Born in Bentonville, Louise McPhetridge Thaden had a passion for aviation from a young age. She was raised on a family farm, but a plane ride with a barnstormer in her youth cemented her desire to fly.
She attended the University of Arkansas to pursue a degree in journalism and physical education but never graduated. She took a job in sales in Kansas and spent much time around the airplane factory. Later, she was given a job as an office manager in California where pilot’s lessons were included. She earned her pilot’s license in 1928. Not long after, she became the first and only pilot to simultaneously hold the women’s records for speed, altitude and solo endurance. She competed and won against Amelia Earhart and others in the first all-women’s transcontinental race, the National Women’s Air Derby in 1929.
She and Earhart formed the Ninety-Nines, an advocacy group for women pilots. In 1930, she opened a flight school for women at the Penn School of Aviation in Pittsburgh and raised scholarship money for its first 12 students.
With the help of Frances Marsalis, she set a refueling endurance record of 196 hours — more than eight days aloft — over Long Island, New York in 1932, which included 78 air-to-air refueling maneuvers where food, water, oil and fuel were passed down from another aircraft. This gained national attention, and she made a series of live radio broadcasts from the plane.
In 1936, she and her co-pilot became the first women to win the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race from New York to Los Angeles. Due to mechanical errors and weather, they didn’t know they’d won the race and were confused by the swarm of people around their aircraft. She beat Earhart and the fastest male pilot in America.
She won the Harmon Trophy in 1937, the highest honor given to a female pilot. She retired in 1938 to spend more time with her two children, Bill and Pat, and to write her memoir, High, Wide and Frightened. In 1951, the airport at Bentonville was renamed Louise M. Thaden Field in her honor. In 1976, Governor David Pryor declared Aug. 22 to be Louise M. Thaden Day. She was posthumously inducted into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame in 1999.
In the fall of 2017, Thaden School, a new independent school in Northwest Arkansas and named in her honor, opened with grades 7 and 9 and will grow incrementally over the next few years to serve students in grades 6 through 12. Her pioneering and innovative spirit – at once regional and global in its orientation – will inspire efforts to create a school that gives students roots and wings, enabling them to build strong foundations and reach new heights as they pursue their dreams and make their futures.