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Multiple photos of Neta Snook with an airplane or preparing to fly an airplane
April 17, 2024

Ames High Alum Aimed For The Skies

Ames High alums often seek new heights following their time at AHS. Some quite literally find new heights, such as Neta Snook, a pioneer aviator, one of 59 graduates from the Ames High class of 1915.

After spending two years at Iowa State College, Snook found herself in eastern Iowa. According to a June 6, 1917, copy of the Davenport Democrat and Leader (Quad-City Times since 1974), Snook was one of 14 students at Davenport’s Aviation School; she was the only woman. 

Snook was the first woman to graduate from the Curtiss School of Aviation in Newport News, Virginia, where she “never went up as a passenger but made flights alone from the start,” per the Evening Times-Republican (Marshalltown) on July 1, 1918.

During World War I, Snook was employed by the Air Ministry (United Kingdom) as an inspector of parts for the Royal Air Force. Following the war, the British government awarded her a certificate of merit.

After spending a year performing exhibitions of flight and instructional work, Snook bought a junked Canuck, a Canadian version of a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny (a biplane), and had it shipped to Ames. She fixed it up and gave flights to people in Ames before flying her talents west to California.

In December 1920, Snook was approached by someone and their father on the runway. 

“I’m Amelia Earhart, and this is my father. I want to fly, will you teach me?”

She taught Amelia her first 10 hours of flight instruction; the first day and the first lesson occurred on January 3, 1921. Neta charged Amelia $1 in Liberty Bonds for each minute in the air. 

A June 1928 copy of the Des Moines Tribune shares, “Mrs. Southern (Snook) recalled today how Miss Earhart, unable to persuade her father to buy her a plane, pawned her fur coat, jewels, and other clothing to acquire a three cylinder machine in Los Angeles in 1921.”

Earhart and Snook became close friends and even went on double dates. Snook also taught her how to drive.

“I have $20, let’s go rent a car. I want you to teach me how to drive.” Neta recalled her saying in a 1975 Palo Alto, California newspaper. “I (Neta) had only driven a few blocks when she (Amelia) said ‘I’ll drive now.’ We did a lot of cranking that day, but Amelia learned how to drive the tin lizzy (Ford Model T) and loved it.”

Before hanging up her aviation helmet in August 1922, Snook flew 15,000 feet over Santa Monica, the first woman to attempt an altitude record on the coast. Additionally, she scared deer down mountains to aid hunters.

Neta married a rancher, William Southern, in Los Gatos in 1925. On June 22, 1935, an Ames Tribune article shared her current occupation was flight adjacent, as she was a breeder of rare birds.

Following Earhart’s disappearance around July 2, 1937, Southern was quoted by the Riverside (California) Daily Press 24 days after her protégé’s disappearance: “She was alive, so practical and competent. I can’t and won’t believe she’s lost until they find the remnants of her plane, and not even then.” 

In Southern’s book I Taught Amelia to Fly, from 1974, her opinion of the matter shifted to “Since the islands in the vicinity of the Howland were occupied by the Japanese, it is reasonable to assume she was taken prisoner. As to the possibility that she might still be alive – I can only hope.”

She remained on her ranch until she died in 1991, raising miniature horses and other animals.