“When the human heart has once decided that it wants to fly, there is nothing on earth that can possibly make up for that desire.” – Opal Giberson Kunz, 1929

Opal Logan Giberson was born on November 6, 1894. After her parents passed away when she was around 12 years old, she was adopted by her aunt and uncle, Ed and Margaret Giberson. By the early 1900s, Opal’s family had relocated to New York and eventually settled in Tarrytown, NY. 

In the Fall of 1913, Opal arrived in Wellesley, MA to attend Dana Hall. She was involved in the Glee Club, and is listed as a Class of 1914 graduate. She continued her education at Pine Manor, a junior college founded by Helen Temple Cooke (Dana Hall Principal 1899-1932, Head of Dana Hall Schools 1932-1951), and graduated with the Class of 1915. After graduation, Opal moved to New York for a time before returning to Dana Hall as the housemother for Selfe House during the 1921-1922 school year.

Opal Giberson (front row, second from left), Glee Club group photo, Dana Hall School, circa 1914. Dana Hall Archives.

Her early adult life coincided with the beginning of World War I and throughout this period Opal involved herself with community and social service work. She focused much of her attention on supporting war efforts and participated in war bond campaigns, passport applications and expanding her understanding of social economics. Opal also continued to foster her interest in music and kept a permanent residence at the Three Arts Club in New York City, a clubhouse for young female artists prominent in the 1920s and 1930s, until her marriage in 1923. 

Opal Logan Kunz, circa 1920s. National Air and Space Museum Archives, Ninety-Nines, Inc. History Books Collection.

Opal married Dr. George Frederick Kunz on May 15, 1923 in Tarrytown, NY. Almost 40 years her senior, Dr. Kunz was a respected and leading mineralogist and gemologist, who also served as Tiffany & Co.’s Vice President from 1879 until his death in 1932. He made many contributions to the field including the publication of over 300 articles and many books, the discovery of a new gem variety named “Kunzite” in his honor, and the assembly of multiple museum collections. Their engagement and wedding announcements were reported in the society pages of the New York Times. Their marriage was annulled six years later in 1929, but Opal continued to live with Dr. Kunz and manage his household for the remainder of his life. In a 1930 New York Times article reporting their annulment, Opal is quoted as saying, “We are very good friends and expect to remain so for a long, long time- the rest of our lives, I hope.” 

In the 1920s Opal discovered a new interest that would become a lasting passion: aviation. She was one of the first women to receive flight training at the Newark Airport in Newark, New Jersey and received her pilot’s license in June 1929. She crashed her first plane two weeks later, suffering no injuries, and her second plane was christened “Betsy Ross” by Mrs. Mina Miller Edison (the wife of Thomas Edison). Opal was an advocate for the involvement of women in aviation and was a founding member of the Ninety-Nine Club, a national organization of women fliers. She served as acting president throughout the organization’s founding in 1929 and until 1931, when Amelia Earhart was elected the first official president. 

Opal had a strong belief in emergency preparedness and felt it was “the duty of every American woman who can pass the physical tests to learn how to fly” (“Mrs. Kunz In Crash Piloting Her Plane”). She continued her advocacy efforts successfully lobbying for the creation of a women’s air reserve and helped establish and fund the Betsy Ross Corps in 1932. Members of this paramilitary service were expected to serve as non-combatant pilots, flying ambulance or transport planes, during times of national emergency. Opal served as the Corps’ first commander and although it was never formally recognized by the U.S. military, Opal grew the service to include approximately 100 members before it disbanded in 1933. 

Opal Giberson (second from left, seated on the plane’s wing) with four fellow fliers (Manilla Davis seated in the cockpit of plane named Betsy Ross I), circa 1920s. National Air and Space Museum Archives, Manilla Davis Talley Scrapbook.

In addition to her more serious aviation efforts, Opal spent much of her free time flying. She often flew herself when traveling to her summer home, visiting friends in Pennsylvania or when attending aviation events. She also participated and placed in many air derbies. In August 1929 and only two months after she had received her pilot’s license, Opal competed in the Women’s Air Derby, the first women-only air competition held in the United States. Twenty women pilots raced from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio over nine days and Opal finished 9th. Opal wrote about her experience in the January 1929 Dana Hall Association Quarterly and explained that she went through five planes over the course of the race before finally arriving in Cleveland. She reflected, “In all fairness, that while we all did our best, and succeeded in coming through to the finish, our work did not really compare with the air work of men” (Giberson Kunz 7). She went on to win the Legion’s Aerial Derby in June 1930, beating three men aviators, and the Free-For-All Race of the American Legion in September 1930, among others. 

Opal Giberson Kunz, date unknown. Findagrave.com.

As World War II broke out, Opal saw the urgent need for pilots and used her expertise to begin formally training pilots. She first worked at Arkansas State College with student pilots and then moved to Rhode Island State Airport in 1942, where she trained navy cadets as part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

She spent much of her life working to ensure women pilots became as respected, skilled and useful as men in the larger aviation field. After moving to California, she herself continued with a career in aviation and worked as an inspector at the Aerojet-General Corporation plant near Sacramento, California until her retirement. Her interest in flight was renewed once again in the early 1960s after learning of the Russian astronaut Major Yuri A. Gagarin’s trip to space. Opal volunteered her services and flight expertise in a 1961 letter to President John F. Kennedy, “I’d be glad to ride in any contraption offered by my government to outdo this record in flight of the Russian.” Although Opal was not called upon during the Space Race, President Kennedy’s special assistant responded to her letter and thanked her for her offer.

Opal died in 1967 at the age of 73 in Auburn, California. Opal is remembered for making substantial changes in the field of aviation by creating space for women aviators to pursue their passion in flying.

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