Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2438
PHOEBE OMLIE AND HER MONOCOUPE

by John H. Lienhard

Today, Phoebe Omlie's airplane. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I didn't recognize the 1926 Velie Monocoupe airplane when I read about it, but it looked familiar. You see, the shape of every plane I ever modeled in balsa and tissue is indelibly stamped on my mind. Each one invariably brings childhood back in a rush.

It turns out I had modeled a later plane, the Luscombe Phantom, designed by the Monocoupe's creator, Don Luscombe. Both were light two-person, high-winged monoplanes with tails shaped a bit like MacDonald's Golden Arches. Both had short noses and radial engines. Each reminded me of a robin with its pretty plump body.

The idea of building light planes for a large market was just catching on in the mid-twenties, and the Monocoupe was an early contender. Back then, people rather hoped that private planes would one day replace cars. In fact, Velie built automobiles before he built airplanes. The name Monocoupe suggests its kinship to a two-seat roadster. It went through many models. By 1929, it accounted for ten percent of planes registered in the US.

The Monocoupe came to my attention when I read Amelia Earhart's book, The Fun of It -- all about early flying. In a chapter on other early women pilots, she talks about Phoebe Omlie, the first woman with a commercial pilot's license.

Omlie had taken up flying in 1920, when she was eighteen. She and her husband began as barnstormers. She flew, parachuted -- did wing-walking. She set a women's high altitude record. The Omlies set up a flying school in Memphis. And they helped bring flying into the American mainstream. They did rescue, medical supply, spotting, and other emergency work during floods and forest fires. They pioneered the work of crop dusting. And, when Omlie got her hands on a Monocoupe, that's the airplane she stayed with.

Earhart and Omlie competed in an important 1929 race: the first Women's Air Derby -- an eight-day run from Santa Monica to Cleveland. It was flown in legs, like the Tour de France bicycle race. In a time before we had organized systems of airports, each flyer had to do her own navigating on the way to the next stopover.

Louise Thaden won the race, but Phoebe Omlie won in the light-plane category. She named her Monocoupe, Miss Moline, since Velie made the planes in Moline, Indiana. Earhart didn't place; but, afterward, she created the Ninety-Nines -- a women pilot's organization that still thrives. Alas, Will Rogers was an observer and he noticed each pilot powdering her nose before she flew. It was he who hung the name Powder Puff Derby on this demanding race.

Franklin Roosevelt better understood the dynamics of the event. He engaged Omlie to be his personal pilot during his 1932 campaign for the presidency. So Pheobe Omlie's sturdy little Velie Monocoupe was grandmother to today's presidential jet. It appears that she defined the face of campaigning, just as surely as she helped shape the role of the airplane in all of American life.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


A. Earhart, The fun of It: Random Records of My Own flying and of Women in Aviation. (New York: Brewer, Warren & Putnam, 1932): See esp., pp. 175-177,

These pages give biographical information about Omlie and describe her participation in the Women's Air Derby, respectively.

For three excellent photos of the Velie Monocoupe see this one at The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, this one at The Golden Age Air Museum, or this photo by Keith Folkerts.


Velie Monocoupe
A model airplane version of the Velie Monocoupe. Click on the image above to see a larger image of this portion of the free downloadable plans provided by the AeroFred Company.

Luscombe <em>Phantom</em>
As of 2008, Pietsch Aircraft was offering this lovely rebuilt Luscombe Phantom for sale at a price of $225,000.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.