America’s incoming administration has initiated several historic “firsts,” which has prompted me to learn more about our “first” licensed mechanics. Attempts to certify aviators were first organized in 1909 by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) of France. Conveniently issued in alphabetical order, France’s Louis Bleriot received License #1. Orville and Wilbur Wright were issued licenses #14 and #15, respectively. So much for “seniority.“
U.S. aviators and aircraft mechanics were first required to be certificated through the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) in 1927. Certificates numbered 1-19,000 were issued (and later reissued as M1-M19,000). Subsequent FAA numbering systems created a challenge to determine the seniority of an “old wrench,” but there is no doubt that Mechanic License No. 1 (Airplane and Engine) was issued July 1, 1927, from the CAA’s Washington office to Frank Gates Gardner. Gardner has remained practically anonymous in terms of historic reference material.
There were few who disliked regulations more than aviator Phoebe Omlie [1902-1975] — nevertheless, she was quick to apply for her mechanic’s license. Omlie entered solo long-distance flying contests, once commenting, “If I take a mechanic they’ll say that he flew the ship over the bad spots! No! I’ll be my own mechanic and I’ll fly my plane myself!” For decades Omlie’s biographers have proclaimed that she was the “first licensed female mechanic” in the United States (Certificate #422). Other historians claim that her contemporary, Ruth Nichols, was actually “first” (Certificate #401). Herein, their story unfolds.
Neither Omlie nor Nichols wrote much about their maintenance and repair experiences which must have been an important part of their remarkable careers in aviation, especially in the 1920s to the onset of WWII. They were as similar as they were different.
Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie [1902-1975]
Phoebe Fairgrave was born in Iowa and graduated from business school but she found her passion, and ultimately her profession, in aviation. At 17, Fairgrave impulsively purchased a Curtiss JN4D “Jenny,” hiring pilot Vernon Omlie to teach her barnstorming stunts. Her Jenny offered plenty of places for a harness strap or hand grip.
One historian joked, “... there were three sets of struts between the upper and lower wings on either side. Between these struts there were bracing wires. They used to say that after the mechanics had rigged the plane, that is, adjusted the wires and struts for the best flying position, they would put a canary in between the wings. If he got out, the plane wasn’t rigged right.”
She performed as a “stunt-double” for Fox (silent) Moving Pictures, learned how to fly, and organized a “flying circus.” She and Vernon married, after which the Omlies barnstormed their way south to Memphis, TN. By 1924 they set up an FBO, formed the Memphis Aero Club, and constructed an air strip north of Memphis.
After moving their FBO to the new Memphis Airport in 1925, Vernon became the airport manager and Phoebe sold Monocoupes. Between 1927 and 1931, Phoebe Omlie became one of the most famous competitors in U.S. air racing. In 1932, she piloted aircraft for the Democratic National Committee (DNC). President Roosevelt then appointed her “technical advisor liaison” between the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and the Bureau of Air Commerce.
Omlie immediately organized a popular national air-marking program coordinated with the Works Project Authority (WPA) and a handful of women pilots. In 1936, Vernon died in a commercial airline accident and Omlie quit her government job to fly again for the DNC.
Among several programs advancing airport operations, Omlie established aviation schools administered by women instructors, proclaiming in 1942, “Women taught men to walk. They can teach them to fly.”