Japan invaded China.  Li saw this as the ultimate opportunity to use her skills to serve her country.  She was crushed when she was told she would no longer be allowed to fly because she was a woman, not even on courier missions. But she found another way to serve, by founding the First Citizens’ Emergency Auxiliary and using her own money to convert a hotel into the Red Cross Emergency Hospital.  She was driven, doing everything from administration work to assisting with surgery to organizing a refugee camp and orphanage to running the radio station that broadcast propaganda.   

The Japanese were not so appreciative of Li’s contributions and they put her on their black list, forcing her to leave Shanghai. She ended up back in San Francisco where she started working on her idea to fly around the United States raising money to support China.  She sold $7,000 worth of jewelry to buy an airplane and finance her excursions.   

Everywhere she went, Li was given a grand reception.  Audiences were surprised and captivated by her beauty and style.  The Idaho Statesman in Boise described her outfit of sharkskin slacks, no hose, leather sandals, finger and toenails polished to match the lipstick and a carnation behind her ear.  This flower became her trademark.   

Hollywood noticed her, too.  She revived her acting career as a Chinese aviatrix in the movie Disputed Passage starring Dorothy Lamour.  She took time out of her flight schedule for the three-day job, and she did her own stunts, donating her earnings to the war refugee fund.  

By 1939 Li had flown 10,000 miles and raised $10,000 for Chinese refugees.  She extended her efforts to two fundraising tours of South America, returning to Shanghai in May 1946.   

Back in Asia Li only flew for pleasure.  She met international businessman Li GeorgeYixiang (no relation).  Together they shared a love of travel, golf and horseback riding.  They settled in Oakland near where Li had studied at Boeing.  By this time, Li’s American pilot’s license had expired, and the Federal Aviation Administration would not recognize her license from Hong Kong.  So, in 1966, at 54 years old, Li began flight instruction to become recertified.   

Li never lost the thrill of flying.  One day while she was out driving, she saw a crop duster in a field.  She stopped and asked the farmer if she could take it for a spin.  She did tricks and aerobatic maneuvers, pushing the plane to its limits.  When she landed, she thanked the flabbergasted owner and walked away.  

Li was 86 years old when she died in Oakland. For her final resting place she wanted to feel the same expanse she felt while flying.  She had bought four adjacent plots in the Mountain View Cemetery and insisted that she be buried right in the center with lots of space around her.  

QUESTION: What nickname do people call you?  What significance does it have?  How has it influenced your relationship with them?  

                         ©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved  

Sources:  

Gully, Patti.  Sisters of Heaven.  San Francisco: Long River Press, 2008.  

http://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/Chinas_First_Lady_of_Flight.html  

http://160.111.252.58/research/arch/findaids/pdf/Lee_Ya-Ching_Papers_Finding_Aid.pdf  

http://www.chinesemirror.com/index/2009/10/in-search-of-li-dandan-aviatrix.html  

http://softfilm.blogspot.com/2009/01/lee-ya-ching-flying-for-victory.html  

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caterpillar_Club  

http://www.caterpillarclub.org/irvin/irvin.htm