Neta Snook

Neta Snook Southern (1896-1991), pioneer aviatrix, moved to Ames with her parents while in her teens.  She graduated from Ames High School in 1915, and after attending a girls' finishing school, attended Iowa State College.  Neta's love of flying stemmed from her father's love of automobiles.  Reading about balloons and airplanes in the college library, she became convinced she wanted to fly.  After attending flying schools, Neta became a pilot, and is believed to be the first licensed woman pilot in Iowa.  During the first World War, she worked for the British Air Ministry in Elmira, New York.  After the war she brought a wrecked Canadian “Canuck” plane to her home at 828 Wilson Avenue, rebuilt it and took passengers on flights over the town.  She also barnstormed the country,  taught students to fly, and did aerial advertising.  She later shipped her plane to California and became a licensed flight instructor, with Amelia Earhart her most famous student.  For two years she operated a commercial flying field in California.  Neta retired to a California ranch, sometimes finding time to tour the lecture circuit speaking on her aviation experiences. (Farwell T. Brown Photographic Archive)

The campus roads were gravel.  The Main Street of Ames was the only paved street.  That pavement was unusual in that the paving blocks were made of wood.  Oak trees had been sawed in foot-long chunks.  These were split into blocks about eight inches square and set in the street close together with the cross grain facing up.  Sand scattered on top filled the crakcs.  The whole was periodically given a coat of preservative oil.  A streetcar track ran down the middle of Main Street and out to the college campus -- about two miles.

From an early age, Neta's father had let Neta sit on his lap and help him steer his Stanley Steamer up and down the hills of their small Illinois town. As she grew older, he had taught her the inner workings of cars.  Neta now took more than the required load of Home Economics courses so that she could choose courses that I really wanted -- mechanical drawing, combustion engines, and a course in the repair, maintenance and overhaul of farm tractors.

When not in class, I spent much of my time at the college library.  There, I read all about balloons and learned of the daring feats of young Tom Baldwin.... I also read about heavier-than-air craft -- planes that used mechanical power.  Now I really wanted to learn to fly.  Without telling her parents, she applied for admission to the one aviation school in the country (in Newport News, Virginia).  She received notice, however, that no females were allowed.  Early in 1917 Neta happened to see a notice in a Des Moines newspaper for a new flying school in Davenport, Iowa.  It read, Davenport Flying School -- competent instructors -- superb equipment.  We guarantee to teach anybody to learn to fly for only $400.

Neta enrolled in the Davenport (Iowa) Flying School located in an abandoned warehouse on the riverfront.  There was no superb equipment, so the students first had to build the aeroplane, which they constructed of wooden spars covered with linen.  The students covered the linen with seven coats of fabric sealer before spliced crisscross steel cables tightened by turnbuckles held everything together.  This 1917 photo shows the aviation school students who came from Missouri, Texas, Wisconsin, Illinois, California and West Australia in addition to Iowa.  As I was the only girl, the boys insisted I sit front row center.  Neta's first flight was July 21, 1917.

Flight training in Davenport ended suddenly when the plane was ruined by a crash.  By that time Neta had only logged 100 minutes of flying time.   Since that wasn't enough to secure a license to fly, she travelled to Newport News, Virginia, to attend the Glenn Curtiss Flying School.  Although first turned away because of her gender, this time she was admitted.  The Curtiss flying instructors were Carl Batts and Eddie Stinson.

In December of 1917 an order from the U.S. Government closed the Curtiss Flying School because of the the possiblity of wartime spies, so Neta followed Glenn Curtis to his relocated training center in Miami, Florida.  Just before Neta was to perform solo to receive her instructor's license, another order from the government stated, All civilian flying in the United States prohibited for the duration of the war.

Neta returned to Ames until July of 1918 when she was offered a New York position by the British Air Ministry to expedite U.S. air related shipments bound for Britain.

Neta Snook had been in aviation for three years, but still hadn't received her pilot's license because of air crashes and govenment proclamations.  The government issued her a license restricted to pleasure and training flights and not for carrying passengers. I ignored it, as did my pilot friends, and erased the first "n" in "none" and carried passengers until I sold my plane.


Neta purchased a wrecked Canuck, a Canadian version of the U.S. JN-4 Jenny, and had it shipped to her parents home in Ames.  She returned to enroll again at Iowa State College and rebuilt the plane in her spare time.  On the reverse of this photo is the inscription, The piano box where our old hens roost and our little new house where the others stay.  Dankel's barn and their chicken house with the door open.  This photo was taken behind the Wm. F. Snook home at 828 Wilson in Ames, Iowa, just a few blocks from downtown. People came to see it and asked, "How will you get it out of this small yard?  Can you fly straight up?  Which is the front end?"

By the spring of 1920 the plane was ready to fly.  I removed the wings, loaded them on a truck, hooked the fuselage behind, and took the plane to a pasture which adjoined the Iowa State College campus.  After assembling it, I made my first solo flight. That summer I carried passengers and barnstormed through the middle states.  I charged $15 for a passenger flight, and tried to give each one fifteen minutes in the air.  If there were many waiting, I could cut the time in half without complaints.  All were happy to return to the ground safely and be able to say they had been up in an aeroplane.

Neta wanted an official license as a qualified pilot in the International Federation.  I contacted the Aero Club of America and they in turn contacted the Federation Aeronautique Internationale....They appointed three prominent business men of Ames, Iowa to observe my test and fill out the necessary papers.  The tests were simple -- figure eights around mythical pylons in both directions and a dead stick landing within a specified circle.  Finally it came -- that little blue book with my photo and license number.  It was three years late, but "better late than never."

 In the fall of 1920, Neta dismantled her plane and shipped it to California where she became a licensed flight instructor.  Iowa's ice and snow had made flying impossible. 

When she moved to California in 1920, Neta became the first woman to run a commercial airfield, Kinner Field in Los Angeles, which included business for passenger carrying, aerial advertising and flight instruction.

In 1921, Amelia Earhart, along with her father, walked onto the California airfield and asked Neta, "I want to fly. Will you teach me?" The agreement between Amelia and her parents had been that only a woman pilot could teach her.  For $1 in Liberty bonds per minute in the air, Neta Snook taught Amelia Earhart to fly, and they became good friends. 

The wingspan was only 17 feet.  It was like a leaf in the air and was very tricky to fly.  After Amelia bought Kinner's Airster, I had to teach her to fly all over again.  The airster didn't have the stability of my Canuck.  It was short on power and couldn't be banked as steeply as the Canuck; landings were harder because they were faster, and a slight cross wind could end in a ground loop.  It was not a plane for a beginner.  In the picture Amelia is wearing my leather coat.  Later she purchased one of her own.

One day we flew Amelia's airster to the Goodyear Field about six miles from Kinner Field, to visit with the blimp crew and to admire Donald Douglas' huge "Cloudster" which he was testing.  On takeoff to return to Kinner, the Airster wasn't gaining altitude fast enough to clear a grove of eucalyptus trees at the end of the runway.  To nose down for more flying speed meant slamming into those trees, and to pull up meant a stall.  Amelia pulled up -- I would have done the same -- and the plane hit the ground.  The propeller was broken and the landing gear damaged.  This was Amelia's first crash, and when I turned to see if she was hurt, she was powdering her nose.

Neta Snook gave up flying at the time of her marriage to William Southern in 1921 and the subsequent birth of her son, William Curtiss Southern.  A man offered me a house and lot in Manhattan Beach plus a $500 Liberty bond for my old Canuck, with the provision that I teach him to fly.  In August of 1922 I stepped out of my plane and have never been in one since.    The family remained in California where Neta raised miniature horses, among other things, at her ranch.  Neta Snook Southern died on March 23, 1991 at the age of 95.  One year later she was inducted into the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame.  Neta's leather flight suit, some personal items and a small replica Canuck with "Miss Neta Snook" painted on the sides were donataed to the Science Museum Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, OK.

Photographs courtesy of Karsten Smedal