As long as there have been aircraft, there have been people working on and fixing them. Like any machine they need regular maintenance to stay up and running. Before building the engine that would power the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight in 1903, Charles Taylor worked on bicycles. Often considered the father of aviation maintenance, Taylor was a self-taught mechanic and paved the way for the thousands of AMTs that would follow in his footsteps- including Phoebe Omlie.
Born in Iowa and later moving to Minnesota, Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie first became interested in aviation shortly after graduating from high school in 1920. When President Woodrow Wilson visited Minneapolis, his visit was commemorated with a flyover. This was the first time Omlie witnessed any kind of airshow.
Although she attended drama school and briefly worked as a secretary, Omlie kept looking to the skies instead. She could often be found hanging around airfields near her home, hoping to get someone to take her up. Hoping to make her sick and scare her off, the airfield manager took her up, performing aerobatic maneuvers. Instead, Omlie demanded more flight time and even purchased her own plane after only four flights.
Even though she has purchased her own airplane, Omlie was often not the one flying it. Instead, she could be found wing walking, hanging below the plane by her teeth, parachuting from the plane, and even dancing the Charleston on the top wing. She set the record for highest parachute jump for a woman when she jumped from her plane at 15,2000 ft in the Phoebe Fairgrave Flying Circus.
Because of her flying acrobatics, she landed a movie deal performing aerial stunts in the film serial The Perils of Pauline. This was the first time she flew with pilot Vernon Omlie, who she would later marry. Together they went on a barnstorming tour, performing aerial tricks across the country.
Along with being a stuntwoman, Omlie was also a skilled pilot and mechanic. In 1925, she and Vernon Omlie moved to Memphis, TN. When they established the first airport in the Mid-South, they offered both flying lessons and mechanical services to the local residents.
In 1927, the Civil Aeronautics Administration (the predecessor to the FAA) started to require aircraft mechanics to be licensed. That same year, Phoebe Omlie got her aircraft mechanic’s license– making her the first woman to do so. She was also the first woman to receive a transport pilot’s license.
As a skilled air racer, Omlie also won a number of races. These include the First National Women’s Air Derby in 1929 and the Transcontinental Handicap Sweepstakes in 1931.
In 1932, she was invited by Eleanor Roosevelt to fly around the country for FDR’s presidential campaign. Once he was elected president, FDR appointed Omlie as the “Special Adviser for Air Intelligence to the National Advisory for Aeronautics” (the predecessor of NASA). This made her the first woman appointed to a federal aviation position.
In 1936, her husband was killed in a plane crash when their commercial flight attempted to land in foggy conditions. Although she left government when this happened, she returned in 1941 when she accepted a job as “Senior Private Flying Specialist of the Civil Aeronautics Authority.” During this time, she established 66 flight schools in 46 states. One of these flight schools was in Tuskegee, Alabama and is where the Tuskegee Airmen trained.
As aviation regulations became ever increasing, Omlie decided to leave aviation in 1952. After pursuing many other business ventures, Omlie died of lung cancer in 1975. In 1982, an air traffic control tower was dedicated to Phoebe Omlie at the Memphis International Airport.
If, like Phoebe Omlie, you want to become a licensed aircraft maintenance technician, NCI can help you get your career off the ground. Join the legacy of Charles Taylor and Phoebe Omlie and contact NCI today!