You Fly, Girl

"All those who see me, and all who believe in me, share in the freedom I feel when I fly."

Interview: Tami Lewis Brown

Tami Lewis Brown holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College. She has been a lawyer, and more recently, writer-in-residence and librarian at The Sheridan School in Washington, D.C.

Here Tami Lewis Brown poses with Elinor Smith

Tami Lewis Brown loves to visit with school groups, scout troops, book clubs, or pilot groups. She loves to travel and meet groups in person but that can be expensive and hard to arrange, so she offers free visits by Skype. It's very easy to set up and truly "the next best thing to being there". All you need is a computer with an internet connection. Anyone who'd like to do a Skype visit (or a live one) can contact Tami through her website or by email at

Soar, Elinor has earned several awards. Most recently the Washington Post named the book one of the Best Children's Books of 2010.

How old were you when you learned to fly?

I learned to fly in 1987, training at Epps Flying Service in Atlanta. Since I had to pay for my own flying lessons I was an adult by the time I learned to fly- about 25 when I started. Epps ran a fantastic flying school and at that time, at least, used only Cherokee Warriors for lessons. I have to admit a lot of flight hours passed between my first lessons and first solo flight. Peachtree Dekalb is a very busy airport and my flight instructor wasn't taking any chances! I eventually went on to work on my instrument rating there and in my "other life" as a lawyer I practiced Aviation Law, working on various business and crash cases and helping pilots with licensing and other issues. My experience as a pilot was invaluable.

Your whole family flew.

My father was passionate about flying and my whole family caught the fever from him. He would have loved to have flown in the Air Force or for an airline but life didn't lead him down that path. Instead he became a committed amateur pilot. At one point he owned three planes but a gorgeous Beechcraft Debonair was his favorite. When I remember my father I think of him in the cockpit of his plane. I wrote Soar, Elinor! to honor his memory-- he and Elinor both loved flying more than anything else.

When I was a kid I loved reading biographies of famous women- Eleanor Roosevelt was a big favorite. At one point I found a collection of stories about women pilots and I'll never forget a photograph of Jackie Cochran leaving her plane with her cocker spaniel. Flying with your dog seemed like the absolute height of glamour to me!

You owned your own plane?

I had a nice little Piper Arrow. Unfortunately it had been ground rolled before I got it so it always flew to the left. My husband and I flew every weekend and on lots of vacations but once our children were born there wasn't enough time for the plane and I sold it.

In preparing for your book, you flew loops and spins in a Waco ZPF-7.

I love aerobatics and when my children leave home I plan to take lessons! Epps required all student pilots to take an aerobatics lessons and I was hooked from the moment I strapped on the harness so it’s been a long time love of mine.

I found John Corradi and his Waco ZP-7 in sort of a boring way--I googled Waco and Virginia and he popped up. But this was after a long, long search; contacting pilots all over the country to try to track down an operating Waco and beg for a flight.

John is fantastic- he's a former Air Force and airline pilot and the restoration of his plane is perfect. He flies in a Flying Circus in Bealeton, Virginia. Plus he's just a great friendly guy. My son, who was ten at the time, and I drove to Culpeper to meet him. I wasn't sure how my son would react. He'd never flown in an open cockpit plane before. But he loved it. As soon as John knew we were comfortable the aerobatics began and it was absolutely great. John understood my project--to experience the kind of flying Elinor Smith did--and while we didn't fly under any bridges I did get a clear idea of how tricky and how exciting it is to fly a vintage Waco.

What is your favorite plane to fly?

I've always flown Pipers and I love them. They're reliable and not too hard to fly- just right for someone like me to loves flying but doesn't have a lot of experience.

Air shows are great. I've attended shows all over the country. One of my favorites is at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Rhinebeck, New York. It's all done in period costume.

Probably the most memorable show I attended was at Dobbins Air Force Base in Atlanta. They flew a Stealth Bomber in for the air show. It had just been declassified and seeing it up close--all black angles roaring overhead--was a thrill I'll never forget.

How did you first hear about Elinor Smith?

I wish I could pin point one moment when I knew Elinor Smith's story but I can't. We were a family who relied on the public library so I don't have a big collection of the books I read as a child- they were all checked out and turned back in. I imagine I first read about her in a collection of stories about women pilots or saw a brief mention of her in a flying magazine. I had a copy of Elinor's autobiography Aviatrix which I first read shortly after it was released- that was in 1981. After I began writing for children I wanted to write about passion for flying and saw Aviatrix on my bookshelf. Right away I knew children would love Elinor's story. I also knew the image of Elinor and her Waco would translate into gorgeous illustrations and that's essential for a good picture book.

My parents believed girls shouldn't have any limits, which was a bit radical in the 1960s. I grew up never considering that women weren't meant to fly. I don't remember hearing much about pioneer aviatrixes but the WASPs were my heroes. Ironically I didn't know much specific information about the WASPs until my daughter did a school research project on them. They were brave women who played an important part in our history. I'm thrilled their achievements have finally been recognized.

(Elinor at the banquet where she and Jimmy Doolittle were honored as best pilots. On Elinor's right are Amelia Earhart and G.P Putnam.

It took you a while to decide which part of Elinor’s life story you should tell.

I wrote sections about Elinor's endurance and altitude records. She had a harrowing near crash when the stick got jammed during one of her altitude flights. Space is very limited with a picture book and I always believed a picture book biography was the right format for this story- I was dying to see illustrations of Elinor soaring through the clouds.

You met Elinor Smith in 2008. Who has her papers now? [She passed away in 2010, but not before seeing a copy of Soar, Elinor.

I believe Elinor's grandson inherited most of her papers. He has had them archivally preserved and organized so they're in really good hands. When I researched Elinor's career the Smithsonian archives were wonderfully helpful, providing me with many boxes of newspaper clippings, letters, and other materials about her. She donated many items in the 1970s but they haven't been cataloged. As Elinor becomes more well known I hope the Smithsonian will retrieve her flight suit and other memorabilia from deep storage and make them available for researchers.

Have you read her book Aviatrix?

Aviatrix was my bible through this project. I've probably read it 100 times- I'm not exaggerating. It's full of color coded highlighting and post-it notes. Elinor wrote for a number of magazines during the 1920s and 30s and always considered herself a writer as well as a pilot. She did a fine job on Aviatrix and it was a precious resource for my initial research.

Did Smith share opinions or anecdotes of her fellow pilots?

Actually Elinor didn't harbor bad feelings about Amelia Earhart. She thought Amelia took unreasonable risks and wasn't as well trained as she might have been, but Elinor had tremendous respect for Amelia's marketing ability. Amelia's flare for publicizing her successes and failures was unparalleled. It was G.P. Putnam, Amelia's husband, who Elinor didn't like.

Elinor was in awe of Jimmy Doolittle and I have to admit I'm in awe of him, too. Doolittle "saved" Elinor, escorting her plane to the ground for a tricky emergency night landing during one of her endurance flights. Later, in 1930, Elinor was named Best Woman Pilot and Jimmy Doolittle was Best Man Pilot. There was a big ceremony celbrating both of them. In fact it was reenacted for the Amelia movie that came out in 2009. Being toasted along with Jimmy Doolittle was one of Elinor's fondest memories.

Charles Lindbergh was another hero. When he wished her good luck before her bridge flight Elinor was literally soaring. And when Charles Lindbergh married Anne Morrow, like at least half the teenaged girls in America, Elinor was a little bit heart-broken.

One thing to keep in mind about Elinor and the other well known women pilots of the era is Elinor was just a teenager at the time. In 1928 when Elinor flew under the bridges Amelia Earhart was 31 but Elinor had just turned 17. They wouldn't have had much in common other than flying.

(Elinor resting at home after she set the women's endurance record. She's holding her cat Toby, her flight goggles perched on his head. This photo shows so much personality! I love to show it on school visits because kids see right away that Elinor was just a kid herself when she was setting these amazing records.)

Do you have any plan for future aviation-related books?

I'm working on a year-long project to post a milestone of women's aviation every day at my blog: On the Fly.

I'm researching as I go and uncovering amazing stories literally every single day. I expect at least one new book will come out of these "on this day in women’s aviation history" posts. Just yesterday I discovered that Georgia "Tiny" Broadwick literally invented the rip cord when her parachute lines became tangled in a plane's tail. She cut herself loose, saved her own life, and launched an entirely new way of deploying troops to the ground- by freefall.

Injustice strikes me so often, too. Nancy Love Harkness was an amazingly accomplished woman, director of the WAFS and recipient of an Air Service medal, but in 1942 Life Magazine announced she was one of six women in the public eye with beautiful legs. As far as I could tell it was the only story they ever published on Harkness. Stories like that seem shocking now but these attitudes are an important part of women's history that today's girls need to know and understand.

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