When she was 10 years old, Betty Skelton asked her parents for flying lessons. She flew solo in a plane for the first time when she was 12 and received her pilot’s license when she was 16. In 1946, when she was 20, she embarked on a career performing in aerobatics shows because women were not allowed in commercial aviation. As an aerobatics performer, Skelton was a three-time women’s international aerobatics champion and she broke two altitude world records. One of her most infamous feats was completing the “inverted ribbon cut,” where a pilot flies a plane upside down 12 feet above the ground to cut a ribbon hanging between two poles. She was the first woman to pull off the stunt.
In the 1950s, Skelton began her second career as a race car driver after meeting the founder of NASCAR. She was the first female test driver and the first female Indy race car driver. She set multiple speed records, including four women’s land speed records and a transcontinental speed record in 1956, when she drove from New York to Los Angeles in less than 57 hours. For her successful career in racing, Skelton was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.
Betty Skelton holds more combined aircraft and automotive records than anyone – female or male. Her groundbreaking careers opened doors for women in both fields and earned her the nickname “First Lady of Firsts.” In 1959, she was allowed to train with the Mercury 7 astronauts at the behest of Look magazine, who did a cover story on her entitled, “Should a Girl Be First in Space?” After retiring from aerobatics and racing, Skelton also had careers in advertising and real estate. She died of cancer in 2011 at age 85.