Fundraising Underway for 1929 Women’s Air Derby Film

The Hemlock Films script follows the story of the 20 women who took part in the California-to-Ohio air race.

Five out of 20 women finished the first Women’s National Air Derby, flying from Santa Monica, CA to Cleveland in 1929. [Credit: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution]

Hemlock Films, the company that brought the aviation world the films Rise Above: WASP (2019), Space Chase USA (2019), The Restorers (2003), and Red Tail Reborn (2007), is looking for help to bring the story of the 1929 Women’s Air Derby to theaters as a feature. 

The story follows the 20 women who took part in the "Powder Puff Derby," which was humorist Will Rogers’ facetious name for the California-to-Ohio air race that was the first time females were allowed to compete. The participants included aviation notables such as Louise Thaden, Florence “Pancho” Barnes, Amelia Earhart, and Bobbi Trout. The women fought the elements, deliberate sabotage, and chauvinism to pursue aviation.

According to Kara White, producer/director at Hemlock Films, the script focuses on Thaden, who was newly married and just 23 at the time of the race but already an accomplished pilot.

The racecourse from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland and took nine days to complete, and one racer died of carbon monoxide poisoning en route. At the time, women pilots were still a bit of a novelty, although 1929 would be the year the Ninety-Nines, the international organization of women pilots, was established. The name reflects the number of certificated women pilots at the time who  joined the fledgling group. 

This is not the first time Hemlock Films has decided to tell this story. In 2014, it produced a documentary on the Women's Air Derby called, Beyond the Powder: The Legacy of the First Women's Cross-Country Air Race.

White said she was inspired to create a feature-length movie after reading aviatrix and author Gene Nora Jessen's book Sky Girls: The True Story of the First Women's Cross-Country Air Race.

"It was an incredible story, the book was a page turner and I thought, 'How is this not a film?'" White said. "A story from history as a narrative is so much stronger than a documentary. The story resonates more as a narrative for most people."

Part of the research was done at the Cleveland Public Library, where White asked librarians for newspaper clippings about the race.

"They brought me a folder with two photographs in it," said White, who then did some sleuthing on her own and found more information. "The folders they brought me got bigger and bigger!"

Soon after, she said the script began to take shape. written in the same vein as A League Of Their Own, the 1992 biopic and later streaming TV series about women's professional baseball in the 1940s.

White said the film company is currently in the throes of fundraising since it will take at least $10 million to complete the project, and that money needs to be in hand before it  begins. 

In addition, Hemlock Films is reaching out to actors who might be interested in playing a role in the movie and also trying to find period-correct aircraft that could be used for filming. Movie magic can be incorporated to create period-correct cockpits and the illusion of flying, White said, similar to the way it was done in this year’s Apple TV+ series Masters of the Air.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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