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Betty Skelton, pilot dubbed ‘fastest woman on earth’

Betty Skelton piloted her brightly painted Pitts Special biplane, the Little Stinker, over Tampa in 1951. She was the nation’s first female boat jumper, flying over a Dodge in 1955. Betty Skelton piloted her brightly painted Pitts Special biplane, the Little Stinker, over Tampa in 1951. She was the nation’s first female boat jumper, flying over a Dodge in 1955. (Courtesy Betty Skelton)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post / September 8, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Betty Skelton, a daredevil pilot who was a three-time national aerobatics champion and became known as the “fastest woman on earth’’ when she set speed records in airplanes and automobiles, died Aug. 31 at her home in The Villages, Fla. She was 85.

She had cancer, said Dorothy Cochrane, a friend and the curator of general aviation at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Ms. Skelton, a 5-foot-2 spitfire, made her first solo flight - illegally - at age 12. She went on to become a pioneering and charismatic pilot in the days of propellers and open cockpits. She gave her first aerobatics performance at 19, appearing in the same show in Jacksonville, Fla., in which the Navy’s precision flight team, the Blue Angels, debuted in 1946.

In her Pitts Special biplane, the Little Stinker, Ms. Skelton performed awe-inspiring feats of airborne daring. She was the first woman to attempt the “inverted ribbon cut,’’ in which she would fly upside down only 10 feet off the ground, slicing a ribbon with her propeller.

The first time Ms. Skelton attempted the stunt, Cochrane said, her engine died. She calmly righted her plane and landed on the wheels, then started it up and went back into the air.

“She enjoyed challenges, she enjoyed speed, she enjoyed technology,’’ Cochrane said.

From 1949 through 1951, when she retired from competitive flying, Ms. Skelton was the international women’s aerobatics champion. Years later, she donated her biplane to the National Air and Space Museum. Restored and repainted in its original red-and-white pattern, the Little Stinker now hangs in the entrance of the museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport in suburban Washington.

When she wasn’t astonishing crowds at air shows, Ms. Skelton pursued the outer limits of what airplanes and pilots could accomplish. She twice set light-plane altitude records, reaching a maximum height of 29,050 feet in a Piper Cub in 1951 - higher than Mount Everest.

At that altitude, the temperature outside her airplane was 53 degrees below zero.

“I usually fly barefooted,’’ Ms. Skelton said in a 1999 interview for a NASA oral history project, “and my feet darn near froze to death.’’

She set an unofficial women’s air speed record of 421 miles per hour in a P-51 Mustang, but the engine exploded in midflight, and she had to guide the plane back to an Air Force base in Florida. She did not get credit for the record because she did not land where she took off.

Nevertheless, Ms. Skelton broke so many barriers in the air and on land that she became known as the “first lady of firsts.’’

In 1954, she was the first woman to be a test driver for the auto industry. She was the first female boat jumper in the United States, memorably flying a boat over a Dodge sedan in a publicity stunt in 1955.

As an advertising executive in the 1950s and 1960s, she worked on the Corvette account as a test driver and as a spokeswoman at auto shows. In 1957, driving a custom-made gold Corvette, she became the first woman to drive a pace car at the Daytona 500.

She was the first woman to drive an Indy car and, in the 1950s, repeatedly set records for speed and acceleration at racetracks, on the sands of Daytona Beach, Fla., and on the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah.

In 1956, Ms. Skelton broke a transcontinental speed record driving from New York to Los Angeles, covering 2,913 miles in 56 hours, 58 minutes. Two years later, she crossed South America from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso, Chile, in 41 hours, 14 minutes. A mechanic was along for the ride on both trips, but she drove every mile of the way.

When NASA was training the first cadre of astronauts in 1959, Look magazine asked Ms. Skelton to undergo the same rigorous physical and psychological training. She passed every test and won the respect of the Mercury Seven astronauts, who nicknamed her “7 1/2.’’

Wearing a spacesuit, she appeared on the Feb. 2, 1960, cover of Look with the headline, “Should a Girl Be First in Space?’’

Betty Skelton was born June 28, 1926, in Pensacola, Fla., and grew up watching airplanes flying above a nearby naval air station. As a girl, she played with model airplanes instead of dolls.

She began taking flying lessons at 10, had a license at 16, and was a flight instructor at 18.

During World War II, she wanted to be part of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, but the program ended before she was old enough to join. The military and commercial aviation were closed to women, so she turned to showmanship.

“I wanted very much to fly in the Navy,’’ she told the Associated Press in 2008, “but all they would do is laugh when I asked.’’

She set her final major land-speed record in 1965, when she topped 315 miles per hour at Bonneville, driving a jet-powered car and wearing no more protective gear than an open-faced helmet and a windbreaker.

She drove a red Corvette until her death.

“I just like to go fast,’’ she said in 2008. “I enjoy it, I really do.’’