Tuesday 24 April 2018

Betty Skelton

Daredevil pilot and stuntwoman who inspired a whole generation of female hopefuls with her courageous feats

Betty Skelton, who died on August 31 aged 85, toured the United States as a daredevil pilot, stuntwoman and general "speed freak", setting records in jet-propelled cars and completing so many others in feats of airborne daring that she became known as "the first lady of firsts".

Her achievements in the air became an inspiration to generations of female pilots. She was the first woman to achieve the "inverted ribbon cut", flying her brightly-coloured bi-plane, L'il Stinker, upside down to slice a ribbon, suspended only 10ft above the ground, in half with her propeller.

In flying circuses, Betty Skelton had no peer and she was crowned International Feminine Aerobatic Champion for three years running between 1948 and 1950.

In 1950, when she was 24, she turned her attention to fast cars, becoming the first woman test driver in the American motor industry. She was also the country's first female "boat jumper", memorably piloting a boat over a Dodge convertible car for a publicity stunt in 1955.

In the following year she broke the North American trans-continental speed record for driving coast-to-coast from New York to Los Angeles, covering 4,688km in 56 hours 58 minutes (an average of more than 82kmh). Two years later she crossed South America, from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso in Chile, in 41 hours 14 minutes. Although a mechanic accompanied her on both trips, Betty Skelton was behind the wheel throughout each journey.

While working for General Motors as a test driver and advertising executive, Betty Skelton's film star looks saw her selected to be the face of an advertising campaign to promote new, streamlined Corvettes and Corvairs. In 1957 -- driving a translucent, custom-made gold Corvette -- she became the first woman to drive a safety car at the Daytona 500 race in Florida.

She broke a number of records on the Bonneville Flats in Utah, where the British driver Malcolm Campbell had barrelled his six-tonne Bluebird car through the 482kmh barrier in the 1930s.

In 1960, when the Mercury astronauts were making headlines, Look magazine asked Betty Skelton to undergo the same rigorous physical and psychological training regime ordained by Nasa. She passed every test, winning the respect of the seven Project Mercury astronauts, who nicknamed her "number 7 and a half". She appeared on the magazine's cover decked out in a spacesuit, under the headline: "Should a girl be first in Space?"

Betty Skelton was born on June 28, 1926, at Pensacola, Florida, and as a child preferred model aircraft to dolls as playthings. After watching real planes come and go at a nearby naval air station, at the age of eight she began writing off to aircraft manufacturers asking for brochures.

An only child, when she was 10 she persuaded her parents to join her in flying lessons, and soon the family was running a flying school at Tampa, Florida. Betty made her first solo flight at the age of 12 -- but that infringed the law, and she waited a week before sheepishly telling her mother.

At 16 she made her first legal solo flight, and within a year had racked up enough hours to qualify for the Women Airforce Service Pilots. But the war ended before Betty Skelton could enlist and instead she took a desk job with Eastern Airlines. At 18 she qualified as a flying instructor.

When she began performing aerobatics at air shows alongside navy fliers, she was billed as the "Sweetheart of the Blue Angels" (the US Navy's precision flight team) as she put her distinctive white-and-red Pitts Special lightweight bi-plane through its paces. Betty Skelton's routine of loops and rolls apparently had no effect on her pet chihuahua, Little Tinker, which nestled in her lap in the cockpit.

In 1951 she set a women's altitude record in a Piper Cub, reaching a maximum height of 29,050ft -- just higher than Mount Everest. "I usually fly barefooted," Betty Skelton said, "and my feet darn near froze to death." At that altitude, the temperature outside her aircraft was 53 degrees below zero.

Betty Skelton was as determined on the ground as she was in the air and, in 1965, she set her last major land-speed record when she took a jet-powered car to a speed of more than 506kmh at Bonneville. In the same year she married the television director and advertising executive Donald Frankman.

Latterly, with her second husband, Allan Erde, a retired Navy doctor who survives her, she lived in a retirement community where residents travelled about in golf carts. Betty Skelton, however, drove a red Corvette convertible.

Sunday Independent

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