Aviation pioneer’s sky-high career started here

Phoebe, wearing her trusty inner tube, with pilot Vernon Omlie. Photo courtesy of Phoebe Omlie Collection, Memphis, Tenn., Public Library

Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie was the first woman to do a lot of things in American aviation: hold a federal pilot’s license, fly over the Rocky Mountains in a light plane, become a top government aeronautics official.

But on this July Sunday in 1921, she’s just 18-year-old Phoebe Fairgrave, standing on the wing of a biplane high over Snelling and Larpenteur avenues in Rose Township, ready to attempt a world parachute jumping record for women.

While the crowd below at Curtiss Northwest Airport strains to see the speck in the sky and swelters in the nearly 100-degree heat, Fairgrave is startled by how cold it is at nearly 3 miles of altitude.

Weighing little more than 90 pounds and barely 5 feet tall, she’s wearing a helmet and goggles, an aviator’s coat, a silk shirt, riding breeches and basketball shoes with suction soles to help grip the wing. Fairgrave has a partially inflated inner tube wrapped around her middle in case she lands in water, because she doesn’t know how to swim.

At the controls of the big, red Curtiss Oriole is ruggedly handsome Vernon Omlie, who in less than a year will become her husband. It has taken the plane more than an hour to make the climb. A companion ship monitors the situation.

Fairgrave steps off the wing at 15,200 feet and begins her record-setting descent, her goggles icing over at one point. Twenty minutes later, she lands in a wheat field a mile south of New Brighton.

Wing-walking over Rose Township. Photo courtesy of Phoebe Omlie Collection, Memphis, Tenn., Public Library

“I wasn’t afraid to jump,” she tells the Minneapolis Tribune afterward, “but my hands were so cold that I hated to walk out on the wings. But I got out all right and fastened on my chute. Then I just let go and the wind carried me off. For the first 100 feet, I fell like a flash. Then the chute opened out and I began to swing back and forth through the air, as if I were in a swing. The motion, and the rapid change from icy cold to heat, sickened me at first. But at 12,000 feet I began to feel better.

“At 9,000 feet I struck an air pocket and dropped quickly again, but was soon out of it. The planes kept circling around me and made me feel less lonesome.

“I dropped to the ground so easily that I wasn’t even shaken. It was just like jumping from a 10-foot wall. The planes couldn’t land, but an automobile picked me up and I rode back to the field.”

The Fairgrave family lived near the state Capitol when Phoebe was growing up and her childhood friends had fond memories of a little girl in pigtails.

“We used to play where Bethesda Hospital is now,” Harold Dahlquist, a retired real estate salesman told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1967. “The best place of all though, was the corner of Sherburne and Cedar, where Gov. Merriam used to have his tennis court. Or we’d play on Cedar, which was paved with cobblestones and pretty rough. And Phoebe was right in the thick of things, if there was any kind of a game going.”

Fairgrave attended Mechanic Arts High School, just southeast of the Capitol. She liked to write and act in school plays and her flair for storytelling and sense of drama served her well in the years ahead. She also possessed a level of assertiveness and self-confidence that would lead her to challenge contemporary assumptions about a woman’s role in society.

At some point, Fairgrave became intrigued with aviation, and the transformational event seems to have been associated with the September 1919 visit to the Twin Cities by Pres. Woodrow Wilson, who was on a whirlwind tour to build popular support for ratification of the League of Nations treaty.

On the morning of Sept. 9, four planes from Curtiss Northwest Airport provided an aerial salute to the president. A St. Paul Dispatch reporter rode along—with Vernon Omlie, as it turned out—as the planes swooped low over the Capitol building, where Wilson was addressing the legislature.

Accounts vary in detail, but the common thread is that Fairgrave looked up from Mechanic Arts to see planes overhead and was inspired by the spectacle.

As a magazine writer depicted it, “The planes zoomed right over the high school building, so close that it seemed they must strike the roof. Phoebe Fairgrave was thrilled as she had never been before. ‘I hadn’t given a thought to aviation until that day,’ she told me, ‘but suddenly, as I watched those planes, I wanted to fly.’”

As was the case with many aspiring pilots of the day, including Charles Lindbergh and Charles “Speed” Holman, Fairgrave started by doing stunts, first wing-walking and then parachute jumping. She eventually learned to fly and although not as well-known as her contemporary, Amelia Earhart, there is little question she was at least her equal as a pilot.

As one of her old St. Paul friends reminisced, “There was nothing that girl couldn’t do in an airplane.”

This article is adapted from a longer piece by Roger Bergerson in the current issue of Ramsey County History magazine. For a definitive biography, see Janann Sherman’s Walking on Air, The Aerial Adventures of Phoebe Omlie, University Press of Mississippi, 2011.

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