When No. 1 Doesn't Always = First

Feb. 2, 2009
The first licensed female mechanics

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.”

She also designed an academic program to train ground support personnel at airports, and in 1934, flight surgeon of the Women’s Air Reserve, Dr. Emma Kittridge, wrote that “from the point of view of technical knowledge, Ms. Omlie has done more to advance the place of women in aviation than any other woman in this country.”

After retiring from the CAA, Omlie drifted away from her connections to aviation. Her views on public education became a passion, if not a bitter obsession. In 1975, reclusive and broke, Omlie died alone at Indianapolis, IN. She was 73. The City of Memphis paid for her burial next to her husband. Omlie’s contributions to aviation have been since honored by FAA scholarships and aviation landmarks.

Ruth Nichols [1901-1960]
Nichols was the child of a wealthy New England family and attended private schools. While attending college to become a physician in Massachusetts she secretly took flying lessons, prompting her goal for a career in aviation. By 1927 she earned her transport license, and in 1928 she was crew on a record-setting flight in a seaplane, for which news reporters dubbed her the “Flying Debutant.” Although she resented the nickname, her notoriety led to jobs as an aircraft sales representative.

While gaining recognition as a flier, Nichols toured 46 states urging the formation of “Aviation Country Clubs” to promote general aviation. Between 1930 and 1931, she demonstrated Clarence Chamberlin’s eight-place cabin airplane, broke cross-country records while flying a Lockheed Vega owned by the Crosley Radio Corp., and competed in air races. She survived six serious accidents; the most severe injury occurred while flying her Vega in an attempt to be the first woman to solo across the Atlantic. It is no wonder Adm. Richard Byrd once described her as having “pluck.”

Nichols advocated humanitarian causes and career equality for women. By 1936 she had earned her instructor’s license and in 1940, she organized “Relief Wings” which flew mercy missions for victims of disasters.

During her career Nichols flew 71 different types of aircraft. Landing in hundreds of remote flying fields, there is no doubt that she spent many hours doing her own maintenance and repairs.
In the late ‘50s, Nichols volunteered for Air Force tests which would place women in the space program. In 1957 she wrote “Reminiscences,” and thereafter vanished from the aviation scene. Nichols committed suicide in 1960, at age 59. A friend wrote, “It is difficult to comprehend that a woman whose whole lifetime had been a display of courage could not face a tomorrow.”

Nichols and Omlie were among the most famous aviators of their time, and ironically, both received their mechanic’s license on the same day.

In March 1927, Omlie wrote chief of air regulations, Clifford M. Young requesting CAA forms, and on April 28 he received Omlie’s application for an Aircraft and Engine license. Young issued her a temporary “Letter of Authority” until she took her tests, scheduled three months later.

On June 4, 1927, Nichols applied for her Aircraft and Engine license. Both Omlie and Nichols passed their examinations on July 22, 1917. Their processing papers sat on a clerk’s desk. By chance, or chosen in alphabetical order, Nichols was issued license #421 and Omlie #422.

I abstain from declaring who was America’s “first” licensed female mechanic, but further sleuthing has revealed that Frank Gates Gardner, was a mechanic during 1927, while serving in the U.S. Army. During 2009, I hope to tell Gardner’s story and those of other mechanics, among which are those of America’s first “non-white” licensed mechanics.

With renewed curiosity and hope, I wish my AMT readers a Happy New Year 2009!