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Walking on Air

The Aerial Adventures of Phoebe Omlie

Janann Sherman

Publication Year: 2011

Aviation pioneer Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie (1902-1975) was once one of the most famous women in America. In the 1930s, her words and photographs were splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the nation. The press labeled her "second only to Amelia Earhart among America's women pilots," and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt named her among the "eleven women whose achievements make it safe to say that the world is progressing."

Omlie began her career in the early 1920s when aviation was unregulated and open to those daring enough to take it on, male or female. She earned the first commercial pilot's license issued to a woman and became a successful air racer. During the New Deal, she became the first woman to hold an executive position in federal aeronautics.

In Walking on Air, author Janann Sherman presents a thorough and entertaining biography of Omlie. In 1920, the Des Moines, Iowa, native bought herself a Curtiss JN-4D airplane and began learning how to fly and perform stunts with her future husband, pilot Vernon Omlie. She danced the Charleston on the top wing, hung by her teeth below the plane, and performed parachute jumps in the Phoebe Fairgrave Flying Circus.

Using interviews, contemporary newspaper articles, archived radio transcripts, and other archival materials, Sherman creates a complex portrait of a daring aviator struggling for recognition in the early days of flight and a detailed examination of how American flying changed over the twentieth century.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi


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pp. i-vi


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pp. vi-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Chapter 1

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pp. 3-23

Aviation pioneer Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie was once one of the most famous women in America. In the 1930s, her words and photographs were splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the nation. The press called her “second only to Amelia Earhart Putnam among America’s women pilots,” and First Lady Eleanor...

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Chapter 2

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pp. 24-37

It was time to reassess their options. Two summers of barnstorming had failed to provide a viable income. The Omlies landed in Memphis in late fall, hoping the Mid-South Fair and local exhibitions would provide their last chance to make some money to see them through the winter, but bad weather kept them grounded as their meager...

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Chapter 3

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pp. 38-62

Phoebe had gone to Bettendorf hoping to convince the company to allow her to market the Monocoupe in Memphis. She got the franchise and a lot more. Phoebe became a consultant for the company and ultimately the plane’s “ambassadoress,” as she demonstrated the Monocoupe in a variety of activities over the next few...

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Chapter 4

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pp. 63-78

Phoebe loved the challenge and adventure of competitive flying. It was also a business for her, one she was good at and one that offered large purses to skillful pilots. “My aviation career started early in 1921 when I entered the game to make money,” she told the press. “There was no commercial aviation in those days to speak...

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Chapter 5

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pp. 79-96

Phoebe Omlie, whom the press deemed “second only to Amelia Earhart Putnam among America’s women pilots,” was sworn in on her thirtyfirst birthday, 21 November 1933, to become the first woman to hold an executive job in federal aeronautics....

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Chapter 6

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pp. 97-117

On 6 August 1936, “one of the famous romances of the air came to an end.” Phoebe received the devastating phone call in the early hours of the morning telling her that Vernon was dead; he had been killed in a plane crash. As she caught her breath, she asked: was he...

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Chapter 7

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pp. 118-133

Almost as soon as she touched down in Memphis, Phoebe joined the staff of Free Enterprises, Inc., an organization dedicated to saving “this country from socialism and communism.” She was put in charge of a television “Freedom Series,” a Sunday afternoon talk show. “It was a real thrill,” she told the press, “to come back home and find...

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pp. 134-138

Soon after Phoebe returned to Memphis for the last time, local columnist Eldon Roark suggested naming the Memphis International Airport for the Omlies. The Memphis chapter of the Ninety-Nines enthusiastically endorsed the idea, saying that...

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Afterword: Finding Phoebe

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pp. 139-146

Phoebe Omlie came into my life in 1994. I had no sooner begun my new job as assistant professor of history at the University of Memphis when a colleague, who had noted from my resume that I had a private pilot’s license as well as an abiding interest in the...


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pp. 147-184


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pp. 185-191


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pp. 192-196

E-ISBN-13: 9781617031250
E-ISBN-10: 1617031259
Print-ISBN-13: 9781617031243
Print-ISBN-10: 1617031240

Page Count: 196
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 749264420
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Walking on Air

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Subject Headings

  • Omlie, Phoebe Fairgrave, 1902-1975.
  • Women air pilots -- United States -- Biography.
  • Air pilots -- United States -- Biography.
  • Aeronautics -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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