Marvel Crosson, born in 1904, was the sister to one of Alaska’s pioneer aviators, Joe Crosson. Marvel was thirteen years old when she first saw the amazing flying machine at the Logan County Fair at Sterling, Colorado. She and Joe were swept off their feet and excitedly exclaimed that they wanted to grow up to be aviators!
Marvel with her brother, Joe Crosson, who shared her passion for flight. Photo: Tordoff
And they did just that! She and her brother jointly purchased their first plane, a dismantled N-9, the Navy version of the commonly flown JN4 “Jenny” WWI Trainer. They rebuilt and restored the plane, purchased a military surplus Curtis OX-5 motor and in 1922 the plane was up and running at the Dutch Flat Flying Fields in San Diego. Joe quickly earned his pilots license and turned the controls over to Marvel and taught her to fly. Marvel already had a bit of a head start in learning from the pilots and mechanics in the field. “They had answered her questions honestly, treating her with a degree of camaraderie. But when they found out she was actually learning to fly, they began to treat her differently. Marvel put it: ‘Those good fellows never forgot that I was a girl. There was a shade of condescension in their palship—they acted as though it were a pleasant thing for a girl to be interested in flying…I could feel the sex line drawn against me, in spite of the fact that they were splendid fellows and pals of Joe’s.’” (Tordoff 20-22). Joe never treated his sister any less. In fact, while she was flying, he crawled out onto the wing while Marvel was behind the controls! This proved to the others that she could fly with the best of them!
Marvel logged many hours of flying in Alaska and earned her commercial pilot license after taking a check-ride with aviator Ben Eilson, a first for women pilots in Alaska. Photo: Tordoff
Joe went to Alaska in 1927 but meanwhile Marvel continued to fly and establish herself in San Diego as an accomplished aviator. “The San Diego newspaper described Marvel as ‘so steeped in aviation that she carries you into the clouds the moment you speak with her’” (Tordorff, 73). She ultimately joined Joe in Alaska in the fall of 1927 and began flying for Cann’s Photography Studio of Fairbanks taking aerial photographs. Marvel quickly became a fixture at Rickert’s Field. She flew with the other pilots and her flights between 1927 and 1928 were the first flown by a female pilot in Alaska. Ben Eielson, the Department of Commerce check pilot, signed her commercial pilots license, another first for women in Alaska. Her flying skills had broadened from her time in Alaska; carrying passengers, flying at temperatures of forty below zero, delivering cargo to mining camps, and keeping the aircraft functional in extreme cold and while mounted on skis.
Photo: International Women’s Air and Space Museum
Marvel being interviewed by reporters following the record setting flight on May 28, 1929. Photo: Tordoff
Marvel had gained national attention, the press nicknaming her “Bird Girl” and “Pollyanna of the North” among many others, and she was able to find sponsors eager to fund her flying goals. She was sponsored by Union Oil Company. They provided her with a brand new 300-horse power Ryan Brougham cabin monoplane for her to attempt at breaking the altitude record. On May 28th, Marvel climbed in the cockpit of the plane determined to set a new record. “Slowly and methodically the Ryan climbed…At 22,000 feet the outside temperature registered minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and despite the heated cabin, the unofficial barograph froze. Fortunately the sealed official unit continued to operate accurately. She should barely read the official instrument through the viewing window, but by the time she thought it read 24,000 feet and the outside temperature reached minus 15 degrees, Marvel decided to head back down. Even with supplemental oxygen she had started to become lightheaded and was worried she might lose control of the plane.” (Tordoff, 94-95). Marvel had been in the air two and half hours by the time she had come in to land. When the official barograph was unsealed and read in Washington, D.C. it was announced that Marvel had officially set a new altitude record at 23,996 feet–breaking the previous record set by Louise Thaden at 20,270 feet. The New York Mid-Week Pictorial then dubbed her the “New Star of the Clouds”!
The First Women’s Air Derby was scheduled for August 1929, dubbed the Powder Puff Derby. It featured twenty of the most qualified women pilots in the world, all competing for the $15,000 prize. Other contenders included Amelia Earhart, Bobbie Trout, Ruth Elder, Florence “Poncho” Barnes, and Louise Thaden but Marvel was the youngest at 25 and considered the most experienced. Walter Beech offered Marvel a new open-cockpit Travel Air Speedwing Chaparral to fly in the race that she gladly accepted. The race was to begin at Santa Monica Municipal Airport on Sunday August 18, 1929. Competitors would race from point to point on eight consecutive days, totaling 2,800 miles-with refueling and rest stops in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. They were scheduled to arrive in Cleveland, Ohio in front of the amassing crowds at the start of the National Air Races on August 26th. Each pilot was to fly alone, pick their flight path across the deserts and the long stretches of the Midwest relying on their own ability to navigate the course.
Marvel made it to San Bernardino in good time, however reported problems with her engine. A new engine was sent but never installed. On the next leg, the motor had developed troubles again. Other pilots encouraged her to withdraw, but Marvel, not one to give up, remained in the race. She took off again on August 19 but never made it to the next check point. Searchers discovered the site of the crash in a ravine. Her Travel Air was found, nose down, four of the seven cylinders were torn from the motor and her body found in her released parachute. Rumors flew about sabotage, several other pilots reported incidents of sand in fuel tanks and wires dissolved in acid, but nothing was ever confirmed. Her family and other racers were devastated by the event. While a dark cloud hovered over the race with the loss of Marvel, the race did continue on.
Marvel’s legacy lives on in Alaskan aviation history. She was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame in 2009 along with Irene Ryan and Ruth Jefford.
My father just informed me that she is my cousin ! I am so excited to hear about such an amazing woman – I am amazed at what she accomplished as a woman in the 1920s – it’s truly inspiring – but there are so many questions now and not all of them feel fuzzy.