Aviatrix Betty Skelton to speak at Air Show

"Most people who don't fly don't understand it, but when you are a pilot and your wheels leave the ground, it's the most wonderful feeling of being free in the world."

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Photo courtesy National Air and Space Museum

Betty Skelton's legendary "Little Stinker," her Pitts biplane, is now on display in Washington, D.C.

By Bill DeYoung entertainment editor
June 11, 2004

Even though she was born on terra firma, Betty Skelton is at home in the sky.

An aviation pioneer, with more altitude and speed records than any woman in history, the Vero Beach resident will be a guest speaker at this weekend's Wings 'N Wheels Air Show, at the St. Lucie County International Airport in Fort Pierce.

The Saturday and Sunday event will include demonstrations and fly-bys by military aircraft both vintage and contemporary, aerobatic shows, re-enactments of battles from the Civil War and World War II, and an extensive display of restored military vehicles.

Appearing with Skelton in the "Living Heroes"tent will be retired Army Gen. Albin Irzyk, a West Palm Beach resident who served with Patton and Armed Forces Radio Network stalwart Chris Noel.

One of the first female stunt flyers, Skelton was International Feminine Aerobatic Champion for three consecutive years, 1948-50. She set light-plane altitude records in 1949 and '51, and later set driving records at Daytona Beach, in the days when cars were still driven fast on the sand, on a measured mile.

In 1959, she underwent NASA's rigorous training with the original seven astronauts.

She's affectionately known as "The First Lady of Firsts."

Fear, says Skelton, 77, was never a factor.

"At times, of course, I guess you get scared about anything," she admits. "I think I'm more afraid of snakes than I am of airplanes. I'm just horrified of snakes."

An only child, Skelton was born and raised in Pensacola, and she, her mother and her father all began flying lessons at the same time. Betty was not yet 10 years old.

"The flight school for Navy pilots is in Pensacola, and in the days when I was there, any time you'd look up in the sky, just about, you'd see an airplane," Skelton recalls.

"And a lot of their maneuvers and things that they did were right over my back yard. I think I spent most of my very early life sitting on the back steps looking at the airplanes."

She first soloed at age 12 - not yet the legal age for such things, but her instructor thought she was ready. Right away, she knew she'd never be interested in anything else.

"The first book I ever had was on aviation. It happened to be a primer on how to handle an airplane - what you did, what controls you used and what they actually did to the airplane," she says.

"From what I had read, and from bumming rides on Sundays, I really had learned to fly before I ever went up with an instructor."

Too young to join the WASPs - female pilots during World War II - Skelton became an aerobatic pilot, flying upside down, turning loops and doing other daring maneuvers at air shows across the country.

Her father ran a small airport in Tampa, and Betty - flying a tiny biplane dubbed "Little Stinker"- lived at home when she wasn't flying all over the place, breaking records and doing things most women in the late '40s and early '50s wouldn't dare dream of.

"Most people who don't fly don't understand it,"she says. "But when you are a pilot and your wheels leave the ground, it's the most wonderful feeling of being free in the world. I've done skydiving and a lot of different things, but I don't think anything equals getting in an airplane and leaving the ground. It's just a fantastic feeling."

Eventually, feeling she had done about everything a woman could do in aviation, Skelton "retired."But a chance meeting with Bill France, a NASCAR founder, led her to a second career.

France challenged Skelton to participate in Speed Week in Daytona, and in February 1954 she set the first of many automotive records. Ten years later, she broke her own record for land speed by a woman, driving a custom jet car at 315 mph on the salt flats of Utah.

She also worked as a test driver for Dodge and Chevrolet (spending 15 years as public appearance spokeswoman for Corvette, a car she also raced).

In 1959, she was invited by NASA to become the first woman to undergo physical and psychological testing to join the Mercury astronauts, an exclusive club that included John Glenn and Alan B. Shepard.

Her participation was sponsored by Look magazine, which featured her on its Feb. 2, 1960 cover. Skelton was never intended to be an astronaut. Look - and NASA - merely wanted to see how she'd hold up during the tests.

"It was a wonderful experience," Skelton says. "It was really, really fantastic. You have no idea what those seven guys accomplished.

"The astronauts were all terrific to me, but I knew it was primarily because they knew a woman was not going to be in the program. And there wasn't, for 20 or 25 years."

In 1965, Skelton married auto advertising man Donald Frankman. The couple lived in Winter Haven until Frankman's death two years ago. They had no children.

At the urging of a friend, Skelton relocated to Vero Beach.

Skelton was the first woman inducted into the National Aerobatic Hall of Fame and the International Corvette Hall of Fame. She is also in the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, the International Air Show Hall of Fame and the Florida Women's Hall of Fame.

Her one-of-a-kind aircraft, the 544-pound Little Stinker, is on display at the Smithsonian Institution's new air and space museum at the Udvar-Hazy Center, at Washington's Dulles Airport.

The First Lady of Firsts hasn't had the first doubt about anything in her extraordinary life.

"You never should have regrets," she says. "I think the important thing, if you take your journey, is to do the best you can with what you've got, and what you can do, and let that be. And then not be sorry about anything."

- bill.deyoung@scripps.com

Highlights:

•Saturday:
10 a.m.: Living Heroes Tent: Betty Skelton
11 a.m.: Opening ceremony with Gen. Albin Irzyk
12 p.m.: Battle re-enactment, 2nd Infantry vs. German Panzer Division
1-4 p.m.: Air performances
4 p.m.: Weapons demonstrations (Civil War, World War II, Korea)
4:30 p.m.: Living Heroes Tent: Chris Noel

•Sunday:
9:30 a.m.: Living Heroes Tent: Chris Noel
10 a.m.: Living Heroes Tent: Gen. Albin Irzyk
10:30 a.m.: Living Heroes Tent: Betty Skelton
11 a.m.: Weapons demonstrations (Civil War, WWII, Korea)
12 p.m.: Battle re-enactment, 2nd Infantry vs. German Panzer Division
1-4 p.m.: Air performances
4 p.m.: Car show awards

If you go
•Tickets: $7 adults, $3 ages 5-17
•Parking: $2
•Contact: (800) 804-5445, (772) 879-7181
•On the Web: www.slcwingsandwheels.com

Last Modified: Sunday, March 15, 2015