Aerobatic pilot Betty Skelton, 'First Lady of Firsts,' dies

September 6, 2011

Betty Skelton Erde, known as the “First Lady of Firsts,” died on Aug. 31 at her home in Winter Park, Fla. She was 85.

Born in Pensacola, Fla., on June 28, 1926, Skelton played with model airplanes as a child and would watch Stearmans flying overhead from nearby Pensacola Naval Air Station. She soloed (illegally) at age 12, according to a biography provided by the National Aviation Hall of Fame. She soloed legally when she turned 16 and at age 17 had acquired the required number of hours to qualify for the Women Airforce Service Pilots, but the WASP were disbanded by the time Skelton had turned 18 years and six months, the required minimum age to join.

Skelton flew her first aerobatics performance in a borrowed Fairchild PT-19 and began her professional aerobatic career in 1946, flying a 1929 Great Lakes 2T1A biplane. Perhaps her best-known aircraft was the Pitts Special S-1C that she purchased in 1948 and named Li’l Stinker. Li’l Stinker is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

Among her many aviation accomplishments, Skelton became the first woman to perform an inverted ribbon cut 10 feet from the ground.

Jim Cunningham, author of Bill Brennand: Air Racing and Other Aerial Adventures, said Skelton was good friends with air race and airshow legends Brennand and Steve Wittman in the late 1940s.

“She told Bill that she wanted to do an inverted ribbon cut for her airshow routine in her Pitts Special. On her first attempt, with Bill holding one of the ribbon poles, she got so low that she flew under the ribbon,” Cunningham said.

“On another attempt she was down on the deck, inverted, when her engine quit. She only had an instant to identify the problem and apply positive correction, and she did, rolling upright and landing uneventfully,” Cunningham said. “After displaying her superior piloting ability in that incident, she displayed her superior pilot judgment and decided her airshow routine did not need such a dangerous maneuver.”

Skelton won the Feminine International Aerobatic Championship in 1948, 1949, and 1950. In 1949, she set the world light plane altitude record in a Piper Cub, reaching 25,763 feet. In 1951, she set that record again, this time reaching 29,050 feet.

In 1959, Skelton participated in physical and psychological tests given to the original Mercury 7 astronauts. Reportedly she had no illusions that she would be chosen to participate in the program, but her involvement got her on the cover of Look magazine.

In addition to her aviation accomplishments, Skelton was involved in stock car racing, was a test driver, and became an advertising executive with General Motors. She was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2005.

“It was no wonder that GM hired her as an advertising executive,” Cunningham said. “When she and Bill [Brennand] were on the airshow circuit in the late 1940s, she would go into a town hosting an airshow several days in advance and get the mayor to proclaim an ‘aviation day’ for the city and announce a ‘free’ airshow. Admission was indeed free, but there were parking fees for cars and seats. She also would get local businesses to run ads in the town newspapers that would include things like ‘Good luck airshow pilots!’ and put up signs for the show. Tons of advertising for the show—and it didn’t cost her or the performers a dime.”

Skelton enjoyed fast cars into her 80s, and at age 82 was waiting on GM to modify her latest Corvette ( she had owned 10). You can view a C-Span video interview that Skelton conducted in 1999.

Jill W. Tallman

Jill W. Tallman | AOPA Technical Editor, AOPA

AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who owns a Piper Cherokee 140.