Betty Skelton, former acrobatic airplane pilot, Chevrolet Corvette
test driver and daredevil speed racer, died at the age of 85 on Aug.
Skelton established a concrete precedent for women's roles in
aviation, aerobatic performance and auto racing. She also maintained
a successful career in advertising while setting multiple land-speed
Skelton was born in Pensacola, Fla., where she was fascinated with
airplanes from an early age. As some children took to dolls, she took
to gawking at planes and learning everything she could about them from
pilots at the municipal airport. Her parents were quite supportive.
Skelton made her first solo flight at the age of 12, held a commercial
pilot's license by age 18 and became a certified flight instructor
that year. Eventually, she got into stunt performance and evolved
into a full-out aerobatic pilot, performing in aviation shows across
the country. Her most impressive stunt is said to have been cutting a
ribbon tied between two poles with her propeller, while flying upside
down at 10 feet above the ground.
Skelton held the U.S. Female Aerobatics Championship title from 1948
to 1950. In 1949, she set a world altitude record flying at 25,763
feet, then broke her own record two years later at 29,050 feet. She
retired from aerobatic flying in 1953 and was piloting charter
flights when she met NASCAR's Bill France Sr.
In 1954, France invited Skelton to drive a pace car in Daytona Beach,
where she also took a Dodge sedan past 105 mph on the sand, setting a
women's record for stock-car speed. Racing became Skelton's second
In 1956, Skelton joined General Motors' advertising partner,
Campbell-Ewald, and became the first woman technical narrator at
major auto shows. She soon began test-driving Corvettes. During her
time at Campbell-Ewald, Skelton helped launch the magazine Corvette
News (later called Corvette Quarterly). She was promoted to vice
president of the Women's Market and Advertising department in 1969.
Skelton was the first woman to drive an Indy car. Her land-speed
records stretched from the sands of Daytona Beach to the Bonneville
Salt Flats of Utah. She set a transcontinental speed record in 1956
from New York to Los Angeles, in which she covered 2,913 miles in 56
hours and 58 minutes.
In 2001, Skelton was inducted into the National Corvette Museum's
Corvette Hall of Fame for her role as a test driver, car-show
technical narrator and one of the founders of Corvette News. She also
is a member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame and the National Aviation
Hall of Fame.