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Dictionary : National Air Races

Louise Thaden being congratulated for her first-place finish in the 1929 Women’s Air Derby, an event at the National Air Races.

The National Air Races

The National Air Races were a series of air races and other aerial events that took place mainly during the 1930s and 1940s, although national air races were held on a smaller scale as early as 1920. The event began in 1920 when New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer sponsored an air race on Long Island in an effort to promote aviation. Air events were added during the decade and the venue for the races moved around the country until 1929, when the expanded event was first held in Cleveland, where it remained through 1949, except for two years when it took place in California. The races, which became one of the premier international air events, became known as the Cleveland National Air Races. They featured the aviation greats of the era, including Charles Lindbergh, Roscoe Turner, Jackie Cochran, Jimmie Doolittle, Wylie Post, Doug Davis, and many others.

Initially the races ran for a 10-day period at the end of September. During the Depression, the races were scaled back to the Labor Day weekend. During World War II they were temporarily suspended. The races took place at Hopkins Airport (Cleveland Municipal Airport), which had opened in the mid-1920s and which featured permanent grandstands where the thousands of spectators could view the races.

The races included a variety of events, including cross-country races that ended in Cleveland, landing contests, glider demonstrations, airship flights, and parachute-jumping contests. One of the most popular events was the Thompson Race, a closed-course race where aviators raced their planes around pylons. In 1929 Cleveland was the venue for the first Women’s Air Derby, nicknamed the “Powder Puff Derby,” that featured well-known female pilots such as Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, Bobbi Trout, and Louise Thaden.

When the races resumed after World War II, they featured surplus military planes that greatly outclassed the planes that had been used before the war, and the records that were set demonstrated their increased capabilities. Capt. Cook Cleland, a native of Cleveland, became the outstanding competitor of this period and the person to beat. Pilot Bill Odam was in pursuit of Cleland in 1949 when he lost control of his aircraft and crashed into a nearby home, killing a mother and her son. The races ended after this tragedy.

The annual event resumed in 1964 as the Cleveland National Air Show. It takes place each Labor Day weekend.