Beyond the Powder, a documentary that meshes the history of women pilots during the 1929 Women’s Air Derby with their modern counterparts, will be made available to public television stations nationwide beginning in June.
The one-hour documentary from Hemlock Films juxtaposes the experience of the women pilots who flew in the 1929 air race with pilots competing in the Air Race Classic, the all-women’s cross-country air race. Director Kara Martinelli was behind the camera for the 2014 Air Race Classic, but she also was a full-fledged member of a racing team, flying with Malinda Caywood of Frederick, Maryland, and Susan Beall of Annapolis, Maryland, in Caywood’s Cessna 182.
Beyond the Powder employs a mix of historic photos and re-enacted footage to tell how the Women’s Air Derby pilots endured skepticism, sabotage, engine failures, and in-flight fires for a chance to compete in air racing. The 19 racers included Louise Thaden (who came in first in the heavy aircraft class), Amelia Earhart, Florence “Pancho” Lowe Barnes, and Phoebe Omlie (who came in first in the light aircraft class).
The documentary’s title is a nod to the nickname “Powder Puff Derby,” which humorist Will Rogers dubbed the 1929 race.
The contemporary air race footage shows 50 teams of women pilots, including several teams of college students, flying modern aircraft from the West Coast to the East Coast.
“I wanted to make this movie to inspire young ladies to be into flying and STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] subjects,” Martinelli said. “Studies say that girls start to pull away from STEM subjects in middle school.
“After watching this film, I want them to walk away with the attitude of the original Powder Puff Derby racers of not letting others discourage you, and a bit of their devil-may-care attitude of ‘I don’t care what people think, I’m going to like what I like, and I’m going to do what I want, no matter what others say,’” Martinelli said.
Martinelli was allowed to bring just 10 pounds of gear and clothing when she participated in the 2014 Air Race Classic, which departed from Concord, California, and concluded in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. She used GoPros and a small digital single-lens reflex camera for the in-flight footage, and carried a large supply of memory cards so that she wouldn’t have to bring a laptop and download the footage en route. The DSLR camera itself weighed six pounds.
A student pilot, Martinelli said being part of a racing team and sitting in on briefings throughout the event was invaluable. “It was a pretty intensive week for me trying to keep everything straight,” she said.
Beyond the Powder is available on DVD and Blu-ray Disc and can be purchased online. It will be offered to Public Broadcasting System stations nationally in June, Martinelli said. “If anybody wants to contact their location station and request it, it’s something they can get,” she said.
Additionally, the film will be screened March 5 at the Cleveland Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio; March 10 and 11 at the Women in Aviation International Conference in Nashville; and March 12 at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. For more information, see the website.