I posted this LOOK Magazine cover and a short blurb on Twitter back in 2017 B.F. (Before FloWriter). But I knew immediately that the short-form post just did not do justice to the amazing career and life of Betty Skelton.
That original post only focused on her involvement with the Mercury Seven and NASA’s first human spaceflight program. Incredibly, that’s just one small step among her career accomplishments, which include many giant leaps that contributed to the end of prohibitions against female pilots in the aerobatic and commercial aviation industries.
Still, this represents just one facet of her incredible career. Indeed, as a semi-official eighth member of the Mercury Seven–a team which included some of the most accomplished pilots in the world–Skelton’s was arguably the most exemplary career of all.
Early Life of an Aviation Pioneer
Skelton was born in Pensacola, Florida in June 1926, in the shadows of the N3Ns that alighted at the nearby Pensacola Naval Air Station. After years of hitching rides on any empty seat she could find departing from the municipal airfield, she took controls of a Taylorcraft and made her first solo fight at the age of twelve. She earned her pilot’s license at 16, lied about her age to work for Eastern Airlines at night so she could fly during the day, got a commercial pilot’s license at 18, and then her flight instructor and multi-engine licenses.
For years she had planned to join the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, but it folded just months before she reached the age limit. Instead, she joined the Civil Air Patrol at 18, and worked as a flight instructor at her father’s flight school. From here, the rest of her life could be best described as a series of firsts.
As neither the military nor commercial airlines would accept female pilots, Skelton resorted to performing stunts at air shows. Her professional aerobatic career began in earnest in 1946, and within four years she was the first three-time US Female Aerobatic Champion.
In 1949 Skelton set the light-plane altitude record, then she broke it two years later. In her trademark red and white Pitts Special S-1C, a small model biplane that she christened “Little Stinker,” Skelton became the first woman to perform an inverted ribbon cut ten feet above the ground.
In 1948–only two years into her aerobatic career–Tampa celebrated “Betty Skelton Day.” Skelton was in attendance, and she performed stunts at the Tampa Airport in a modified North American P-51 Mustang. Head over to Florida Memory to watch footage of the celebration!
Burned out by the demanding aerobatic show scene, and perhaps going as far as a woman could go in the world of professional aviation, Skelton retired from her daring day job, sold Little Stinker, and flew charter flights out of Raleigh. After a chance meeting with Bill France, the founder of NASCAR, she discovered a passion for stock car racing, and with that, a new career emerged.
Skelton drove the pace car at Daytona during Speed Week, she set a stock car record on the beach in a 1954 Dodge Red Ram V8, set the speed record at 105 mph, she was the first woman to earn an auto race driver’s license, the first female test driver in the auto industry, the first woman to drive a jet car over 300 mph, and the first woman to drive an Indy car. She was part of a team that, with a 1955 Dodge, set 395 new records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. She also set three land speed records, four world land speed records, and a transcontinental speed record.
In the midst of this ass-kicking, record-setting, glass-ceiling-breaking aviation and automotive career, Skelton took a job as an advertising executive for Campbell-Ewald Advertising (the agency that handled General Motors). By 1969, she earned the position of Vice President of Campbell-Ewald’s new Women’s Market and Advertising Department. Oh, she was also the first woman to serve as a technical narrator at a major auto show.
That same year, she successfully lobbied to end discrimination against female pilots in air racing. Among her many records and accomplishments, this seems to be one of her most impactful. Curiously though, I’m struggling to find more information about it. So if you can point me to any useful resources or information, please head to my Twitter or the Contact page and let me know!
In an odd union of her flying and racing careers, in 1955 at Florida’s Cypress Gardens, she drove (flew?) Lil’ Miss Dodge–A FREAKING BOAT–over a 1955 Custom Royal Lancer.
The Mercury Eight
Still, despite her unending list of accomplishments, progress was slow. “I complained that NASA wasn’t giving more thought to women pilots,” she said. “I wanted very much to fly in the Navy…But all they would do is laugh when I asked.”
In 1959, Skelton was given the opportunity of her already-impressive lifetime. She was going to test and train with the Mercury Seven astronauts. The Original Seven (Schirra, Slayton, Glenn, Carpenter, Shepard, Grissom, and Cooper) piloted every manned Mercury Program mission, from 1961 to 1963, and members of the team would go on to crew every NASA orbital program of the 20th century.
These are some of the most accomplished astronauts of all time, and “The Mercury Seven” quickly became a household name. But within the group, they did not see themselves as just seven. Following Skelton’s successful completion of the Mercury training program, she was so admired and well-respected by the crew that they referred to themselves as the Mercury Eight.
Though she successfully completed the very same physical and psychological tests as the astronauts, she was not naive. She knew that her inclusion in the tests were a media piece, and that a woman would not be the first American in space. Instead of a place in the space program, she got a LOOK Magazine cover story and honorary wings from the United States Navy.
The First Woman of Firsts
Skelton, who became known as The First Woman of Firsts, held more combined aviation and automotive records than any other person in history. Her aviation career achievements include a world speed record for piston engine aircraft, two light plane altitude records, and three international aerobatic championships.
In the automotive field, Skelton’s accolades include a women’s closed course speed record (144.02 mph), a speed record for 200-249 cubic inch piston displacement (105.8 mph), a 24-hour stock car endurance record, a transcontinental record from New York to Los Angeles (56 hours 5 minutes), four land speed records, a South American transcontinental auto speed record, and multiple Bonneville speed and endurance records.
Her hall of fame inductions include the International Aerobatic Hall of Fame (first woman), the NASCAR International Motorsports Hall of Fame (first woman), the Tampa Sports Hall of Fame, the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame, the Woman in Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame, the Corvette Hall of Fame (first woman), the International Council of Airshows Foundation Hall of Fame, the National Aviation Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame, and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.
Little Stinker, her red and white Pitts Special, hangs (upside-down, of course) in the entrance to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s NASA Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles, Virginia. It’s the oldest surviving Pitts Special.
The Fastest Woman on Earth died at her home in The Villages, Florida on August 31, 2011. In a community known for its elderly inhabitants criss-crossing its Disney-like, manicured streets in built golf carts, Skelton zoomed around in a custom Corvette convertible–red and white, just like Little Stinker.
Ferraro, Jordan and Amanda Buel, 2008. Biographical Sketch, Betty Skelton Collection. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Archives. https://airandspace.si.edu/files/pdf/archives/finding-aids/NASM-2002-0002_Skelton.pdf
Florida Memory. Betty Skelton Day. https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/232397
Lil’ Miss Dodge. February 13, 2018. Just a Car Guy. http://justacarguy.blogspot.com/2018/02/lil-miss-dodge-not-rapper-hip-hop.html?m=1
McCarthy, Meghan. Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton. Simon & Schuster. June 3, 2013.
Skelton, Betty, 1977. Betty Skelton’s “Little Stinker.”
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Betty Skelton Collection, Acc. 2002-0002, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution. https://airandspace.si.edu/explore-and-learn/topics/women-in-aviation/Skelton.cfm