Snapshot Betty Skelton Biography

Black and white photograph of Betty Skelton, circa 1950s, smiling at the camera. She has styled hair with curls at the ends, and wears a collared, patterned dress with a light scarf around her neck, while leaning against the back of a car. Photograph taken circa 1950.
Betty Skelton, circa 1950

Betty Skelton was just eight years old but already in love with the idea of flying. With that passion, she convinced her parents to let her take a flight. Four years later, she flew at the controls of an airplane. And at sixteen, she flew a plane alone. Then she set her mind on becoming a pilot, a Women Airforce Service Pilot specifically. But World War II ended before Betty turned the minimum age of eighteen and a half to fly for the organization.

Instead, she took a job working as a clerk for an airline while continuing to fly, though feeling disheartened by the exclusion of women from commercial aviation roles in the mid-1940s. Then, her father organized an air show to raise funds for a local organization. Someone proposed that Betty demonstrate some aerobatic maneuvers. Though she didn’t know any, Betty was eager to try. With guidance from an aerobatic pilot, she quickly mastered a loop and a roll. Just two weeks later, she showcased her new skills to the public.

With that experience came a career. Betty changed her aspirations to becoming an aerobatic pilot. Shortly after, she acquired her own plane. “My first aerobatic biplane, at Great Lakes, was a real crate! I found it behind a hangar. It was in bad shape. It had crashed and was in pieces. It was not nearly as manageable as a true aerobatic plane should be,” she said.

It was 1946 and her professional aerobatic journey had now begun.

Betty believed in hard work. She would practice maneuvers for hours, mastering many, but becoming particularly known for doing the inverted ribbon cut. In this maneuver, she would fly upside down and cut a ribbon strung between two poles ten feet above the ground. All of this flying would leave her often bruised, with black eyes and face blotches. But she was determined to excel in her performances. As she would say,

“It is not easy to be the best. You must have the courage to bear pain, disappointment, and heartbreak. You must learn how to face danger and understand fear, yet not be afraid. You must establish your goal, and…in your every waking moment you must say to yourself, ‘I can do it.’”

The hard work led her to many successes. She broke records and found fame. She won the prestigious International Aerobatic Championship consecutively from 1948 to 1950. As she won, Betty also pushed the limits of aviation. In 1951, she set a light plane altitude record, reaching a remarkable 29,050 feet.

But while records she set, along the way, friends she lost. In her words,

One of the hard things about flying the aerobatic circuit was enduring the pain of watching friends die. At times it felt like a waiting game. I wondered who would be next. Learning to fear death without actually being afraid was something you had to do to make it through.”

Shortly after her final record-breaking flight, Betty retired from aerobatic flying. While many might have been content with a highly successful career in one field, Betty’s passion for speed and adventure led her to the world of auto racing in the 1950s. Transferring her skills from the air to the ground might seem like a leap to some, for Betty, it was just another challenge to conquer. And conquer she did. Within just a few years, Betty set multiple speed records, including becoming the first woman to drive a jet car over 300 mph and a speed record of 156.99 mph.

Betty’s groundbreaking accomplishments were duly recognized by various institutions. She was inducted into the International Aerobatic Hall of Fame, which honored her contributions to aerobatic flying. She was recognized by the National Aviation Hall of Fame for her overall contributions to the world of aviation. And her influence in motorsports led to her induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.

She passed away in 2011.

Notes

  • If you enjoyed this snapshot biography, please consider supporting Historical Snapshots with a donation. Visit our Patreon page to donate. Your support is much appreciated.

Story sources

  • Holden, Henry M. American Women of Flight: Pilots and Pioneers. Berkeley Heights, NJ, Enslow Publishers, 2003.