Bobbi Trout

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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 on January 7, 1906, in Greenup, Ill. She saw her first airplane at age 12 and knew right away that she wanted to fly. In 1920, the family moved to Los Angeles and everyone worked at the family's "filling station." On December 27, 1922, one of her customers offered her a ride in his Curtiss Jenny. She flew from Rogers Field in Los Angeles, which is also where Amelia Earhart got her first airplane ride. In 1928 film star Irene Castle changed 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 took off 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 took off at 5 p.m. and set both a new endurance record of 17 hours and 24 minutes, recording the first all-night flight by a woman. Later that year she and her Golden Eagle Chief flew to 15,200 feet and set an altitude record for light airplanes. Then she and the Chief flew in the Women's Transcontinental Air ("Powder Puff") Derby. She didn't win, but she did get all the way to Cleveland, where she, Amelia Earhart and other racers decided to 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. Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot the space shuttle, carried one of Bobbi's record-setting certificates 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 a new young fellow showed up and he was to be my instructor. So we took off and got to about a hundred feet and he pulls the throttle and I'm supposed to set down. The largest field was to my right and I'm right over the end of it, so I wished I had enough altitude for a 3/4 turn and land there, but I knew I didn't. So I lined up for a different field and the instructor hit the throttle and we went around and landed. He said I should've landed in the big field and I told him it was because I didn't have enough altitude for the turn. He said "I'll show you." So we took off, he pulled the throttle, but he didn't put the nose down, and in a Jenny you had to put that big nose down right away. We went into a spin, spun in and totalled the airplane. A couple of kids saw us go in and ran and called the 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 man that manufactured the Golden Eagle, walked over to me and asked, "How would you like a job demonstrating my airplane?" And I said, "When do I start?" A fellow named Campbell had designed the airplane. I got $35 a week. The experimental model is the airplane I made my first two solo endurance flights in. It had a LeBlonde 60-horsepower engine. We had plenty of orders coming in, so Bone called in some designers from Douglas to 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 at Santa Monica until the night before the Derby took off. I didn't see it until the morning of the race. We took it over to the compass rose to swing the compass and the compass was crazy. Someone had bent a piece of steel and hooked the compass to that. So we had to find a piece of wood and hook the compass on it, and finally got it set right. I went over to my assigned space and along comes an oil company truck. They asked me if it was okay to put their oil in the airplane. I said okay, figuring that there might be some prize that I could win. I finally took off later that day. Brand new ship, new engine, fresh oil. I no sooner got into the air and the oil pressure went to zero. In those days you were always looking for a landing area, from when you took off to when you landed. So instead of my route straight over the city to San Bernardino, I flew a little south in case I had to dead 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 that leg of the race.

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

We were flying pretty low, barely above the sagebrush. About five miles outside of Yuma, I ran out of gas. There was a large field over in Mexico that looked harrowed, so I headed for that. As I got closer I saw that it had been plowed with the biggest plow ever made, with great big humps between the rows. I mushed it in as much as I could, but I went over 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 switch went bad. This time the field was a lot smaller, a small fenced lot between a house and some trees. I groundlooped and dinged one of the ailerons. I found some old tin and some bailing wire and patched that aileron, and when I got to Columbus the girls were just taking off. So I landed with them at Cleveland later that day. After all those delays I still finished ahead of two other girls.

We're in the age of GPS now, and instant real-time weather. You had so much confidence 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 the ship 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 March Air Force base. It's a big place now but back then it was very small. I had been invited to a luncheon there for the Womens Air Reserve. I flew in my J-5 Stearman. They didn't have any 80-octane on the base, so the commanding General sent a jeep into Riverside to get 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 stands out?

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

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

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

Even today, I wouldn't like to fly for an airline. There are too many people depending on you. You're ten minutes late and everybody makes a fuss. And you're depending on so many others, too. Candy Kubeck, the pilot of the ValuJet that crashed ... it wasn't her fault at all, but there she went. If I were going to fly for a large company I'd want to fly 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 we had our Womens Air Reserve meetings. We started W.A.R. so we'd be able to help in disasters where it was hard to get to except by plane. We'd march and study aviation and rent ships on Sundays and drop flour bags into circles and other things to prepare ourselves, and I never heard her use any real foul language. Anona Hansen worked for Pancho for a year and we got to talking about it one day, and Anona said that Pancho only talked like that if she wanted to shock somebody, to get their attention. Pancho married a preacher, 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 at United Air Terminal, which is now Burbank Airport. She had a blue shirt on and had it unbuttoned 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 a dozen young girls in lace. She had gone to a fancy school. So she knew her way around people of means, but she knew how to get somebody's attention, too. She had long black hair, 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 a check 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 Duncan Rinaldo, the Cisco Kid. She was working to get him out of jail because he had vioilated his work permit or visa. When we ran out of money in New York, we flew to Washington to stay at Phoebe's [Omlie] apartment. We were trying to get somebody to buy our story, but it was the middle of the depression and nobody was spending a nickel that they didn't have to. 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 big field where we used to practice our forced landings. Mines Field, which is now LAX. Back then it was just a field full of weeds. He put up grandstands on the north side. Lindbergh came 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-heated flying suit. Mine was a beautiful custom leather suit, with a leather helmet and it was all given to me. It's in a museum now. And Bass boot company sent me some boots because they had heard me say that my feet got cold. One day, Lindbergh's secretary called and asked me to bring my suit because Anne and Charles wanted to see it. They had two suits made, but they made theirs out of waterproof canvas instead of leather because it would be lighter. Anne wrote me a note from somewhere telling me how much they used those suits. I just 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 went along 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 bleachers talking about the races and our future plans, and we decided we ought to have a way to stay in touch with one another. Somebody suggested an organization, and that's how it came about. None of us, especially me, wanted to deal with the red tape, the bylaws and the other paperwork, so Amelia offered to have a lawyer from TAT [now TWA] set that up once got back to New York. Last year I saw Fay Welles at the Forest of Friendship and asked her about who drew up the bylaws, and she thought that Amelia's lawyer had done it. So that's the way we remember it.

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

Bobbi TroutLet me ask you about two days. What was your reaction on the day 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 was doing, I just remember being thrilled that someone had finally made it across. We didn't know 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 we just had to wait and see. They sent out lots of search parties and we were all hoping, but we just had to wait. We know that she was close to Howland Island because of the radio calls to the Itasca. There were clouds to the northwest, which is the direction she'd be coming from. The water was reported to be smooth and glassy that day. She was flying 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 for two classes. So she didn't know it, and Noonan didn't know it. She had the brand new radios so she could talk, but she couldn't make out what they were sending back [in Morse code].

When was your last flight as PIC?

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

Collectables and more pictures are available at Bobbi's new Web site.

Lead photo courtesy of Stan McClain.

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.