Betty Skelton, a daredevil pilot who was a three-time national aerobatics champion and became known as the "fastest woman on Earth" when she set speed records in airplanes and automobiles, died Aug. 31 at her home in The Villages, Fla. She was 85.
She had cancer, said Dorothy S. Cochrane, a friend and the curator of general aviation at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
Ms. Skelton, who made her first solo flight — illegally — at age 12, went on to become a pioneering and charismatic pilot in the days of propellers and open cockpits. She gave her first aerobatics performance when she was 19, appearing in the same show in Jacksonville, Fla., in which the Navy's precision flight team, the Blue Angels, made its debut in 1946.
In her brightly painted Pitts Special biplane, the Little Stinker, Ms. Skelton performed awe-inspiring feats of airborne daring. She was the first woman to attempt the "inverted ribbon cut," in which she would fly upside down only 10 feet off the ground, slicing a ribbon with her propeller.
The first time Ms. Skelton attempted the stunt, Cochrane said, her engine died. She calmly righted her plane and landed on the wheels. She then started it up and went back into the air.
"She enjoyed challenges, she enjoyed speed, she enjoyed technology," Cochrane said.