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Corvette evangelist, aerobatic pilot Betty Skelton dies at 85

Fri, 09 Sep 2011

Betty Skelton, former acrobatic airplane pilot, Chevrolet Corvette test driver and daredevil speed racer, died at the age of 85 on Aug. 31.

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 records.

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 passion.

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.

By Michelle Koueiter