Patty Remembers Betty

Aerobatics Pioneers Shared a Bond Across Generations

Betty Skelton and Patty Wagstaff

Betty Skelton and Patty Wagstaff

Patty Wagstaff and Betty Skelton

The passing of aerobatics legend Betty Skelton this week saddened the aviation community. But as is the case with losing people we love and admire, it also gave us pause to consider those aviators who came before us to pave the way for those of us who followed. A legend in her own right, aerobatics champion Patty Wagstaff remembers who Betty Skelton was and what this larger than life woman meant to her.

I first met Betty Skelton at the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships. She came to give the Betty Skelton "First Lady of Aerobatics" Trophy for the first time and explained that while she could only be “feminine champion” in the 40’s and 50’s and this wasn’t the case anymore, she wanted women to be recognized for their achievement in the sport. The trophy is given to the highest scoring woman at the Nationals. I was lucky to be the first recipient and thrilled to meet the woman I had heard so much about.

Betty was a legend in motorsports and while I was in awe of her accomplishments and had always heard her spoken of with respect and admiration, I had no idea she would be such a striking, intelligent, elegant and well spoken woman. Her presence was such that I then understood why, decades after she competed and flew airshows, an entire generation before mine, people still talked about meeting her and seeing her perform!

What made Betty extraordinary and memorable is more than just her beauty and talent. She had grace and dignity. She was a class act in every way. She showed us how to do it right, whether it was racing around a pylon, dead stick landing a P51 or being the first woman to do an inverted ribbon cut. A true champion is an ambassador of their sport and Betty was a champion’s champion.

As I got to know Betty over the years, my admiration for her grew. She was funny, down to earth, and always gracious. It meant a lot to me that she was really gorgeous and a really attractive “girly girl” but could sit down and talk about breaking a Land Speed Record or flying a warbird in a very matter of fact way. That surprises some people, but she saw no dichotomy in it, and neither do I. Over the years when I was about to do something new, like demo an airplane for a company, fly a new airplane or just try something new, I would tell Betty about it and invariably she had done it first. Awesome! What a role model she was for me in a business where there are few women.

RIP Betty. Every time we walk into the National Air & Space Museum's Udvar F. Hazy Center, the first airplane we see is your airplane, Little Stinker. You may be gone, but you'll never be forgotten.