Remembering Aviatrix Betty Skelton “The First Lady Of Firsts”


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Remembering Aviatrix Betty Skelton “The First Lady Of Firsts”

By Mike Mitchell

September 6, 2011 - Betty Skelton Frankman will forever be known as “The First Lady of Firsts,” having set 17 aviation and motorsports records among her many pioneering accomplishments.  Betty Skelton Frankman passed away on August 31, 2011.  

She still holds more combined aircraft and automotive records than anyone in history, and was instrumental in paving the way for women to enjoy equal opportunities in aviation, sports and business. 

Betty Skelton Frankman Erde, born on June 28, 1926 was a retired land speed record car driver and acrobatic airplane pilot helped create opportunities for women in aviation, auto racing, astronautics and advertising.  

She was born Betty Skelton in Pensacola, Florida. Her parents were teenagers and Betty was their only child. As a toddler, she was fascinated by the airplanes that flew over her home near the Naval Air Station and preferred model airplanes over dolls.

When she turned eight, she started reading books on aviation and made her parents realize that she was serious about flying. Whenever they could, the family spent time at the municipal airport.  

Betty would talk pilots into letting her ride on local flights. Kenneth Wright, a Navy Ensign, took a special interest in the Skeltons and provided instruction to Betty and her parents.

Wright allowed Betty to solo in his Taylorcraft airplane when she was 12 years old, which was not permitted. After receiving her Civil Aviation Authority private pilot’s license at age 16, she qualified for the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, but the minimum age was 18˝, so she was forced to wait. 

WASP participants ferried Air Force pilots to their duty stations, and it was the only flying program that accepted women. Sadly for Betty, it was discontinued four months before she reached the required age. While she was a teenager, Betty flew whenever she could. She graduated from high school in 1944 and wanted a career in aviation, so she claimed to be 18 to get a job with Eastern Airlines as a clerk, working at night. The job allowed her to rent planes and fly during the day. She earned ratings for single and multi-engine on land and sea. 


At age 18, she received her Commercial Pilot License and was certified as a flight instructor the following year, so she began teaching at Tampa's Peter O. Knight Airport. Erde joined the Civil Air Patrol a few years after it was formed in late 1941. David Skelton organized an amateur airshow in 1945 to raise funds for the local Jaycees.  

The airport manager in Tampa suggested that Betty perform some basic stunts, but she had never done aerobatics. She borrowed a Fairchild PT-19 and Clem Whitteneck, a famous aerobatic pilot from the 1930s, taught Betty to loop and roll. Within two weeks she had honed her skills and mastered simple aerobatic maneuvers, which she repeated for the air show.  

Because neither the military or commercial airlines would accept a female pilot, air shows provided the only opportunity for her to work as a pilot, other than instructing. In 1946, she purchased a 1929 Great Lakes 2T-1A Sport Trainer biplane and performed at the Southeastern Air Exposition, held in Jacksonville, Florida. That was the start of her professional aerobatic career, and also that of the Blue Angels, a new US Navy precision flying exhibition team.  

Betty's repertoire included dozens of acrobatic tricks, but her most impressive maneuver involved cutting a ribbon strung between two fishing poles with her propeller, while flying upside down 10 feet (3.0 m) off the ground. She held the rank of Major in the CAP and became a test pilot. Besides piston-driven airplanes, Skelton also flew blimps, gliders, helicopters and jets. 

After winning the championship in 1948, she bought a rare Pitts Special — a lightweight, open cockpit (544 pounds (247 kg)) biplane designed and hand built by Curtis Pitts for aerobatics. The plane was repainted a dramatic red and white, and Betty's Chihuahua, Little Tinker, flew in her lap. 

Ms. Skelton was US Female Aerobatic Champion in 1948, 1949 and 1950. Her last two championships made Betty and her plane, L’il Stinker, famous. After her third championship, she was frustrated because there were no other challenges in aerobatics, plus she was mentally and physically exhausted from the hectic, non-stop air show circuit.

She retired from aerobatics and sold the plane in 1951, but she and first husband Don Frankman reacquired the airplane and donated it to the Smithsonian in 1985. Li'l Stinker is now on inverted display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport, part of the National Air and Space Museum.

In 1949 she set the world light-plane altitude record of 25,763 feet (7,853 m) in a Piper Cub. Two years later, she broke her own altitude record with a flight of 29,050 feet (8,850 m), also in a Piper Cub. She held the world speed record for piston engine aircraft: 421.6 mph (678.5 km/h) over a 3-km course in a P-51 Mustang racing plane. She became hostess of "Van Wilson's Greeting Time", a radio show in 1950. 

In 1956, she became an advertising executive with Campbell-Ewald and worked with General Motors on and in their TV and print ads. She was GM's first woman technical narrator at major auto shows, where she would talk about and demonstrate automobile features, later becoming official spokeswoman for Chevrolet. While Skelton was working with Chevrolet, she set numerous records with Corvettes, and owned a total of 10 models. 

Between 1956 and 1957, Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell designed a special, translucent gold Corvette for Betty, which she drove to Daytona in 1957 to serve as the NASCAR pace car. She helped launch Corvette News, the company's internal employee magazine and served as editor for many years. The publication is now known as Corvette Quarterly. She became Vice President of Campbell-Ewald's new Women's Market and Advertising department in 1969, then retired in 1976 after 20 years in advertising. 

In 1959, she was asked to undergo numerous physical and psychological tests given to the original Mercury 7 astronauts.  This experiment landed her on the cover of Look Magazine, but, although she would have loved the chance, she had no illusions that a woman would be selected for the Mercury program.  However, her formidable flying skills and vivacious personality impressed the Mercury 7 astronauts so much that they nicknamed her “7 ˝.” 

Skelton married Hollywood TV director/producer and Navy veteran Donald A. Frankman in 1965. They moved to Florida in 1976, where she kept a seaplane docked at their lakefront home in Winter Haven. She became a real estate agent in 1977 and published her book, Little Stinker. At the end of the century, Betty was taking care of her ailing husband, who died in 2001, and she flew less often. "I just felt I wasn't as safe as I used to be," she said.

In 2005, she married Dr. Allan Erde, a retired Naval surgeon, and they resided in The Villages, Florida. She and her husband, both in their 80's, lived in a retirement community where most residents use golf carts for transportation. Betty drove a Corvette convertible with a color that nearly matched her red hair.

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