Women on the Move: Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts

Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts
Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts

September 27, 1965 was the big day at Bonneville. Driver Betty Skelton, and car builder Art Arfons and his crew would attempt to set a new land speed record with Art’s Green Monster Cyclops powered by an F-86 Sabre Jet J-47 jet engine. Their first run was disappointingly slow. Skelton, Arfons and the crew put their heads together and made adjustments to the throttle and engine settings, and crossed their fingers. Knowing that a record was at stake, Betty let it all hang out on the return run clocking a one-way speed of 315.6 mph, good for a new record of 277.62 mph. Betty was now the “Fastest Woman on Earth” and the first woman to drive a wheeled vehicle over 300 mph.

Betty Skelton’s Legacy

Betty Skelton may not be a household name that everyone recognizes, but she has left us quite a legacy. She holds more combined aviation and automotive records than anyone in history and is still frequently referred to as the “First Lady of Firsts.” She has been inducted into ten halls of fame, including the NASCAR International Automotive Hall of Fame (first woman inducted in 1983), the International Aerobatic Club Hall of Fame, the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and the National Corvette Museum’s Corvette Hall of Fame (first woman inducted in 2001).

Betty’s talent and relentless drive led to successful careers in the sports of aerobatics and automotive competition, which, along with her business success as an advertising executive, helped turn the wheels of change, giving later generations of women greater opportunities to succeed.

Betty’s Adventure Dreams

Betty’s dreams of adventure began with airplanes. Born in 1926, Betty became fascinated with the airplanes from nearby Pensacola Naval Air Station flying over her house and spent much of her childhood spare time watching the bright yellow biplanes performing their training maneuvers. By the time she was eight, she convinced her parents that she wanted to fly and with their encouragement, began reading every aviation book she could get her hands on.

Flying lessons followed and by the age of twelve Betty was considered ready to solo, but regulations required a minimum age of sixteen before she could apply for her private pilot’s license. Betty passed all the required tests as soon as her sixteenth birthday rolled around and obtained her private pilot’s license. She received her commercial pilot rating at eighteen followed shortly by her flight instructor and multi-engine ratings. Betty was now fully qualified to fly any airplane as a professional pilot, but at the time no opportunities were open to women pilots—neither the military nor commercial airlines were accepting female pilots. As an energetic young woman fully qualified to fly anything with wings, Betty had seemingly reached a dead-end for her dreams of adventure.

Aerobatics to the Rescue

Betty’s father David was organizing an amateur airshow in 1945 to raise funds for a local charity and Betty’s desire to participate in the show proved to be her entry into the world of professional aerobatic competition. A family friend taught Betty how to do basic loop and roll maneuvers in a borrowed two-seat, open cockpit Fairchild PT-19 trainer. Betty mastered her basic routine in time for the airshow and took her first step towards becoming an International Aerobatic Champion.

Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts
Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts

Starting out professionally in a 1929 Great Lakes Sport Trainer that was a bit long in the tooth, Betty earned her stripes competing at various airshows and professional aerobatic competitions, becoming the Feminine International Aerobatic Champion in 1948. Betty realized that she would need a higher-performing airplane to remain competitive in aerobatics and later in 1948 she purchased a Pitts Special, a small, single-seat, open cockpit biplane built specifically for aerobatic competition. Nicknamed “Little Stinker”, the Pitts served Betty well, helping her bring home the Feminine International Aerobatic Championships for 1949 and 1950.

Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts
Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts

By 1951, Betty Skelton, three-time International Aerobatic Champion was worn out. The unremitting travel to meet her appearance obligations along with the stress of aerobatic competition and constant practice had worn her out mentally and physically. To top it all off, maintaining an airplane was expensive and the money she made in the world of professional aerobatics, even with all her success, was barely enough to get by. She loved aviation more than anything, but she could see no alternative to retiring from aerobatic competition. Since the commercial airlines and the military were still closed to female pilots and there were no other flying employment opportunities available, she started her own charter air service near her home in Raleigh, North Carolina. At the age of 26, Betty walked away from professional aerobatic flying.

One Door Closes, Another Opens

But, as Alexander Graham Bell is credited with saying, “One door closes, another opens.” In Betty’s case, it is appropriate to quote Alexander Graham Bell, since it was a telephone call that revealed her next passion to her—automobile racing The call was from a young car race promoter who needed to get a couple of drivers who were stranded in Pennsylvania to Daytona Beach for an upcoming race and wanted to know if Betty could fly them down to Florida. The young man on the phone was Bill France Sr., founder of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing that we now know as NASCAR, who needed the drivers for his next race. The fortuitous phone call led Betty to a lifelong friendship with Bill France Sr. and through her many appearances and races at Daytona Beach, she was hired as Detroit’s first woman test driver by Chrysler Corporation’s Dodge Division in 1954.

Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts
Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts

In addition to her testing duties, Dodge gave her new opportunities to satisfy her need for speed. She set a new class record at Daytona Beach in 1954 of 105.88 mph in a Red Ram Hemi-powered Dodge. She was also the first woman to drive an Indy 500 car while testing at Chrysler’s Chelsea, Michigan proving grounds. Betty set two closed-course speed records; drove the pace car at Daytona; and became the first woman to be issued a racing driver’s license by the American Automobile Association.

Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts
Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts

While shooting publicity photos for the new 1955 Dodge models, Betty became the first, and quite possibly, the only woman to ever to pilot a jump-boat over a car. The photo, showing a new 1955 Dodge Custom Royal Lancer convertible located on a platform in the lake at Florida’s Cypress Gardens with Betty and the boat in mid-flight over the car, is still an attention grabber.

Campbell-Ewald, General Motors, and Corvette

In 1956, Betty joined Campbell-Ewald advertising agency and represented General Motors in their TV and print ads. She was GM’s first woman technical narrator at major auto shows and later became the official spokesperson for the Chevrolet brand, which dovetailed nicely with her well-known passion for Corvettes.

Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts
Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts

Betty strapped on her racing helmet in February of 1956, joining Chevrolet engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov and racing driver John Fitch behind the wheels of three Corvettes at the Daytona Speed Week trials, one of the first public displays of the all-new 1956 Corvette.

Betty and John Fitch drove production-based Corvettes and Zora drove the 1956 test ‘mule’, which was, in fact, a reworked 1955 Corvette chassis with a modified 1956 Corvette body. The Speed Week was a showcase for the performance of the new Corvette and was intended to demonstrate that the Corvette was now the ‘real deal’, a genuine high-performance sports car. The top speed runs were conducted on the sands of Daytona Beach and despite high winds that limited the speeds John Fitch came in first place in the production sports car class with a flying mile speed of 145.543 mph. Betty finished in second place in the same class with a speed of 137.773 mph, and Zora in the modified class averaged 147.300. Based on those results and the subsequent publicity, Corvette was now considered a ‘real’ sports car.

Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts
Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts

Betty was as successful as an advertising executive as she was in aerobatics and in automotive speed events, becoming Vice President of Campbell-Ewald’s Women’s Marketing and Advertising departments in 1969.

Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts
Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts

NASA Mercury Program

In 1959, the popular magazine LOOK was investigating the question about how a woman would fare in space and requested that NASA administer Betty the same physical and psychological tests that were given to the seven Mercury astronauts. Given NASA’s beliefs at the time, there was no realistic probability that Betty or any other woman had a chance to go into space, but NASA did honor LOOK’s request and Betty enthusiastically participated. She appeared on the cover of LOOK in full spacesuit attire in front of a Mercury 7 capsule. The attitude of the times towards women is reflected by the question Look asked on the cover near Betty’s photo: “Should a girl be first in space?”

Although standing only five feet three inches tall and weighing about 100 pounds, Betty held her own with all the astronauts who had the “Right Stuff”. She befriended and charmed the astronauts who reportedly were so impressed with her flying skills and her fearless approach to life that at the end of the program they gave her the official nickname of “Astronaut 7½”

Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts
Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts

Betty Skelton and the Need for Speed

To those who knew her best, her transition from aerobatics to auto racing seemed like a natural progression of events for someone who thrived on challenges and had a need for speed that could not be denied. “I have always been interested in speed,” she once said. “It’s pretty fortunate when you can find something you love to do so much and it is also your occupation.” Later she reminisced, “Some of my fondest memories are of flying at the Cleveland Air Races in the late forties.”

And it didn’t matter if the speed was in the air or on the ground. Betty broke the world land speed record for women four times and was the first woman to officially drive a land vehicle over 300 mph. She set nine sports car records for speed and acceleration and became the first woman test driver for a major auto manufacturer, which also led to her being the first woman to drive an Indianapolis 500 race car. In 1956, she broke Cannonball Baker’s forty-year-old transcontinental record driving from New York City to Los Angeles. In case there was anyone who didn’t get the message, Betty said in 2008, “I just like to go fast. I enjoy it, I really do.”

Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts
Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts

Later Personal Life

In later years, Betty focused on her career at Campbell-Ewald, retiring as a vice president in 1976 after twenty years in advertising. She married TV director/producer Don Frankman in 1965 and they moved back to Florida following Betty’s retirement. They repurchased Betty’s “Little Stinker” aerobatic airplane which they then donated to the Smithsonian Museum. The airplane can be viewed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at the Smithsonian. As recognition of Betty’s superb aerobatic skills, her Pitts Special is suspended from the museum ceiling in an inverted position.

Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts
Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts

Following Don Frankman’s passing in 2001, Betty married Dr. Allan Erde, a retired naval surgeon in 2005 and the couple resided in The Villages, a retirement community in Florida. As do many retirement communities, The Villages allowed residents to use golf carts to get around within the community. But Betty, being Betty, declined to use a golf cart and continued to drive her red Corvette convertible into her eighties. Betty Skelton’s need for speed never waned.

Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts
Betty Skelton – First Lady of Firsts

 

SOURCES:
National Aviation Hall of Fame https://www.nationalaviation.org/our-enshrinees/frankman-betty/
Smithsonian Institution https://sova.si.edu/record/NASM.2002.0002?s=0&n=10&t=C&q=Betty+Skelton&i=0
New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/us/11skelton.html?mtrref=query.nytimes.com
Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betty_Skelton
Auto Enthusiast https://www.amosauto.com/betty-skelton-tribute/
Hemmings https://www.hemmings.com/blog/2013/07/09/racing-heroes-betty-skelton/
Women in Aviation Resource Center http://www.women-in-aviation.com/cgi-bin/links/detail.cgi?ID=518
Corvette Report http://www.corvettereport.com/r-i-p-betty-skelton-champion-aviatrix-speed-record-holder-advertising-executive-corvette-racer/
Corvette Blogger https://www.corvetteblogger.com/2011/09/08/corvette-hall-of-famer-betty-skelton-passes-at-age-85/
Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Legend behind the Corvette, by Jerry Burton, Copyright 2002 Jerry Burton