Known as the "godmother" of aviation, Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie was a barnstorming pilot, wing walker and stunt pilot in the 1920s and '30s. In 1925, she moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and began offering flying lessons and mechanical services to local residents.
She became the first woman appointed to a position in federal aviation, special assistant for air intelligence for the forerunner of NASA. She was also the first female to cross the Rocky Mountains in a light aircraft, and was considered by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to be one of "eleven women whose achievements make it safe to say the world is progressing."
Omlie became a senior private flying specialist of the Civil Aeronautics Authority in Washington in 1941, when it was obvious that the U.S. would be involved in the war. During the early part of that year, she traveled 12,000 miles, establishing 66 aviation schools in 46 states. One was in Tuskegee, Alabama, and was the only school to train black pilots.
She returned to Tennessee to begin a model program serving to relieve the anticipated pilot shortage by training women as primary flight instructors for the Army and the Navy.
In June 1982, 60 years after Phoebe landed in Memphis and brought the city into the air age, a new control tower was erected at Memphis International Airport, named in honor of Phoebe and her husband, Vernon Omlie.
At the dedication, the focus was on Phoebe’s achievements: “Her place in the pages of aviation history is unchallenged. A woman of daring, courage, intelligence and devotion to the ‘air age,’ she ranks as one of the greatest participants in American progress.”
A biography of Phoebe, Walking on Air, was written by University of Memphis history professor Janann Sherman.
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