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Female pilot joins in race around U.S.

“The future of women in aviation is what they want to make it,” Phoebe Omlie told reporters.

It was April 1941, and Phoebe was holding an impromptu news conference in the Medford Hotel dining room. Phoebe was an aviation pioneer. She had earned the right to carry passengers in her airplanes after receiving her commercial pilot license in 1927 — the first woman to do so.

This was her second visit to Medford, and the first time she had arrived as a passenger. Her United Airlines Mainliner touched down on a runway and an airport she had never seen before.

In July 1928, 25-year-old Phoebe was the only woman participating in The National Air Tour, competing for the Edsel Ford Reliability Trophy and $12,000 to the race winner. Sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, the tour intended to show the average person that flying was safe and nothing to be afraid of.

Phoebe was the first of 28 competitors to take off from Michigan’s Ford Airport June 30. The remaining fliers left at one-minute intervals, on a carefully timed, 6,300-mile flight over the Southwestern states, up the West Coast, and a return to Detroit along the northern border of the U.S.

Several thousand spectators were at Medford’s Newell Barber Field July 16, 1928, to watch the 22 remaining aviators land. Phoebe, flying the Model-T of airplanes, a Monocoupe, was last on the ground and, when on her way toward Portland, would also be last to take off.

Newell Barber Field, Medford’s first airport, was dedicated in 1920 to a former Medford High School student who died while flying during the First World War. A large marble marker, placed last year in front of today’s Rogue Credit Union South Branch, marks the approximate end of that field’s dirt and gravel runway.

The old airport was not popular with the aerial visitors in 1928. They said it was too small and too rough for this many modern airplanes to use. Experienced aviator George Halderman, who had “hopped” the Atlantic the previous year, called it “the smallest the tour has visited,” and added, “I hope Medford will someday have a larger field.”

His message was heard. Official dedication of the new $120,000 airport, at its current location in north Medford, came Aug. 4, 1930, with the arrival of a 40-airplane fly-in by aviators of the Pacific Northwest Air Tour.

Now, in 1941, Phoebe took an afternoon walk around the new airport to personally compare it with the one she remembered.

“This is wonderful,” she said. “Medford’s airport is a valuable cog in the chain of airports throughout the nation, and is a haven to pilots after flying over these mountains.”

That evening, she re-boarded the refueled Mainliner and flew on.

Phobe Omlie, aviation record setter, wing walker, parachute jumper, airport manager and so much more, never returned to the Rogue Valley. She died in 1975 and was buried near her home in Memphis, Tennessee.

For the curious History Snoopers out there, Phoebe finished that 1928 race in 24th place — just ahead of two other male pilots.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,”a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com or WilliamMMiller.com