Neta Snook: Determined to Fly

Iowa’s Pioneers of the Air

Early airplanes were crude and often unreliable. Flying was dangerous, but many saw the air as a new American frontier. These pioneers of the air were willing to take the chance. Out of their adventures and inventions the science of aviation was born.

The earliest flyers needed good mechanical as well as piloting skills, because if anything went wrong with the airplane the pilot was the one who had to fix it.

It wasn't easy for Neta Snook to become a pioneer of the air, but this Iowan didn't let anything stand in her way. With a positive attitude and an adventuresome spirit, Neta reached her goals to explore an American frontier.

From the time she had watched the balloonists at the county fair, Neta Snook had wanted to fly. In 1915 at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) Neta studied mechanical drawing, combustion engines and the repair, maintenance and overhaul of farm tractors. When she learned about the Curtiss flying school at Newport News, Virginia, she applied for admission but was not accepted.

When she read of the Davenport Flying School at Davenport, Iowa, she went there as soon as her college year ended in June 1917. Neta paid $400 and joined the other students, all men. She helped build the aeroplane that was to be the trainer. By doing this, the students learned how the plane operated and how to repair it. Tragedy ended the school at Davenport. The training plane was destroyed in a crash and the instructor badly injured. The school closed.

Neta applied to the Curtiss school in Virginia again. This time she was accepted. But World War I cut short her final training. The government prohibited civilian flying and the Curtiss school was closed.

During the war Neta worked in Canada for the British Air Ministry, supervising production of airplane parts and engines. After the war Neta bought a wrecked Canadian training plane called a "Canuck." She had it shipped to Ames and rebuilt it in her parents' backyard.

Neta made her first solo flight in her Canuck, and in that summer of 1920 she traveled about the Midwest as a barnstormer. When winter came Neta took her plane apart and shipped it in a railroad boxcar to Los Angeles, where the climate was better for year-round flying.

In Los Angeles Neta worked test-flying airplanes, carrying passengers and performing aerial advertising. She also taught flying. Among her students was a woman named Amelia Earhart. The woman who was to become one of the most well-known fliers of her time became Neta Snook's student and good friend.

Neta did her work well and her abilities as a flyer and mechanic were recognized by others in aviation. When Donald Douglas designed and built a new cargo plane with folding wings, he asked Neta to set up and supervise the wing department.

In 1921 Neta married and eventually quit flying. There were not many women working in aviation at the time Neta Snook learned to fly, but in the five years that she flew her skill and ability earned the respect of other aviators. She helped prepare the way for other women who would choose to fly.


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney Ed., “Iowa’s Pioneers of the Air,” The Goldfinch 2, no. 1 (September 1980): 6-10.