In 1928 she gained recognition as a competitive flier when she became the first pilot to hold the women's altitude, endurance, and speed records in light planes simultaneously. In 1929 she captured first place in the first annual Women's Air Derby, flown from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio. Employed in 1930 as public relations director of Pittsburgh Aviation Industries and director of the Women's Division of the Penn School of Aeronautics, she did much to help popularize aviation while continuing to establish new flying records. In 1935, fellow female aviator Phoebe Omlie asked Thaden to join the National Air Marking Program as a field representative.
Flying a Beech Staggerwing, Thaden won the Bendix trophy in the Bendix Transcontinental Race of 1936, the first year women were allowed to compete against men. Later that year, she was awarded the Women's Harmon Trophy, an international award given to the outstanding female aviator of the year.
“The public was skeptical of airplanes and air travel. We women of the Derby were out to prove that flying was safe: to sell aviation to the layman.”
—Louise Thaden, winner of the Women’s National Air Derby