Betty Skelton: Aviatrix and test driver who broke records on land and in the air

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The Independent Online

Betty Skelton was an air-and-land daredevil in an era of male-dominated sports.

Breaking the gender barriers and setting records, she notched up three women's international aerobatics titles and 17 aviation and race-car world records during the 1940s and 1950s. According to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Skelton held more combined aircraft and automotive records than anyone in history. In his 1994 biography, Betty Skelton: The First Lady of Firsts, Henry Holden wrote, "In an era when heroes were race pilots, jet jocks and movie stars, Betty Skelton was an aviation sweetheart, an international celebrity and a flying sensation."

Skelton was an audacious aviatrix; her signature trick, in her Pitts Special biplane S-1C, Little Stinker, was the "inverted ribbon cut," a breathtaking manoeuvre in which a pilot flies upside down at about 150mph and about 12 feet from the ground to slice a ribbon strung between two poles with the propeller. She also set two world light-plane altitude records, reaching 26,000ft in 1949 and 29,050ft (just higher than Everest) in a Piper Cub in 1951. Used to flying barefoot and with an outside temperature of -53, she recalled, "My feet darn near froze to death."

In 1954, the diminutive Skelton became the automobile industry's first female test driver, setting a world land-speed record, in 1956, of 145mph in a souped-up Corvette at Daytona Beach – the men's record at the time was 3mph faster. In 1965 she set the women's world land-speed record, hitting 315.72mph at Bonneville Salt Flats.

Skelton was the first woman to be inducted into the International Aerobatic Hall of Fame and the Nascar International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

Betty Skelton was born in Pensacola, Florida in 1926, the year before Charles Lindbergh made his historic transatlantic flight. As a child, she acquired her passion for speed watching Navy pilots perform stunts in the skies above her home. A collector of model planes from an early age, Skelton knew she wanted to become a naval aviator. Aged 10, she persuaded her parents to pay for flying lessons. Two years later, she made her first unofficial solo flight, but had to wait until she was 16 for her first legal solo flight, when she earned her pilot's licence.

She rapidly clocked up the hours needed to qualify for the Women Airforce Service Pilots, but it was disbanded before she reached the required age, and she was barred from commercial flying because of her gender. So she began working as a clerk for Eastern Airlines at night so she could fly during the day, and became an instructor at the age of 18.

At the suggestion of a friend, Skelton turned to aerobatics and quickly learnt how to loop theloop and roll. She gave her first amateur performance in a Fairchild PT-19 in early 1946, with a full professional debut months later in her own 1929 Great Lakes 2T1A biplane at the South-Eastern Air Exposition in Jacksonville, Florida, along with a new US Navy exhibition team, the Blue Angels.

Following her success in aerobatics tournaments and with the gender barriers in place, Skelton had little incentive to continue and so, in 1951, sold Little Stinker and moved on, but continued to fly for fun.

Soon after a meeting with Bill France, the founder of Nascar, Skelton drove at Daytona Beach during Speed Week and set a stock-car record of 105.88mph in a 1954 Dodge Red Ram V8. She was part of the team that drove a 1955 Dodge to 395 new records at the Bonneville. In 1956, she broke the North American transcontinental speed record for driving coast-to-coast from New York to Los Angeles, covering 2,913 miles in 56 hours 58 minutes. Two years later, Skelton crossed South America, from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso in Chile, in 41 hours 14 minutes. She later became a leading advertising executive and worked with General Motors. France later said, "I would venture to say there is no other woman in the world with all the attributes of this woman. The most impressive of them all is her surprising and outstanding ever-present femininity, even when tackling a man's job."

In 1960, Skelton appeared on the cover of Look magazine, in an astronaut's flight suit, with the headline, "Should a Girl Be First in Space?"

During the late 1970s and 80sSkelton ran an estate agency in Florida and published a book, Little Stinker. She continued flying well into her 80s. In 1988, the International Aerobatic Club established the Betty SkeltonFirst Lady of Aerobatics Trophy,awarded to the highest scoring female pilot at the US National Aerobatic Championships.

When asked about being a woman competing with men in two male-dominated fields, Skelton said, "Competing? No, I didn't really do that. I found that once I demonstrated I was capable, had the ability, I was accepted. And I found that true everywhere I've ever been and in everything I've ever done."

Skelton died of cancer at her retirement home in Florida.

Betty Skelton, aviator and driver: born Pensacola, Florida 28 June 1926; married 1965 Donald Frankman (died 2001), 2005 Allan Erde; died The Villages, Florida 31 August 2011.