Betty Skelton Frankman Erde
1926 - 2011
First Lady of Aerobatics; Aviation and Automotive Pioneer
Inducted in 2010
Betty June Skelton, the only child of David and Myrtle Skelton, was born in Pensacola, Florida on June 28, 1926. An independent child, she played with model airplanes instead of dolls. Later she devoted her playtime to sitting on the back steps of her home watching Navy cadets from the nearby Naval Air Station flying overhead executing maneuvers in bi-planes. Finally, at the age of nine, she convinced her parents she wanted to become a Navy flyer.
Betty’s father, a railroad conductor, shared her interest in flying, and the three Skeltons began visiting the airport every spare moment. A young Navy Ensign began teaching the entire family to fly. Betty was the last to solo. She was twelve years old..
During World War II the Skelton family was active in the Civil Air Patrol. The young pilot legally soloed on her sixteenth birthday. One day after high school graduation, she joined Eastern Air Lines where she worked the graveyard shift, leaving daylight hours for building up her flight hours. At eighteen she became a commercial flight instructor teaching war veterans how to fly on the GI Bill of Rights. Sea-plane and multi-engine ratings followed, plus a new career in aerobatic flying and establishing world records.
Betty became a champion professional aerobatic aviatrix headlining major air shows in the forties and fifties, including the famous Cleveland Air Races and Miami Air Maneuvers. First she flew a 1929 Great Lakes biplane, then the second Pitts Special ever constructed. Her expertise resulted in the Pitts airplane becoming internationally famous. The tiny aircraft went with her onboard the original Queen Mary in 1949 to represent the United States in the International Air Pageant in London, England and the RAF Air Show in Belfast, Ireland. During this era in aviation history, women pilots were not accepted by airlines or the military services. Betty was too young for the WASPS, the civilian women ferry pilots during the war.
The aviatrix also participated in all major air shows in the nation for years, did test pilot work, and flew thousands of miles each year to nearly every state in the union. She flew special experimental demonstrations for Beechcraft Aviation Company in their T-34 Mentor to the Air Force. She became Director of Personnel at Garner Aviation Corporation located at Bartow Air Base in Florida where Air Force cadets were trained. After becoming the first and only woman to cut ribbons flying upside down ten feet above the ground, Betty had explored almost all of the challenging opportunities available to a woman at that time in the world of aviation.
Bill France, NASCAR Found and flier, personally invited her to participate in his 1954 Speedweek events on the sands of Daytona Beach. Always interested in new challenges, she quickly accepted. With no previous experience driving an automobile in competitive events, she “put the pedal to the medal” driving a Dodge sedan there, and established a new class record.
Betty’s beach record led her to joining the Dodge Division of Chrysler Corporation where she became the first woman test driver in the auto industry. Her love for the Corvette caused her to later switch to Chevrolet in Detroit, Michigan and to become a member of Chevy’s advertising agency. She became an official spokesperson for Chevrolet in television commercials and network appearances. She was Chevy’s first lady technical narrator in major auto shows. She set records across the South American Andes mountain ranges and from New York to Los Angeles. She became the fastest woman on earth driving a jet car on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to over 315 miles an hour.