Betty Skelton (1926-)

skelton_1_200.jpg Betty Skelton
Text excerpt used with permission
Copyright © 2000 National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Betty Skelton was the U.S. Feminine Aerobatic Champion in 1948, 1949, and 1950. As a young girl in Pensacola, Florida, Skelton first soloed in a Taylorcraft at the tender age of 12 and then again officially at age 16. Betty wanted a career in aviation and started with a clerical position at Eastern Airlines.

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At 17, she had the necessary flight hours but was too young to join the Women Air Service Pilots (WASP) and it was disbanded shortly before she reached the required age of 18 and 1/2.

She received her commercial rating at 18, her flight instructor rating at 19, joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), and began instructing at the Pete O' Knight Airport in Tampa. She first started aerobatic flying in a Fairchild PT-19 when a Tampa airport manager suggested she learn a loop and a roll for the local amateur airshow.

She bought her own aircraft, a 1929 Great Lakes 2T1A biplane and began her profession career in 1946 at the Southeastern Air Exposition in Jacksonville, Florida, along with a new US Navy exhibition team, the Blue Angels.

Betty Skelton

Betty Skelton Frankman began flying at an early age and soloed "legally" on her sixteenth birthday. She became internationally famous after winning acrobatic championships, races and setting records. She worked for Eastern Airlines while also obtaining her commercial, flight instructor, single-engine land and sea, and multi-engine ratings.

Active in the Civil Air Patrol since its beginning in the early forties, she held the rank of Major. She became a test pilot, occasionally flew helicopters, jets, blimps and gliders. In 1948, Frankman purchased a Pitts Special experimental bi-plane, a single-seater open cockpit airplane weighing only 544 pounds. Her air race victories resulted in her plane, "Little Stinker," becoming the most famous acrobatic aircraft in the world. It is now displayed in the National Air and Space

Daredevil Betty Skelton

High-flying, fast-driving Betty Skelton (later Frankman) was born in Pensacola, Fla., in 1926. At age 12, she soloed in an airplane. By 1950, Ms. Skelton and her open-cockpit biplane, Little Stinker, were famous worldwide. From 1948 to 1950 she won three international aerobatics competitions for women.

One of her specialties was a maneuver known as "the inverted ribbon cut," in which she flew her plane upside down, 10 feet above the ground, and sliced through a ribbon stretched between two poles.

In 1949 and 1951 she set the world light-plane altitude record. In a car, she set the women's land-speed record three times at Daytona Beach, Fla., the last time being 1956 when she hit 145.044 m.p.h. in a Corvette (the men's record was only 3 m.p.h. faster). She holds more combined aviation and automotive records than anyone else - man or woman - in history.

Mrs. Frankman now lives in Winter Haven, Fla., where she has been caring for her husband and writing a book on the importance of accepting challenges. "I still love fast cars, and would welcome another [opportunity] to top my old women's record," Frankman said via e-mail. She's still up for a challenge.

Betty Skelton Frankman

Betty first soloed an airplane at age 12. By age 19, she was an expert on aerobatics. Her Pitts Biplane, the Little Stinker, is in the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

Betty was the first woman to drive a jet car over 300 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats, to establish transcontinental auto records in the U.S. and South America, and to break records driving a Corvette on Daytona Beach.

In 1959, she was the first woman to undergo the same tests as the seven original astronauts before the first U. S. space flight in 1961. She belongs to the International Aerobatics, NASCAR International Motorsports, Florida Women's, Tampa Sports, and Women's International Pioneer Aviation Halls of Fame.

Betty Skelton Frankman: An Exceptional Woman

Author: Ann Cooper
© Reprinted with Permission Woman Pilot Magazine September/October 1998

Well-known in the late 1940s and throughout the '50s, Betty Skelton Frankman made history in aviation circles and was recognized for more than her share of "firsts." There is much to know about this unique and celebrated pilot who wrote to Patty Wagstaff in 1991 and said, "Receiving my first Medicare card a few months ago was not much of a thrill ...I wanted to burn it immediately and go out and buy a Pitts!"

Born to teenaged parents in Pensacola, Florida in 1926, Betty was almost more of a sister than a daughter to her vivacious mother and dad, the late David and Myrtle Skelton. Adventurous themselves, they raised their only child to seek and enjoy challenge.

Perhaps the aviation activity in Pensacola influenced them all, but Betty recalls always having wished that she could fly. She and her parents started flight lessons together at a time when Betty was too young to legally fly alone. Nonetheless, she soloed prior to becoming a teenager, then repeated the feat at the legal age of 16. ...more

Betty Skelton
Text excerpt used with permission
Copyright © 2000 National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

"....As one of the few women aerobatic pilots of the day, Skelton's impressive flying proficiency and public relations ability heightened awareness of aerobatics and the Pitts design. She officially soloed in 1942 on her 16th birthday and won her first feminine aerobatic championship six years later in a 1929 Great Lakes 2T1A biplane. Flying the Pitts upside down, she became the first woman to perform the inverted ribbon cut maneuver.

For an article in Look magazine in 1959, Skelton took the same medical tests given to the Mercury 7 astronauts. She was the first woman inducted into the International Aerobatic Club (IAC) Hall of Fame and the Corvette Hall of Fame. In 1988 the IAC established the Betty Skelton First Lady of Aerobatics Trophy, awarded to the highest scoring female in national competition.

Skelton sold Little Stinker in 1951, when she traded flying records for automobile speed records. She and husband, Don Frankman, later reacquired the airplane and donated it to the Smithsonian in 1985. Volunteers at the museum's Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility restored it between 1996 and 2001."

see also Aerobatic Champions

Betty Skelton - First Lady of Firsts

Author: Henry M. Holden
Publisher: Black Hawk Publishing Co. © 1994

In aviation circles there are few people who are considered "living legends." Legends are those who have blazed trails and whose glorious exploits, impressive accomplishments and immeasurable popularity has spanned generations.

In an era where heroes were race pilots, jet jocks and movie stars, Betty Skelton was an aviation sweetheart, an international celebrity and a flying sensation. Her career and success could be pages right out of a storybook but even Hollywood couldn't produce a picture as grand as the real life that Betty Skelton has led.

Betty's enviable record is still recognized today by pilots and competitors, and she is frequently referred to as, The First Lady of Firsts. She was the first woman to cut a ribbon while flying inverted and she piloted the smallest plane ever to cross the Irish Sea. Twice she set the world light-plane altitude record (29,050 feet in a Piper Cub, in 1951). The first time Betty broke the record established in 1913 in Germany. She also unofficially set the world speed record for engine aircraft in 1949.

Today Betty Skelton holds more combined aviation and automotive records that anyone in history. "I have always been interested in speed," she said. "It's pretty fortunate when you can find something you love to do so much and it is also your occupation." Besides winning the International Feminine Aerobatic Championship for three consecutive years, 1948 - 1950, she received honorary wings from the United States Navy and held the rank of Major in the Civil Air Patrol.

She flew helicopters, jets, blimps and gliders, and participated in all U.S. major air events in the forties. Today the very spirit of Betty Skelton and her love and devotion to aviation and aerobatics is bestowed upon the top female in the field with the presentation of the coveted "Betty Skelton First Lady of Aerobatics" trophy. ...more

Pitts Special S-1C "Little Stinker"
Text excerpt used with permission
Copyright © 2000 National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Wingspan 4.9 m (16 ft 10 in) , Length 4.7 m (15 ft 6 in), Height 1.7 m (5 ft 6 in) , Weight 263 kg (580 lb) , Engine: Continental C85-8FJ 63 kW (85 hp)

The Little Stinker was the second Pitts Special constructed by Curtis Pitts and it gained national and international recognition with aerobatic pilot Betty Skelton. It is the oldest surviving Pitts-designed aircraft and the smallest Pitts Special in existence. When constructed in 1946, it was also the smallest aerobatic airplane in the world. Although the aircraft's official name is The Little Stinker, it is more often referred to simply as Little Stinker.

In 1945 Curtis Pitts built the first of a line of aircraft that was to dominate aerobatic competition throughout the 1960s and 1970s and continues in most categories today-the Pitts Special S-1. Pitts began with an idea for an aerobatic aircraft that would defy gravity and be crisp on the controls. Rather than the larger pre-war biplanes, Pitts wanted something smaller that would climb, roll, and change attitude much more quickly.

Instead of a large radial engine, Pitts built his aircraft around the new smaller and lighter horizontally-opposed engines. The swept wing allowed for access and center of gravity (CG) factors and made snap rolls snap more sharply. The resulting Pitts Special was revolutionary because of its small size, light weight, short wingspan, and extreme agility.

The prototype, S-1, was wrecked about two weeks after its first flight. Number 2, S-1C, with a slightly longer wing and fuselage and a Continental C-85-F5 engine, was built in 1946 and given the experimental registration number NX86401. Phil Quigley, Curtis Pitts' friend and test pilot, flew the bright red Pitts S-1C at airshows for a year. Quigley and the airplane made such a good impression that Jess Bristow bought the airplane and hired Quigley to fly it in his World Air Shows. He removed the original Continental C-85 engine and installed a C-90.

In August 1948, without having flown the aircraft, Betty Skelton bought the Pitts Special for $3,000 and named it The Little Stinker Too. The name The Little Stinker was initially applied to a 1929 Great Lakes 2TlA biplane (NX2O2K) that Skelton had flown in 1946, 1947, and 1948. She won her first Feminine International Aerobatic Championship in January 1948 flying the Great Lakes. Skelton made several changes to the Pitts Special. For cross-country flight, her father constructed a small canopy that was easily and quickly removed for aerobatics. She replaced the original Aeromatic propeller with a fixed-pitch McCauley. She also mounted a ball-bank indicator upside down in the instrument panel, just above the one used for normal flight, for control coordination in inverted flight.

Because the registration number NX86401 was so long and the Pitts was so small, Skelton asked the Civil Aeronautics Administration for a smaller registration number to match. The CAA responded by assigning the shortest number available, N22E. But because the demands of a heavy exhibition schedule made immediate repainting impractical, she asked the CAA to hold the new registration number until she and the aircraft returned to the U.S. from upcoming exhibitions in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Skelton won the 1949 Feminine International Aerobatic Championship held at the Miami All American Air Maneuvers, with NX86401, The Little Stinker Too. She also performed at a number of major air shows including the International Air Pageant in London, and the Royal Air Force Pageant in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Later in 1949, the aircraft was repainted with a unique red and white scheme and a skunk decoration. The "too" in the name was then deleted, since it confused those who did not remember the namesake, the 1929 Great Lakes. In 1950, with the renumbered N22E, Skelton again won the Feminine International Aerobatic Championship.

A few Pitts Specials were built by Curtis Pitts himself and others in the 1950s, some for other female aerobatic pilots, including Caro Bayley. But the airplane remained a minor type until the early 1960s when interested amateurs, who remembered Skelton's remarkable aerobatic flying, convinced Pitts to produce a set of construction drawings (at $125 per set). The popular homebuilt version of the airplane was the model S-1C, with two ailerons, M-6 airfoils, and any engine from 85 hp up to 180 hp, the most popular being 125-150-hp Lycomings.

While most of the Pitts Specials were flown in the United States, their international reputation grew quickly. In 1966, Bob Herendeen became U.S. National Aerobatic Champion in his S-1C Pitts. In the same year he competed in the World Championships in Moscow in that plane, arousing considerable interest in Europe. The diminutive Pitts is the most successful and recognized American-built aerobatic design.

In 1951, Betty Skelton retired from competition aerobatic and sold The Little Stinker to Bob Davis. George Young, Paul Lehman, and Drexell Scott owned the aircraft until Skelton repurchased it in 1967. In 1976, Betty Skelton Frankman and her husband Don Frankman lent the aircraft for display (in a new paint scheme) to the Florida Sports Hall of Fame at Cypress Gardens, Florida. Then, in 1985, they donated Little Stinker to the National Air and Space Museum. In 2001, a volunteer crew at the Garber Facility completed restoration of the aircraft.

see also : The Restoration of Pitts Special S-1C "Little Stinker"

The Little Plane That Could

A petite, pageboy-coiffed woman gazes intently at a small red-and-white biplane at Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. In her casual pantsuit, she could easily be mistaken for a bemused tourist.

"It's beautiful," she murmurs. Then, stepping adroitly behind the velvet exhibition ropes, she strokes the shiny skin of the plane, called Little Stinker. "It looks exactly like it did when I flew it in the late 1940s."

Betty Skelton, a spunky 75-year-old, knows every inch of the hand-built Pitts S-1C, having performed hundreds of daredevil feats in it during her six-year career as an aerobatic pilot. Skelton soared to fame and glory in Little Stinker, winning the women's International Aerobatics Championship titles in 1949 and 1950. In 1988 she became the first woman inducted into the International Aerobatic Hall of Fame. "The finest times of my life," she says today.

In 1985 she gave Little Stinker to the Smithsonian. Restored to its heyday luster and unveiled to the public in October, the plane shares exhibition space with a 1975 monoplane belonging to the late aerobatic champion Leo Loudenslager. Like its diminutive, 95-pound owner, Little Stinker's appearance belies its gutsiness and power. The wingspan is not quite 17 feet, and the plane stands just inches above its 5-foot-2-inch pilot. Revolutionary for its small size and agility, the Pitts model would dominate aerobatic competition for decades. ...more

Betty Skelton and the Chevrolet Corvette

Betty Skelton

Betty Skelton (Frankman), frequently referred to as the "first lady of firsts", worked side-by-side with some of the biggest names in Corvette, and established unbelievable records of her own in racing, aviation and automotive history.

The first woman to be inducted in to the Corvette Hall of Fame was also the first woman in the world to drive racing cars to new records through the famous NASCAR measured mile on the sands of Daytona Beach. Skelton established records for Chevrolet behind the wheel of the Corvette, and appeared at major auto shows, as well as national ads and TV commercials. ...more

Betty Skelton

Corvette Museum Proudly Announces Betty Skelton Frankman, As First Woman To Be Inducted Into Prestigious Corvette Hall Of Fame

Bowling Green, KY - The National Corvette Museum recently announced the three inductees selected for the prestigious 2001 Corvette Hall of Fame. Noted as one of the highlights of the Corvette Celebration held each year at the Museum, this year's Hall of Fame features a "first-ever" with the induction of Betty Skelton (Frankman), the first woman to take a place in the Corvette famed group.

This unique award recognizes those people who have made significant contributions to their respective fields, each having reached the highest level of accomplishment. The National Corvette Museum established the Corvette Hall of Fame in 1998.

Corvette Hall of Fame Inductee, Betty Skelton (Frankman), frequently referred to as the "first lady of firsts", worked side-by-side with some of the biggest names in Corvette, and established unbelievable records of her own in racing, aviation and automotive history.

The first woman to be inducted in to the Corvette Hall of Fame was also the first woman in the world to drive racing cars to new records through the famous NASCAR measured mile on the sands of Daytona Beach. Skelton established records for Chevrolet behind the wheel of the Corvette, and appeared at major auto shows, as well as in national ads and TV commercials. ...more

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