In October 1947, pilot Betty Pettitt moved to Indianapolis and joined a staff (for automobile maker Kaiser-Frazer) that included an unusual co-worker: a skywriter who handled the company’s airborne advertising. Skywriting was once expected to prevail as the prime advertising method of the future, only to drop into a steep decline when a new technology, television, provided a reliable method of reaching mass numbers of consumers without having to rely on the whims of weather. But for a few decades, skywriting was a very popular method of advertising and provided excellent employment for skilled pilots.
As luck would have it, Betty’s skywriting co-worker soon opted for a salesman’s position, leaving her as his obvious replacement. Something as complex as creating huge letters high in the sky would surely require extensive training. It wasn’t, after all, the same concept as writing letters by hand, as Betty explained: “When you remember that you are writing so someone below can read it, you find it is just like writing backwards on a steamy window so someone outside can read it…. It’s all done backwards and upside down.”
To learn the intricacies, she went up with the retiring skywriter for one session, during which he demonstrated the process. That was it: one time up and she was on her own. “I practiced making little crisscrosses and lining up letters,” she said, before taking to the air as the firm’s official skywriter. At least she was already familiar with the aircraft: it was the same model she had tested as a WASP pilot, an AT-6 that had been modified for the job.
Besides the unique flying skills required, there were technicalities that came into play. It was necessary to touch base with weathermen for the wind speed at 10,000 feet, the usual letter-writing level where breezes of less than 15 miles an hour were optimal. “It shouldn’t be too dry, either,” she noted, “because the smoke is dissipated. Sometimes a small change in altitude makes all the difference in the world.”
After obtaining weather information, she tested the air by emitting a burst of smoke, which, if it remained intact, meant it was time to write. If the burst was dispersed by the wind, she flew 500 feet higher or lower and tried again until something worked.
The first message she wrote two miles above Indianapolis was the company’s name, Kaiser-Frazer. Since the letters were created between the plane and the ground, she used the backdrop of field hedgerows and roads as guides for positioning. “It wasn’t that way over Lexington, Kentucky, where I wrote the name of a political candidate once,” she said. But no matter what the situation was, she proved capable and efficient, adding, “I’m always thinking two letters ahead in order to save time.” When she finished penning the lengthy name Kaiser-Frazier across the sky above Indianapolis, she was approximately a dozen miles from her starting point.
Certain letters were more difficult than others, said Betty, especially O and B. Crossing a T called for flying 50 feet from the pattern so that her tailwind wouldn’t disrupt the letters already created. But natural dissipation of a message was beyond anyone’s control, raising the question of why skywriting was so popular among advertisers despite its ephemeral quality: most of the lettering usually scattered in the wind within 10 or 15 minutes. But the public loved it, and viewers couldn’t stop talking about it.
Betty’s expertise was featured in a 1949 newspaper story describing her unusual job. The novelty of it all — skywriting, a woman employed as a pilot, and a female secretary/skywriter — caught the attention of Associated Press outlets across the country. Headlines like “Air Steno Writes Her Letters In Sky” (in the Joplin Globe, Missouri) and “Stenographer Writes Her Letters Mile Wide and 10,000 Feet in Sky” (the Sunday Press, Binghamton, New York) were accompanied by photographs of Betty and her plane. Besides the unexpected attention, she was aware that the story might well prove inspirational to women and young girls, perhaps nudging them towards a life in aviation.
That was, after all, her focus. She loved flying and promoted it constantly. Even as she became the nation’s most famous skywriter, Betty was active in the Civil Air Patrol, served as secretary/treasurer of the Indiana WASP chapter, and on weekends flew to other cities or to visit family in New Jersey. To further encourage potential future pilots, she and three other WASPs, with the blessing of the Indianapolis Girl Scouts, formed a troop of Wing Scouts, an idea that was becoming increasingly popular. The response at Indianapolis was excellent: 60 Senior Girl Scouts joined at the first meeting. Through their WASP instructors, they studied aviation history, learned the intricacies of flying an aircraft, and built scale models to understand how planes were constructed.
High on Betty’s list of importance was membership in the national women pilots’ organization known as the 99s, which she had joined three years earlier. The group was formed back in 1929 when all 117 female pilots in America were invited to a meeting. When the decision was reached to formally organize, a fairly well-known flier in her own right — Amelia Earhart — suggested naming themselves after the number present who agreed to join: 99.
The 99s, still going strong today, partitioned the country into sections, each containing chapters that were urged to contribute to the monthly Ninety-Nines Newsletter, keeping everyone current on happenings elsewhere. Besides her other responsibilities, Betty was a dedicated member of the Indiana Chapter in the North Central Section and wrote articles for the newsletter, which reported on fundraisers, airmarking, lectures, other appearances, flights, and members’ life events. The chapters frequently interacted and supported each other’s activities, creating a strong sense of community.
Betty was also a mover and shaker in other branches of aviation as well. Despite the gender identification of both 99ers and WASPs as female, she had earned the reputation as a darned good pilot who was interested in and dedicated to all facets of flying. In 1951, as operations officer, she was the only woman on the state staff that reactivated the Evansville branch of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). By 1952, as a CAP lieutenant colonel, she served as coordinator of all women’s activities.
Another opportunity came Betty’s way after losing her skywriting job in the early 1950s for an unexpected reason: the plane was sold to the government for use in the Korean War. She was soon employed by and became a close friend of Colonel Clarence “Cap” Cornish, a legend in Indiana’s aviation history. He began flying in 1917 at age 19, and 78 years later, at age 97, he was cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the planet’s oldest active pilot.
Cornish was the first director of the Aeronautics Commission of Indiana, and in those early years, Betty was his right-hand woman. As chief of special services, she edited the commission’s newsletter, Aero-Notes, piloted the state airplane, and handled many other duties related to flying. Aero-Notes, emphasizing flight safety, reached 4,000 members of the aviation field and addressed every subject imaginable related to flying, including pieces titled Aircraft Maintenance, Accident Review, Civil Air Regulations, and Activities of Flying Farmers and Local Flying Clubs.
Betty’s energy level was never in doubt. While handling such a wide range of responsibilities, she flew regularly and took an active role in countless events. A typical example was the June 1952 meeting of the 99s’ Indiana Chapter, which she helped arrange as a joint event with the Flying Farmers, the Civil Air Patrol, and the Indiana Aeronautics Commission, who together held the second annual Kiddie Air Lift. Despite threatening weather, 68 pilots took to the air, providing rides to 751 children, many of whom became instant fans of aviation. Betty was among the five members of the 99s to pilot the kiddies aloft.
Shortly after that event, she appeared with Colonel Cornish on WFBM-TV in Indianapolis to promote flying and describe their work in support of citizens joining the ranks of aviators. Six months later, the Indianapolis Aero Club awarded its first annual Dee Nicholas Trophy to Betty, honoring her as “the year’s most outstanding pilot.”
Her recent television appearance and winning the trophy were significant events in a series of unusual, connected occurrences that began back in March 1951, when popular and well-known pilot Deletha “Dee” Nicholas was found dead in the garage by her husband, Ted. After an investigation, her passing was ruled self-inflicted: she had been seriously ill and attempted suicide several times, said her husband. She had closed the garage door and left the car running until it ran out of gas, causing death by carbon monoxide poisoning.
To honor and remember her, the local flying club created the Dee Nicholas trophy in 1952, and awarded the first one to Betty Pettitt in January 1953. Backtrack to July: 14 months had passed since Dee’s death when Betty appeared on WFBM-TV, where Dee’s widowed husband Ted (also a pilot) was an account executive. Fast-forward to March 1953, when it was announced that Betty and Ted were engaged. They married that year and took a trip to England, France, and Spain before settling down in Indianapolis.
Next week, part 3: profound changes in her personal life, and fighting for the rights of women military pilots.
Photos: headlines, Syracuse Post-Standard (1949); manual, Vintage Girl Scout Online Museum; home page, Indiana Chapter of the 99s; on far right, Betty Pettitt of Aeronautics Commission of Indiana, welcoming air racers at Terre Haute (Terre Haute Tribune, 1952); the Dee Nicholas Trophy (Indianapolis Aero Club)