A Tale of Courage: a Woman, a Documentary, and an Air Race

by Lane Wallace on July 10, 2010

Risk and adventure come in all kinds of shades and flavors. We tend to think of activities involving physical risk as requiring the most courage. But financial and professional risk can be equally scary. As one entrepreneur friend of mine once put it … “failure in a business is a death you have to live with.” So I’m not sure who, in the end, had more courage: the subjects of a brand-new documentary about the first women’s transcontinental air race … or the woman who made the film.

Breaking Through the CloudsThe film is called Breaking Through the Clouds, and it tells the story—or, rather, the many stories—behind the 1929 transcontinental women’s air race (dubbed the “Powder Puff Derby”) that put many female pilots’ names on the national map. Contestants included Pancho Barnes, Amelia Earhart, Lousie Thaden and Bobbi Trout, as well as 16 others. They came from a wide range of backgrounds, and had all kinds of different motivations for entering the race. But air racing is, by its nature, an uncertain adventure, and all of the women would certainly fit the “No Map. No Guide. No Limits.” motto. Especially because they were taking on the challenge of flying a cross-country race at a time when women just didn’t DO that sort of thing. And that goes for both flying and racing.

Without question, all the women in that race had courage, gumption and guts. But consider, also, the woman who made the film about them. Heather Taylor was a college film student looking for a good story when she went to interview a famous woman pilot in her native Tennessee—a woman by the name of Evelyn Bryan Johnson, who was born in 1909 and has logged more than 57,000 flight hours. Johnson mentioned the 1929 race during the interview, and Taylor was captivated at the idea of young women in that era taking on such a culturally challenging as well as physically challenging feat.

“It wasn’t so much that they flew across the country that got me,” Taylor said. “It was what they had to overcome in order to do that. Which included overcoming themselves. They knew what they wanted, and they went for it, and didn’t let anything stop them. That was inspiring to me.”

Following in their footsteps, Taylor decided she wanted to make a documentary to tell the story of those extraordinary women. She went to work for Discovery Communications after graduation and worked on her air race project part-time while gaining experience and credits at her day job. And then, three years ago, she decided that to finish the film, she really needed to make it her sole focus. So she quit her job, borrowed “well over $100,000,” and lived on savings while she set about finishing the film.

When I asked her if there was a particularly dark night where she wondered if she’d make it through, she laughed. “All the time!” she said. There was the time she discovered that one of the original air racers was still alive and sent her a letter asking for an interview—only to discover that the woman had died the same week that she’d sent the letter. She quit her job in 2007, just before the economy imploded. So the financing and sponsorship she thought she’d be able to get never materialized. “Ken Burns is having trouble getting financing, now,” she told me. Just as the composer was finishing the film’s soundtrack, the Nashville floods hit. The hits and bad breaks were many.

“So many times, I just wondered, ‘is the world trying to tell me something? Or do I just need to persevere?’” she recalled with a bit of a wry laugh. And she still doesn’t have a clear answer to that question.

Breaking Through the Clouds premiered at the final banquet of this year’s Air Race Classic—the women’s air race that evolved or descended from that original one. When the film credits rolled at the end, the women gave her a five-minute standing ovation. Her film is going to be shown at the EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh at the end of the month (July 27th, 9:30 am, at the EAA Air Museum auditorium), and at the College Park Aviation Museum in Maryland on August 14th (at 11 am and 1 pm). She has other potential showings and a possible television airing in the works, and she’s selling DVDs of the film on her website: www.breakingthroughtheclouds.com.

But paying back a six-figure loan through DVD sales is a tough road. And taking on that kind of financial obligation—not to mention quitting your job and living on savings—is a huge, huge risk. What is she going to do if it doesn’t work out?

Taylor sighed, laughing a little at the question. “Well, I guess it will be a life lesson,” she said. “But I’ve met so many interesting people and learned so much, that it will have been worth it. I’ve reached people with this film, and that’s important.”

Taylor paused for a moment before continuing, even though I know, from having made that same kind of call myself, that she’d asked and answered this question for herself many, many times already. “It’s like the women in that race,” she said. “I had a calling to do this. I saw the glimmer in those women’s eyes that came from finding something they wanted to do and then going and doing it. And I wanted to use that glimmer to inspire other people to follow their dreams. To find that path that makes you come alive.”

At the very least, Taylor now has a really high-quality product that shows what she’s capable of as a filmmaker, which may make it easier for her to get financing for future projects. But I wish her far more success than that. The world needs stories that remind us of how important that glimmer of life in our eyes is. And this one, by all accounts, is one well worth watching.

As for the question of who had more courage—Taylor, or the women whose stories she chronicled—I’m not sure it matters. They all took risks for the sake of something they loved, or believed was important. Of course, I doubt any filmmaker will borrow a hundred grand to tell Taylor’s story, because working on a documentary is not nearly as sexy as flying a biplane across the country. But the courage it requires is not so very different. And the impact it can have is every bit as great.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Laura Smith 08.10.10 at 2:39 am

I met Heather at Oshkosh and bought the DVD. I watched it last night and it is FANTASTIC!!!!!!!!!! It is wonderful to have a documentary available now that tells about the inspirational event that led to the founding of The Ninety-Nines. Heather, thank you so much for all of your work and for your courage in taking on such a grand undertaking.

Lane, thank you for promoting Heather’s wonderful production. Your work is also quite wonderful!

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