A decade-long effort to produce a documentary on the first women’s national air derby taught Heather Taylor a powerful lesson: Following your dreams isn’t always easy.
In fact, she parallels the struggles she had in bringing “Breaking Through the Clouds” to the silver screen to the struggles the 20 women who flew in the first air derby in 1929 faced.
“The women in the derby certainly had many obstacles to overcome to prove that women could fly and I had more challenges than I can list in trying to produce this film,” said Taylor. But realizing your dream is possible, she adds, “if you can find a way, keep trying, and surround yourself with good people who believe in the cause. The women in the derby did this and I relied on this.”
The saga began in 1997 when Taylor, who was working towards a master’s degree in film producing, was looking for a great story to tell. “Growing up in east Tennessee, I knew Evelyn ‘Mama Bird’ Johnson, who is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most number of hours flown by a female pilot. Her airport was just down the road from where my brother, who is a pilot, lived at the time. I went to interview her and, while she was talking, she mentioned the 1929 women’s air race. It’s like a click went off inside my head as I had never heard of this story and wondered why not. After all, I grew up in a family of pilots and hung out at airports, so I should have run across it.”
For the next 10 years, Taylor tried to sell the idea to her employer, Discovery Communications, or partner with other producers to help finance the film. At the same time she began the research for the film.
In 1929, the National Exchange Club sponsored the first women’s race, dubbed the “Powder Puff Derby” by Will Rogers, from Santa Monica to Cleveland, a nine-day race that ended just as the Cleveland Air Races took off. The race, which offered $25,000 in prize money, attracted 20 of the most famous women pilots of the day, including Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, Louise Thaden, Phoebe Omlie, Bobbi Trout, Ruth Elder, and Blanche Noyes.
The two-hour DVD takes us from the planning of the derby to the climatic finish — with Louise Thaden taking top prize — and all the struggles the women faced during the race, including mechanical issues, dealing with the press and crowds, and even sabotage.
The story is told through interviews with modern-day aviators, including Patty Wagstaff and Julie Clark, as well as relatives of the women pilots. But what makes the documentary come alive is the liberal use of original film footage from the race. We get to see the planes take off, the women being interviewed at the end of the race — often before they could leave their planes — and the “paparazzi” of the day clamoring for photos and asking the women to repeat their answers. The women graciously pose for photos and repeat answers, obviously aware of how important the race was to the image of women pilots.
What shines through the original footage is the true camaraderie the women felt as they came together for the race. Taylor also shows how the women banded together to fight some of the race promoters’ requests, such as requiring them to stop at an airport that didn’t have a long enough runway.
So where did she find that footage? That’s a question she is asked a lot, she said.
“When one researches a project for 13 years, you follow one lead, then another, then another and pray for great finds,” she said. “Word of mouth helped a lot, as well as earning people’s trust, letting them know I was planning a positive story to honor these women — no expose or sensationalism.
“The research was probably my favorite part of the entire process because it was like treasure hunting,” she continued. “Of course there were some disappointments too, like finding a listing for footage from the race only to learn that the film had disintegrated and was no longer available. That was heart-breaking.”
Also heart-wrenching was the quest to get the story told. When she couldn’t convince her employers to produce the documentary, she left her job three years ago and struck out on her own, focusing full-time on the project.
“I didn’t think getting it financed would be too hard as I had several preliminary corporate sponsors lined up,” she said. But three months after she left the security of her job, “the financial markets fell and all my potential funders fell through. I was fortunate to get a private investor to loan me funding for the film’s cost, which is a significant amount, especially since I insisted on the highest quality.”
All those funds went into the film. With no paycheck, Taylor has been living on her savings and the generosity of her family.
But it was all worth it when she premiered the film June 26 at the end of this year’s women’s air race in Frederick, Maryland. “Ironically, the film was scheduled to show at Hood College, my alma mater, on the 20th anniversary of my graduation. I didn’t have anything to do with picking when and were the film was shown, so it was just synchronicity that it all came together like it did.”
Taylor thought she had prepared herself for every eventuality if something went wrong during the premiere. What she didn’t count on was the sold-out crowd giving her a four-minute standing ovation.
“I was in the back of the auditorium with my brother and frozen because I didn’t know what to do,” she recalled. “I hadn’t planned on how to react if everything went right! I had people coming to me with tears in their eyes, women pilots hugging me, telling me I captured what they had just been through, people who knew nothing about flying or aviation amazed that such an event went on.”
Since then, the film has had a number of showings, including at AirVenture in Oshkosh, and the National Aviation Hall of Fame’s Reel Stuff Film Festival in Dayton, Ohio, as well as at air shows, Ninety-Nines chapter meetings, and a showing at the Beechcraft Heritage Museum in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
“Next year promises to be even busier,” Taylor said.
The National Exchange Club, which sponsored the 1929 race, is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2011 and has asked Taylor to be part of those celebrations. She also will give a presentation at the Women in Aviation conference in February in Reno, “to show how the women in 1929 are role models for women today regarding working together, even when in competition with one another,” she said.
Several other events are in the works and additional requests are pouring in, she added. “I’m eager to share these women’s stories as it is one of courage, unity, and passion, among other things, and provides excellent role models for people today.”
In fact, the women of the 1929 air race were excellent role models for her.
“I wondered what gave the women the spark they needed to follow a dream,” she said. “I wanted to find that spark for something in my own life, so the motivation was in many ways personal. I also thought about others searching for their own spark and knew I wasn’t alone in this journey,” she said. “If I could harness that light in the women’s eyes and show it, somehow, as an example to others, it would, perhaps, give them permission and the courage to follow that thing they feel they need to do, no matter how illogical it may seem to others.”
So what’s next for the filmmaker? First the practical: “Besides getting the film and story out there, I need to try and recover some costs since I need to repay the investor and I need an income,” she said. “Word is starting to spread, so I hope to continue and promote the film for the next year, entering it into film festivals.”
She also has “lots of ideas” for her next project, including a companion piece to “Breaking Through The Clouds,” with short vignettes on many of the women in the race and what they did for aviation after the derby.
“Many of these women went on to have amazing aviation careers and added significantly to the aviation field,” she said. “For example, Phoebe Omlie was one of the pilots for FDR during his 1932 and 1936 presidential campaigns and was named one of the top 13 women in the U.S. by Eleanor Roosevelt. Unfortunately, financing will determine if I can produce this piece and several others I have in mind.”
While challenges still exist — she is struggling to find network distribution in an age of reality TV such as “Jersey Shore” and “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” — she’s hopeful that those who do see the documentary will walk away with new-found respect for the women racers, as well as inspiration to achieve their own dreams.
“I also hope people will open their eyes and be receptive to the amazing stories of history and especially what women did,” she said. “I want people to realize there were some fantastic pilots in addition to Amelia Earhart and get people familiar with their names. I also believe people need role models to know what can be done. I can’t tell you how many pilots, such as aerobatic pilot CC Gerner, have come up to me and said they knew nothing of what these women did but they wish they had known when entering aviation. It would have made a difference to know they weren’t alone. Young girls and women need to know there’s nothing they can’t do — but it’s just as important that young boys and men realize this as well.”
The DVD is available for $30 at BreakingThroughTheClouds.com.