“By 1933, women aviators were being banned from air races,” O’Brien explained in a recent interview. “Male officials would no longer accept female competitors. This, understandably, infuriated Amelia Earhart and other female fliers. Because they couldn’t race in the much bigger Cleveland air race, they decided to hold, at the same time as that race, their own — in August 1934, in Dayton.”
“It was a smaller affair, with thinner crowds,” O’Brien adds. “But this was about proving a point. They’d hold their own event — their own show. I don’t want to spoil the story, but this women’s-only race would become a pivotal point in the history of female fliers.”
O’Brien, a native of Cincinnati who now lives in New Hampshire, is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Boston Globe and the New Orleans Times-Picayune and whose radio stories have appeared on many shows on NPR. He has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and other publications.
“As a journalist, I’m always looking for ideas,” O’Brien says. “In the spring of 2016, I happened to be on a plane from Boston to Pittsburgh, and I was reading ‘The Astronaut Wives Club,’ by Lily Koppel, about the wives of the Mercury Seven astronauts. There in the back of the book, in a list of references, I ran across a mention of a 1929 all-female pilot airplane race that included Amelia Earhart. I was immediately intrigued.”
After that, O’Brien says he began “noodling” around for more information, reading everything he could find about the topic in newspaper archives. As he became more and more fascinated with the history, he knew he had discovered a story worth telling, and one that would also fascinate others.
“Getting the story right became an epic quest for me,” he adds. “It’s a story populated by characters largely forgotten, who were willing to risk their own lives in order to achieve something greater than themselves.”
He did some of his research in Dayton, he says, looking at newspaper archives, and discovering that the female fliers at that pivotal 1934 Dayton all-female air race stayed at some of the most prominent homes of the day.
“During that race, Dayton was again at the center of the aviation universe,” O’Brien says.
The narrative he’s created is important as history, but also because, he says, “Stories about the underrepresented are always important, in any cultural climate, in any time. It remains hard to be a woman in a man’s field, even with advances in attitude. That was certainly the case in 1927 through 1937.”
“It took a lot of research and effort to bring these brave, important women back to life on the pages of a book,” he adds. “But it was worth it.”
Learn more about O’Brien and his book, and watch a “Fly Girls” book trailer, at www.keithob.com.