Bobbi Trout

With the end of 1999 approaching rapidly, we thought we'd share the memories of one of the original 99s. A true living legend, 93-year-old Bobbi Trout remembers when all of aviation could be called "experimental." In this month's Profile, Bobbi talks with AVweb's Joe Godfrey about endurance records, the early Powder Puff Derbies, and other legends like Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh and Pancho Barnes.


Evelyn “Bobbi” Trout was born onJanuary 7, 1906, in Greenup, Ill. She saw her first airplane at age 12 and knew right awaythat she wanted to fly. In 1920, the family moved to Los Angeles and everyone worked atthe family’s “filling station.” On December 27, 1922, one of her customersoffered her a ride in his Curtiss Jenny. She flew from Rogers Field in Los Angeles, whichis also where Amelia Earhart got her first airplane ride. In 1928 film star Irene Castlechanged her hairstyle to a short “bob” look. Evelyn copied it and she’s been”Bobbi” ever since. She began her flight training on New Years Day of 1928,soloed four months later, and recieved her pilot’s card number 2613 two weeks after that.

She wasted no time setting records. In the predawn hours of January 2, 1929, Bobbi tookoff from Van Nuys airport and set an airborne endurance record of 12 hours and 11 minutes.That record was broken by month’s end by Elinor Smith, so on February 10, 1929, Bobbi tookoff at 5 p.m. and set both a new endurance record of 17 hours and 24 minutes, recordingthe first all-night flight by a woman. Later that year she and her Golden Eagle Chief flewto 15,200 feet and set an altitude record for light airplanes. Then she and the Chief flewin the Women’s Transcontinental Air (“Powder Puff”) Derby. She didn’t win, butshe did get all the way to Cleveland, where she, Amelia Earhart and other racers decidedto form what would become the Ninety Nines.Bobbi is the only living participant of that race. In 1993 she became a member of the Women-In-Aviation Hall of Fame. In 1995 Lt. Col. EileenCollins, the first woman to pilot the space shuttle, carried one of Bobbi’s record-settingcertificates into space. That certificate was signed by Orville Wright.

What do you remember about learning how to fly?

In 1928, I learned to fly in a Jenny. One day I was practicing forced landings and anew young fellow showed up and he was to be my instructor. So we took off and got to abouta hundred feet and he pulls the throttle and I’m supposed to set down. The largest fieldwas to my right and I’m right over the end of it, so I wished I had enough altitude for a3/4 turn and land there, but I knew I didn’t. So I lined up for a different field and theinstructor hit the throttle and we went around and landed. He said I should’ve landed inthe big field and I told him it was because I didn’t have enough altitude for the turn. Hesaid “I’ll show you.” So we took off, he pulled the throttle, but he didn’t putthe nose down, and in a Jenny you had to put that big nose down right away. We went into aspin, spun in and totalled the airplane. A couple of kids saw us go in and ran and calledthe cops. That was my last lesson with him.

What airplane did you set the endurance records in?

One day I was out building time in a Jenny. I had just landed and R. O. Bone, the manthat manufactured the Golden Eagle, walked over to me and asked, “How would you likea job demonstrating my airplane?” And I said, “When do I start?” A fellownamed Campbell had designed the airplane. I got $35 a week. The experimental model is theairplane I made my first two solo endurance flights in. It had a LeBlonde 60-horsepowerengine. We had plenty of orders coming in, so Bone called in some designers from Douglasto come over and redesign the ship to use a 100-horsepower Kinner engine.

That’s the model you flew in the 1929 Powder Puff Derby?

Yes. The Douglas designers and engineers took a long time and the ship didn’t arrive atSanta Monica until the night before the Derby took off. I didn’t see it until the morningof the race. We took it over to the compass rose to swing the compass and the compass wascrazy. Someone had bent a piece of steel and hooked the compass to that. So we had to finda piece of wood and hook the compass on it, and finally got it set right. I went over tomy assigned space and along comes an oil company truck. They asked me if it was okay toput their oil in the airplane. I said okay, figuring that there might be some prize that Icould win. I finally took off later that day. Brand new ship, new engine, fresh oil. I nosooner got into the air and the oil pressure went to zero. In those days you were alwayslooking for a landing area, from when you took off to when you landed. So instead of myroute straight over the city to San Bernardino, I flew a little south in case I had todead stick it somewhere. About half way to San Bernardino the oil pressure began to work.There was an air lock in the line that went away when the oil warmed up. I didn’t win thatleg of the race.

Bobbi TroutThe fuel truck came over and refueled the two tanks, and Iwatched them fill up until the gas ran over. Then at the dinner, Pancho Barnes came alongasking me to sign a piece of paper to change the course. They didn’t want to go toCalexico, they wanted to go straight to Yuma. So next morning, we were to check in overImperial airport, then on to Yuma. Later on I found out I had flown from San Bernardino toImperial eight minutes faster than Phoebe Omlie in her Monocoupe. My little 100-horsepowership was pretty speedy.

We were flying pretty low, barely above the sagebrush. About five miles outside ofYuma, I ran out of gas. There was a large field over in Mexico that looked harrowed, so Iheaded for that. As I got closer I saw that it had been plowed with the biggest plow evermade, with great big humps between the rows. I mushed it in as much as I could, but I wentover on my back. So we spent three days rebuilding the ship in Yuma, and on I went.

Seventy miles this side of Cincinnati, I had another deadstick. The ignition switchwent bad. This time the field was a lot smaller, a small fenced lot between a house andsome trees. I groundlooped and dinged one of the ailerons. I found some old tin and somebailing wire and patched that aileron, and when I got to Columbus the girls were justtaking off. So I landed with them at Cleveland later that day. After all those delays Istill finished ahead of two other girls.

We’re in the age of GPS now, and instant real-time weather. You had so muchconfidence to take off across the country with nothing but a compass.

We took off not knowing where we’d land. You had to adjust. If everything went well,we’d land where we planned to go, but sometimes we’d wind up in a hayfield mending theship or waiting out the weather. But the minute I’d set down, I’d have a crowd around me.Then someone would jump in a tractor and run and get some gas. One time I landed at MarchAir Force base. It’s a big place now but back then it was very small. I had been invitedto a luncheon there for the Womens Air Reserve. I flew in my J-5 Stearman. They didn’thave any 80-octane on the base, so the commanding General sent a jeep into Riverside toget me some. I think people were more willing to help in those days.

Of all the innovations and achievements you’ve seen in aviation, which one standsout?

Going to the moon, without a doubt. I’ve seen so many wonderful things, like JeanaYeager and the Voyager going around the world. That’s great, but that was within ourimagination. But walking on the moon. Who would have thought we could overcome thoseobstacles? I sure didn’t think I’d be around to see it.

Bobbi TroutDid you ever want to fly for an airline or go professionalwith your flying?

No. I had followed the story of Helen Richey, who was the first woman to fly for anairline. They didn’t let her fly very long because the men wanted her job. So they senther around to try and convince people to fly, but that’s not what she wanted to do — shedidn’t want to make speeches, she wanted to fly. She tried so hard and when she couldn’tget a job flying, she committed suicide. So those weren’t the days to go try and fly foran airline.

Even today, I wouldn’t like to fly for an airline. There are too many people dependingon you. You’re ten minutes late and everybody makes a fuss. And you’re depending on somany others, too. Candy Kubeck, the pilot of the ValuJet that crashed … it wasn’t herfault at all, but there she went. If I were going to fly for a large company I’d want tofly packages, like United Parcel.

Tell us about Pancho Barnes.

She had a huge heart. The minute you mentioned Pancho, everybody would say, “Oh,she’s the one who can swear better than the men.” I was with her once a week when wehad our Womens Air Reserve meetings. We started W.A.R. so we’d be able to help indisasters where it was hard to get to except by plane. We’d march and study aviation andrent ships on Sundays and drop flour bags into circles and other things to prepareourselves, and I never heard her use any real foul language. Anona Hansen worked forPancho for a year and we got to talking about it one day, and Anona said that Pancho onlytalked like that if she wanted to shock somebody, to get their attention. Pancho married apreacher, and I don’t imagine he’d put up with too much of that.

I met her one day when I took an airplane to Carpenteria. Then I saw her again atUnited Air Terminal, which is now Burbank Airport. She had a blue shirt on and had itunbuttoned about half way. I reached over and started to button it up and she said,”Hey, I want that open!” One day she showed me an old picture of her and about adozen young girls in lace. She had gone to a fancy school. So she knew her way aroundpeople of means, but she knew how to get somebody’s attention, too. She had long blackhair, so many people thought she was part Mexican, but she wasn’t.

When Pancho, Mary Charles and I flew to New York in 1934, the oil company gave us acheck for $500. That covered our gas, our meals, our lodging … and we stayed at the St.Moritz in New York. We stayed a month in New York because Pancho was in love with DuncanRinaldo, the Cisco Kid. She was working to get him out of jail because he had vioilatedhis work permit or visa. When we ran out of money in New York, we flew to Washington tostay at Phoebe’s [Omlie] apartment. We were trying to get somebody to buy our story, butit was the middle of the depression and nobody was spending a nickel that they didn’t haveto. So Pancho borrowed some money from Phoebe to get us back home.

What are your memories of Lindbergh?

In 1928, Cliff Henderson, who was promoting the Derby, had a bunch of us meet at a bigfield where we used to practice our forced landings. Mines Field, which is now LAX. Backthen it was just a field full of weeds. He put up grandstands on the north side. Lindberghcame in with the military trio he was leading. I think I met Amelia Earhart that day, too.One thing I remember about Lindbergh is he had a very light handshake.

Bobbi TroutHe and Anne [Morrow Lindbergh] copied my electrically-heatedflying suit. Mine was a beautiful custom leather suit, with a leather helmet and it wasall given to me. It’s in a museum now. And Bass boot company sent me some boots becausethey had heard me say that my feet got cold. One day, Lindbergh’s secretary called andasked me to bring my suit because Anne and Charles wanted to see it. They had two suitsmade, but they made theirs out of waterproof canvas instead of leather because it would belighter. Anne wrote me a note from somewhere telling me how much they used those suits. Ijust got a note from Anne Lindbergh and we’re hoping to get together if I get back there.

She flew a lot with him, didn’t she?

Oh, yes. She learned how to use the CW [Morse code] radio, and navigation, and wentalong on most of his trips until the children took over her attention.

And tell us about Amelia and the beginning of the Ninety Nines.

After the race in Cleveland in 1929, a bunch of us were standing under the bleacherstalking about the races and our future plans, and we decided we ought to have a way tostay in touch with one another. Somebody suggested an organization, and that’s how it cameabout. None of us, especially me, wanted to deal with the red tape, the bylaws and theother paperwork, so Amelia offered to have a lawyer from TAT [now TWA] set that up oncegot back to New York. Last year I saw Fay Welles at the Forest of Friendship and asked her aboutwho drew up the bylaws, and she thought that Amelia’s lawyer had done it. So that’s theway we remember it.

About two months after the race, we got letters that were sent to 117 licensedwomen pilots. We asked them to sign the bylaws and send a dollar. In those days adollar was dollar.

Bobbi TroutLet me ask you about two days. What was your reaction on theday when you heard that Lindbergh had made it to Paris?

Just like everybody else, just thrilled. I don’t remember where I was or what I wasdoing, I just remember being thrilled that someone had finally made it across. We didn’tknow how it would change aviation, but we knew it would be a big change.

And how about the day you found out that Amelia was lost?

We weren’t too sure for a while. In the first days we were all very worried, but wejust had to wait and see. They sent out lots of search parties and we were all hoping, butwe just had to wait. We know that she was close to Howland Island because of the radiocalls to the Itasca. There were clouds to the northwest, which is the directionshe’d be coming from. The water was reported to be smooth and glassy that day. She wasflying into the sun, so maybe she got too low and went in.

I knew a fellow that was taking a CW class, and in walked Amelia. She only stayed fortwo classes. So she didn’t know it, and Noonan didn’t know it. She had the brand newradios so she could talk, but she couldn’t make out what they were sending back [in Morsecode].

When was your last flight as PIC?

My last flight was in 1946 in an Ercoupe. “Pop” Burdett had a field where Ilearned to fly, at Western and Manchester in LA. After I sold my last business, I stoppedthere one day and I saw 30 or 40 Ercoupes sitting out in the field. I had always wanted tofly one, so the next day I went out and flew it for an hour and loved it. That was thefirst time I had flown with a tricycle landing gear. The only thing was I didn’t know whatto do with my feet. And the radio was chirping away and I didn’t understand half of whatthey were saying. I’ve flown since then with other people, but that’s the last time I wascaptain of a ship.

Collectables and more pictures areavailable at Bobbi’s new Web site.

Lead photo courtesy of StanMcClain.

UPDATE: Bobbi passed away on January 24, 2003 in La Jolla, Calif. She didn’t want a service, but she wanted people to visit her Web site and share memories and make new friends.