Lady Aviators in the Men’s Club: On Keith O'Brien's ‘Fly Girls’

Surmayi Khatana
Aug 7, 2018 · 4 min read

O’Brien tells the untold story of five women who dared compete against the men in the high-stakes air races of the 1920s and ’30s.


Keith O’Brien
Nonfiction | 352 Pages | 6” x 9” | Reviewed: PDF ARC
978–1–328–87664–5 | First Edition | $28.00
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | Boston | BUY HERE


It is not easy to spread wings of metal or wood and soar across the sky when one is weighed down by societal pressures, but the five women in O’Brien’s Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History did it magnificently.

“These were no ‘sweethearts,’ no ‘ladybirds.’ If the women
aviators had to have a name, they were fly girls — a term used in the 1920s to describe female pilots and, more broadly, young women who refused to live by the old rules, appearing bold and almost dangerous as a result. As one newspaper put it in the mid-1920s, ‘The people are exhorted to swat the fly, but it is safer to keep your hands off the fly girl.’”

Fly Girls, set in a time period when the initial waves of feminism were churning, touches heavily upon feminist ideals. The stories of these five women; their struggles, beliefs, and determination, are pertinent and relevant even in today’s scenarios of modern women’s rights and the ongoing battle for the sexes to be treated as equals. This crisply written book talks about the harsh reality of making one’s dream come true and all the “turbulences” that come in the flight of life. Each of the characters in the book is facing her own demons apart from the looming monster of sexism that is constantly clouding her path.

O’Brien begins with an introduction on the growth of the aviation industry, highlighting the lack of reliable systems and safety measures in the early years. He brings out the metamorphosis of the industry from occupational hazards into the famous races across land and oceans. Featured are the stories of five women from varied backgrounds who, although they were competitors amongst themselves, united against the common opposition of men dominating the field of aviation.

The book is divided into three parts, each more engaging than the last, telling the tales of these five women. The story of Louise McPhetridge starts us off — a rebel from the beginning, with her looks complementing her personality. Contrasting McPhetridge is Ruth Nichols, an obedient daughter who breaks away from the path charted out by her parents and decides to fly instead. Amelia Earhart follows, coming from a broken home with incomplete college education and a pilot license. The fourth is Louise Thaden, a mother selling coal in Wichita, Kansas, and the fifth is Florence Klingensmith, a fearless and impressive woman with a lot of skill. The characters develop and grow over the course of the book, and all of them face different challenges on their paths to glory.

The story proceeds like a roller coaster, at some points leaving the reader on the edge of her seat to find out what happens. The structured manner of the writing and organization of the material make it easy to follow, and the sentences are placed with acuity. Accompanied with amazing use of imagery, this book is hard to put down.

“‘Holds a sky pilot’s license?’ It was a question, not a statement. On an application filled with lies, this detail about flying was by far the most unbelievable. And it was true.”

Although this above quote comes from the chapter about Amelia Earhart, it stands true for all of the females in the book to an extent. They all came from a time when aviation was exclusively a male occupation, so the fact that they could indeed fly came as a surprise to many. O’Brien brings this struggle to light in a way that will make readers physically smile with the joy and pride these women felt as they overcame their obstacles.

“She would be, she said, in the rustling of the leaves on the trees and the lazy drift of the clouds across the sky. She would be in the whispers on the wind, in the great blue horizon, and in the falling rain.”

This book ends like a perfect landing, taking its place in readers’ hearts just like the women at its core took their place in history.

SURMAYI KHATANA has a short-story collection, Cadence, and a blog, and is a former Star Student Reporter for the Times of India. She is presently President of her school Editorial Board. Her work has been published in Pilcrow and Dagger Magazine, and she has been awarded Best Poet in the Chandigarh Literature Festival.

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

Surmayi Khatana

Written by

A writer trying to pen down words made out of ink from sunset colours. An author with a short story book to her name and a blog.

The Coil

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

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