The Miracle of Witchita
The coal peddlers west of town, on the banks of the Arkansas River, took note of the new saleswoman from the moment she appeared outside the plate-glass window. It was hard not to notice Louise McPhetridge.
She was young, tall, and slender, with distinct features that made her memorable if not beautiful. She had a tangle of brown hair, high cheekbones, deep blue eyes, thin lips programmed to smirk, and surprising height for a woman. At five foot eight and a quarter inches ?— ?
she took pride in that quarter inch ?— ?McPhetridge was usually the tallest woman in the room and sometimes taller than the cowboys, drifters, cattlemen, and businessmen she passed on the sidewalks of Wichita, Kansas.
But it wasn’t just how she looked that made her remarkable to the men selling coal near the river; it was the way she talked. McPhetridge was educated. She’d had a couple years of college and spoke with perfect grammar. Perhaps more notable, she had a warm Southern accent, a hint that she wasn’t from around Wichita. She was born in Arkansas, two hundred and fifty miles east, raised in tiny Bentonville, and different from most women in at least one other way: Louise was boyish. That’s how her mother put it. Her daughter, she told others, “was a follower of boyish pursuits” ?— ?and that wasn’t meant as a compliment. It was, for the McPhetridges, cruel irony.
Louise’s parents, Roy and Edna, had wanted a boy from the beginning. They prayed on it, making clear their desires before the Lord, and they believed their faith would be rewarded. “Somehow,” her mother said, “we were sure our prayers would be answered.” The McPhetridges had even chosen a boy’s name for the baby. And then they got Louise.
Edna could doll her daughter up in white dresses as much as she wanted; Louise would inevitably find a way to slip into pants or overalls and scramble outside to get dirty. She rounded up stray dogs. She tinkered with the engine of her father’s car, and sometimes she joined him on his trips selling Mentholatum products across the plains and rural South, work that had finally landed the McPhetridges here in Wichita in the summer of 1925 and placed Louise outside the coal company near the river.
It was a hard time to be a woman looking for work, with men doing almost all the hiring and setting all the standards. Even for menial jobs, like selling toiletries or cleaning houses, employers in Wichita advertised that they wanted “attractive girls” with pleasing personalities and good complexions. “Write, stating age, height, weight and where last employed.” The man who owned the coal company had different standards, however. Jack Turner had come from England around the turn of the century with nothing but a change of clothes and seven dollars in his pocket. He quickly lost the money. But Turner, bookish and bespectacled in round glasses, made it back over time by investing in horses and real estate and the city he came to love. “Wichita,” he said, “is destined to become a metropolis of the plains.”
By 1925, people went to him for just about everything: hay, alfalfa, bricks, stove wood, and advice. While others were still debating the worth of female employees, Turner argued as early as 1922 that workers should be paid what they were worth, no matter their gender. He predicted a future where men and women would be paid equally, based on skill ?— ?where they would demand such a thing, in fact. And with his worldly experience, Turner weighed in on everything from war to politics. But he was known, most of all, for coal. “Everything in Coal,” his advertisements declared. In winter, when the stiff prairie winds howled across the barren landscape, the people of Wichita came to Turner for coal. In summer, they did too. It was never too early to begin stockpiling that vital fuel, he argued. “Coal Is Scarce,” Turner told customers in his ads. “Fill Your Coal Bin Now.”
He hired Louise McPhetridge not long after she arrived in town, and she was thankful for the work. For a while, McPhetridge, just nineteen, was able to stay focused on her job, selling the coal, selling fuel. But by the following summer, her mind was wandering, following Turner out the door, down the street, and into a brick building nearby, just half a block away. The sign outside was impossible to miss. travel air airplane mfg. co., it said. aerial transportation to all points. It was a humble place, squat and small, but the name, Travel Air, was almost magical, and the executive toiling away on the factory floor inside was the most unusual sort.
He was a pilot.
Walter Beech was just thirty-five that summer, but already he was losing his hair. His long, oval face was weathered from too much time spent in an open cockpit, baking in the prairie sun, and his years of hard living in a boarding house on South Water Street were beginning to show. He smoked. He drank. He flew. On weekends, he attended fights and wrestling matches at the Forum downtown. In the smoky crowd, shoulder to shoulder with mechanics and leather workers, there was the aviator Walter Beech, a long way from his native Tennessee but in Kansas for good. “I want to stay in Wichita,” he told people, “if Wichita wants me to stay.”
The reason was strictly professional. In town, there were two airplane factories, and Beech was the exact kind of employee they were looking to hire. He had learned all about engines while flying for the US Army in Texas. If Beech pronounced a plane safe, anyone would fly it. Better still, he’d fly it himself, working with zeal; “untiring zeal,” one colleague said. And thanks to these skills ?— ?a unique combination of flying experience, stunting talent, and personal drive ?— ?Beech had managed to move up to vice president and general manager at Travel Air. He worked not only for Turner but for a man named Clyde Cessna, and Beech’s job was mostly just to fly. He was supposed to sell Travel Air ships by winning races, especially the 1926 Ford Reliability Tour, a twenty-six-hundred-mile contest featuring twenty-five pilots flying to fourteen cities across the Midwest, with all of Wichita watching. “Now ?— ?right now ?— ?is Wichita’s chance,” one newspaper declared on the eve of the race. “Neglected, it will not come again ?— ?forever.”
Beech, flying with a young navigator named Brice “Goldy” Goldsborough, felt a similar urgency. The company had invested $12,000 in the Travel Air plane he was flying, a massive amount, equivalent to roughly $160,000 today. If he failed in the reliability race ?— ?if he lost or, worse, crashed ?— ?he would have to answer to Cessna and Turner, and he knew there were plenty of ways to fail. “A loose nut,” he said, “or a similar seemingly inconsequential thing has lost many a race,” and so he awoke early the day the contest began and went to the airfield in Detroit. Observers would have seen a quiet shadow near the starting line checking every bolt, instrument, and, of course, the engine: a $5,700 contraption, nearly half the price of the expensive plane.
“Don’t save this motor,” the engine man advised Beech before he took off on the first leg of th...