Reprint from National Aviation Hall of Fame WEB site
Betty Skelton was born in Pensacola, Florida, June 28, 1926 to David and Myrtle Skelton. During her early childhood years, she played with model airplanes, not dolls. Betty spent every moment of her spare time sitting on the back steps of her home watching the N3N Stearmans soaring overhead from the Pensacola Naval Air Station. At age eight, she convinced her parents that she wanted to fly and began reading every aviation book she could find. The Skeltons drove her out to the municipal airport at every opportunity and Betty hopped rides whenever a pilot had a spare seat. A young Navy Ensign, Kenneth Wright, began teaching the entire family to fly.
Betty made her very first solo flight at the tender age of 12, when Wright let her take the controls of his Taylorcraft. She soloed legally on her 16th birthday and quickly earned her private license. At 17, she had acquired the flight hours to qualify for the WASP’s but it was disbanded before she reached the required age of 18 and a half. Nonetheless she wanted a career in aviation and began working as a clerk for Eastern Airlines at night, leaving her days free to fly. She received her commercial rating at 18, and, in short order, her flight instructor and multi-engine ratings.
Frustrated over the prohibition of women from military aviation and commercial airline jobs in mid-1940s, she set out to find her own niche. When her father began planning an air show fundraiser for the local Jaycees, someone suggested that Betty fly some aerobatics. Her dad said, “She doesn’t know any.” But Betty was game and aerobatic pilot Clem Whittenback easily taught her a loop and a roll. Two weeks later she gave her first public performance in a borrowed Fairchild PT-19. She then bought her own aircraft, a 1929 Great Lakes 2T1A biplane and began her professional aerobatic career in 1946.
Betty toured the southeastern air show circuit and became part of the legendary group of performers of the postwar era. She won her first International Feminine Aerobatic Champion on January 1, 1948 flying her Great Lakes.
It was there that she noticed a striking new little biplane, the Pitts Special S-1C. Skelton approached the owner who at first refused to let her fly the aircraft, let alone buy it, but she persisted and bought it in August 1948. It was an experimental single-seat open-cockpit biplane, the smallest aerobatic airplane in existence at the time. She said: “I didn’t just sit in that little airplane, I wore it. If I sneezed, it sneezed with me.” She named the plane Little Stinker and gave it a brilliant red and white paint scheme. In it she became the first woman perform an inverted ribbon cut at ten feet above the ground.
Betty won her second and third consecutive International Feminine Aerobatic Championships in 1949 and 1950. By late 1950, Betty had achieved the highest marks in aerobatics but, with the barriers in place against women, she had little incentive to continue. She had also burned out on the busy and stressful air show scene. She sold Little Stinker.
She then moved to North Carolina where she eventually flew charter flights out of Raleigh. There she met Bill France, the founder of NASCAR, who talked her into driving at Daytona Beach during Speed Week. Not only did she drive the pace car at Daytona, she also set a stock car record. All of a sudden, Betty had a new career. As auto industry’s first female test driver, she guided “L’il Miss Dodge,” a jump boat, over a 1955 Custom Royal Lancer on a ramp at Florida’s Cypress Gardens. In 1956, Betty became one of the a top women advertising executives working with the General Motors Company in print, television, and automobile demonstration. Betty earned a total of four Feminine World Land Speed Records and set a transcontinental speed record.
In 1959, she became the first woman to undergo many of the physical and psychological tests given to the original Mercury seven astronauts and chronicled by Look magazine.
Betty married TV director/producer and Navy veteran Donald A. Frankman in 1965. Betty and Donald reacquired her Pitts and later donated it to the National Air and Space Museum. It is now displayed in the new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport. Naturally it is suspended inverted. Don died in 2001. Betty remains active driving her Corvette and recently has been busy accepting honors for her achievements. She has been inducted into the International Aerobatic Hall of Fame, the International Council of Air Shows Hall of Fame, and the Corvette Hall of Fame. Throughout her life, Betty has served as a great ambassador for aviation and an inspiration for men and women alike. Each year the United States National Aerobatic Championships honor the highest placing female pilot with the” Betty Skelton First Lady of Aerobatics” award.
For more than half a century, Betty Skelton Frankman has been known as “the First Lady of Firsts.” In the process of setting 17 aviation and racecar records, she also paved the way for women to enjoy equal opportunities in aviation, sports, and business. Nearly 35 years after retiring, Betty still holds more combined aircraft and automotive records than anyone in history.
The National Aviation Hall of Fame enshrines the “First Lady of Firsts,” Betty Skelton Frankman.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 15, 2015