Betty Skelton, Aerobatics Star, Dies at 85

Hall of Famer set speed records, drove race cars, tried for space.

Betty Skelton

Betty Skelton

Aerobatics legend Betty Skelton died at her home in Winter Park, Florida, on Tuesday at the age of 85. Skelton won the 1948, 1949 and 1950 U.S. National Female Aerobatic Championships, the latter two titles in her famous Pitts Special, Li'l Stinker, which today hangs in the Smithsonian. In addition to her aerobatics prowess, Skelton set numerous records in airplanes, including for speed, in 1949 clocking 421.6 mph in a North American P-51 Mustang, and for altitude, coaxing a J-3 Cub up to an amazing 29,050 feet in 1951. She was a race car driver, an automotive test driver and a record setter on the Salt Flats of Bonneville, where she sped to a record for women drivers of over 300 mph in 1956. Skelton was inducted into both the Aviation and Motorsports Halls of Fame.

Skelton was born in Pensacola, Florida, and like many young people of the day, she became fascinated by airplanes. She was said to have soloed at 12 years of age, which wasn’t legal even in 1938, and earned her certificate when she was 16. She soon added on commercial and flight instructor certificates.

In 1960, Skelton was pictured on the cover of Look magazine, in a space suit, after having successfully completed, for the story, the same testing regime administered to male astronauts during NASA qualifications. Skelton also tried unsuccessfully to become a Naval fighter pilot two decades before women were accepted into military flight training programs.