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Women Pioneers in Aviation

Early Pioneers

If we accept the premise that the first machine powered flight by humans occurred on December 17, 1903 with the Wright Brothers, it is appropriate to begin our journey of remembrance with an almost forgotten contributor to that great event-their sister Katherine Wright. In remembering the financial and moral support she provided to them, her brother Wilbur said, "If ever the world thinks of us in connection with aviation, it must remember our sister."

Katherine Wright first flew with her brothers for their demonstration flights in France in 1909. Katherine could have been the inspiration for the Baroness Raymonde de Laroche of France, who was the first woman in the world to solo in 1909 and the first woman in the world to earn her pilot's license in 1910.

After watching some of the early flying exhibitions by the Baroness de Laroche, Bessica Raiche returned to America with her French husband and they began building aircraft in their living room. She is given credit for being the first American woman to solo on September 16, 1910, in one of the aircraft she and her husband built.

Blanche Stuart Scott was technically the first American woman to solo, when a block on her aircraft's throttle jolted out of place and she went airborne on September 2, 1910. She was not credited with being the first American woman to solo, by the Aeronautical Society of America, because the flight was ruled accidental.

Harriett Quimby was the first American woman to earn a pilot's license in 1911, and she was the second woman in the world to do so. She was killed in an aircraft mishap in 1912.

Harriett Quimby's friend Matilde Moissant was the second American woman to earn a pilot's license. She also set several altitude records and was the first person of either gender to land a plane in Mexico City.

Tiny Broadwick began her career parachuting from balloons. She was the first woman to parachute from an airplane. In 1915, she became the first person to demonstrate parachutes to the US Army.

Katherine Stinson was the first woman to fly the mail and the first woman in the world to own a flying school. In 1913 Katherine and her mother created Stinson Aviation Company to rent and sell airplanes. In 1917, Katherine toured the Orient, and was the first woman to fly in Japan or China.

Katherine's younger sister, Marjorie Stinson, was employed by her sister's flying school as their chief instructor.

Ruth Law was the first woman to fly at night in 1913 and the first woman to loop-the-loop. Three years later she broke the world's non-stop cross-country record, for men or women, by flying 590 miles from Chicago, Illinois, to Hornell, New York.

The 1920's and 1930's

These years were characterized by barnstorming and record setting. Most of the records changed hands in quick succession. This is only an attempt to record a few of the highlights, but by no means to fully document the achievements of each woman.

Bessie Coleman was the first African American (either gender) to earn a pilot's license, but she had to travel to France to do so, because none of the American schools would train blacks. She earned her pilot's license in France in 1921, returned to America and took up stunt flying to earn money. She died while test flying her newly delivered aircraft in 1926, the day prior to a flying event scheduled in Florida.

Ruth Nichols in 1931 attempted to be the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, a flight that was aborted by engine failure but netted her a women's altitude record. Later that year she broke Pancho Barnes' speed record. She founded Relief Wings in 1939 to coordinate private aircraft for emergency and disaster relief. Her contribution to winning World War II was in offering the services of Relief Wings to the Civil Air Patrol in 1942.

Lady Mary Bailey of Ireland earned her pilot's license in 1926 and immediately flew the Irish Sea. She became the first woman to qualify for a "blind-flying" certificate (instrument rating). Two years later she left London on a solo flight to Cape Town, South Africa. She returned solo via the west coast of Africa.

Phoebe Omlie was the first woman to earn a transport license in 1927. In 1930 she won the Dixie Derby Air Race, and then in 1931 she won the National Air Races in Cleveland, the first year women were admitted to the race. She went to Washington, DC, as the private flying specialist for the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) to help the country prepare for World War II, where she chose flying schools that could serve as training centers for military flyers. She tried to convince the CAA to use women as flight instructors, but they turned her down. She took her proposal to the Tennessee Bureau of Aeronautics and they accepted it, prompting other states to do so.

In 1928 Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, as a passenger. She gained fame from this, but it was by no means her most significant contribution to aviation. She became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic solo in 1932. In 1935 she became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific from Honolulu to Oakland. Two years later Amelia and her navigator Fred Noonan began their around-the-world flight from Miami eastward. After completing 22,000 miles of their journey, they were last seen on takeoff from Lae, New Guinea, on 02 July 1937. She was truly an inspiration to women, her attitude toward success and failure summed up in the following quote, "Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others."

In 1927 at the age of 16, Elinor Smith was the youngest pilot ever to receive a Federation Aeronautique International (FAI) license, signed by Orville Wright. The next year at age 17 she became the first and only pilot to successfully maneuver a plane under all four New York City bridges, resulting in a 10-day grounding by the Mayor of New York and much publicity. In November 1929, she joined Bobbi Trout in trying for the first inflight refueling endurance record for women, which lasted over 42 hours. At age 19 in 1930, she was voted the Best Woman Pilot in the US, the same year that her hero Jimmy Doolittle was voted Best Male Pilot.

Bobbi Trout earned her pilot's license in 1928. In 1929 she regained the women's endurance record from Elinor Smith, and at the same time gained records for the first all-night flight by a woman, most miles covered by a 60-horsepower engine, and heaviest fuel takeoff to date. With Elinor Smith in November 1929, she established an endurance record of 42 hours and 3.5 minutes, which was also the first refueling endurance record attempted by a women's team. In 1996, she was the first woman to receive the Howard Hughes Memorial Award from the Aero Club of Southern California.

The day after she soloed, Fay Gillis Wells, during a test flight of an experimental airplane, was forced to parachute to safety, making her the first woman member of the Caterpillar Club. She earned her pilot's license in 1929 and was then hired by Curtis Wright to demonstrate and sell their aircraft across America. She combined her love of flying with her love of journalism throughout her long and inspirational career. In 1972, she was one of only three women to accompany President Nixon to China. She also helped create the International Forest of Friendship in Amelia Earhart's birthplace, Atchison, Kansas.

Amy Johnson of England flew her first solo in June 1929. She was the first woman to obtain her ground engineer certificate in January 1930. And, she was the first woman to fly solo from London, England, to Australia in 1930.

In early 1930, Pancho Barnes earned her first world speed record, besting Amelia Earhart's record. In 1931, she and Lavelle Sweeley organized women pilots and medical personnel into the Women's Air Reserve (WAR), to provide aid during national emergencies. The WAR was disbanded in 1941 when opportunities appeared for women to join such organizations as the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).

Anne Morrow Lindbergh was the first American woman to earn a glider pilot's license. She was determined to help her husband Charles on his pioneer routes for the airlines industry. In order to do so, she learned Morse code and earned a radio operator's license. In 1933 she accompanied her husband on a 5-month 30,000 mile survey for Transcontinental Air Transport, through Greenland, Iceland, Russia, England, Spain, Africa and Brazil. During the trip, she established a world record for radio communication between aircraft and ground station when she made contact with Sayville, Long Island, while flying off the coast of West Africa. She was the first woman to be awarded the National Geographic Society's highest award, the Hubbard Gold Medal, for her achievements as copilot and navigator on that trip. Today, Lindbergh is best known as a writer. Her early books are eloquent travelogues of pioneering adventures in the air. Her natural tendency towards quiet introspection and observation came to fruition in literary works that remain among her greatest contributions to aviation.

Edna Gardner Whyte earned her pilot's license in 1931, and her transport license in 1932. She established her own flight school and in 1938 had flown so many hours that she was ranked first in flight hours flown in Look Magazine's list of American women pilots. She was the 10th American woman to obtain her helicopter rating.

Katherine Cheung was the first Asian American woman to earn a pilot's license in 1932. Three years later she obtained an international airline license and flew as a commercial pilot. She flew aerobatics in an open cockpit Fleet and regularly entered competitive air races. She had planned to return to China in 1937 to open a flying school, but a male friend was killed while flying her airplane. Her father, who had been extraordinarily supportive of her flying but was then on his deathbed, secured a promise from Katherine to give up flying.

Nancy Bird Walton of Australia earned her pilot's license in 1933 and her commercial license in March 1935. She was one of the first two women in New South Wales to fly at night and the youngest woman in the British Empire to qualify for a commercial license. In 1949, she formed the Australian Women Pilot's Association.

French pilot Helene Boucher was the holder of the women's world speed record when she crashed and died in rough weather. She summed up her desire to pursue aviation records in the following quote, "It is the only profession where courage pays off and concrete results count for success."

Jean Batten of New Zealand flew solo from England to Australia in 1934, beating Amy Johnson's record by four days. Soon after she flew from Australia to London, becoming the first woman to fly from England to Australia and back. She later became the first woman to fly from England to Argentina.

English pilot Beryl Markham learned to fly in Kenya and planned to be the first pilot to fly nonstop from London to New York City, crossing the Atlantic from east to west in September 1936. She ran out of fuel just off the coast of Nova Scotia and made a safe water landing.

Louise McPhetridge Thaden was winner of the first Women's Air Derby in 1929 and was the only woman to hold three aviation records simultaneously (altitude, endurance, and speed). She and copilot Blanche Noyes became the first female team to win the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race against male competition in 1936.

Blanche Noyes received her pilot's license in April 1929, the first woman in Ohio to do so. In 1935 she joined the Air Marking Division of the Bureau of Air Commerce.

Jessie Woods helped her barnstormer husband create the Flying Aces, the longest-running of the air circuses. Jessie learned to fly in 1929, walked the wing, parachuted, flew as a stunt pilot, performed
gymnastics from a rope ladder, and, at age 81, rode the wing again.

World War II Military and Support

Women participated in the war effort in many ways. Some were military or filled roles that were considered military. And there were many women who weren't military who also provided invaluable support during the war.

In World War I, Helene Dutrieu of France and Princess Eugenie Shakhovskaya of Russia both served as reconnaissance pilots.

The first military woman to fly combat missions did so in Turkey in 1937. Sabiha Gokcen participated in the Thrace and Aegean exercises, and in the same year joined the "Dersim Operation." During the Seyh Riza Rebellion, she facilitated the land operation by bombing Dersim and its surroundings.

In the Soviet Union in World War II, women flew combat missions in three predominately female regiments. The 588th Air Regiment (later the 46th Taman Guards Bomber Regiment) flew night bomber missions in the PO2 biplane. The 587th Bomber Regiment (later the 125th M. M. Raskova Borisov Guards Bomber Regiment) flew bombing missions in the PE2 airplane. The 586th Fighter Regiment flew air defense missions in the YAK-1 aircraft.

Fighter pilot Lily Litvak of the 586th regiment shot down 12 German aircraft and shared the credit for two others. Regiment mate Katya Budanova shot down even more aircraft but the exact number is unknown. They were both killed in action in 1943.

Originally a navigator and a Gold Star Hero of the Soviet Union, Marina Raskova used her influence to propose and gain approval for the formation of the female regiments. She was the first commander of the 587th Bomber Regiment, and she was killed ferrying her aircraft to the front lines. Galina Brok-Beltsova, one of the navigators in Raskova's regiment, attended our conference last year and we anticipate having her attend this year's conference.

Rose Clement served as a Navigator in the US Navy during World War II. These women navigators were the first US military women to be aircrew, to wear wings, and to receive flight pay (half their base pay). They were generally assigned as navigator instructors, in pairs at various bases around the country, after satisfactory completion of celestial navigation training.

In Britain in November 1939, Pauline Gower proposed and was granted permission to form the Women's Section of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which would ferry aircraft from the DeHaviland factory to RAF training bases. She was the first woman to be allowed into, let alone fly, a Royal Air Force plane.

Ann Wood-Kelly was recruited by Jacqueline Cochran to be one of the first 24 American women pilots to serve in the British ATA. She ferried more than 900 planes of 75 different types, mostly the renowned Spitfires, to destinations in England and France. In recognition of this service, she was awarded the King's Medal by King George IV; presented to her in Washington D.C. by the British Ambassador.

In the US, Nancy Harkness Love founded, and was named commander of, the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) in September 1942. The 28 women pilots who made up her squadron were first women to ferry airplanes for the U.S. Army. She also was the first woman to fly the P-51, P-38, B-25 and the B-17. In 1946, she was awarded the Air Medal and a citation for her leadership of women flying advanced military aircraft.

Betty Huyler Gillies was one of the original 99s. She flew as a test pilot for Grumman aircraft, was one of Nancy Love's first recruits into the WAFS, and later served in the WASP and the US Air Force Reserve. In 1981, she received the Elder Statesman of Aviation Award from the National Aeronautic Association of the US.

Cornelia Fort was airborne with a student over Pearl Harbor on 07 December 1941. She was also one of Nancy Love's first recruits into the WAFS. She was the first casualty of the group, on 21 March 1943, when she crashed following a mid-air collision on a ferrying mission.

The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) were formed in August of 1943 from two groups - the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). While technically civilians at the time, the WASPs were involved in all aspects of military flying operations, with the exception of combat and overseas ferrying. More than 1,000 WASP pilots flew over 70 million miles and delivered 12,650 airplanes across the country. The WASP program was suspended in December 1944. In the late 1970s, they were granted long overdue military veteran status.

WASP Gloria Heath flew the B-26 aircraft towing aerial gunnery targets. She was a founding member of the International Flight Safety Foundation. She is recognized internationally for her initiatives resulting in use of cockpit recorders for accident investigation, safety improvements, and a global satellite-aided system of response to disaster/distress.

At the beginning of World War II, Doris Lockness was employed at Douglas Aircraft as a Liaison Engineer on the C-47 airplane. She joined the WASPs in 1943, and her husband divorced her for doing so. In 1984 she was the first female pilot to receive the Legion of Merit Award from the OX5 Aviation Pioneers.

Two Chinese Americans, Hazel Ah Ying Lee and Margaret "Maggie" Gee, served as WASPs. Hazel had traveled to China in 1932 with the intention of joining the Chinese Air Force to fight against the Japanese, but was not allowed to do so. She came back to the US, joined the WASP, and was stationed at Romulus Army Air Base, Michigan. On 25 November 1944, she died as the result of a midair collision with another P-63 on landing approach. Maggie felt fortunate to fulfill her dream to fly, especially military airplanes during World War II. She spent her second career as a research scientist. Besides her contribution to the war effort, she is still a role model for young Asian women who are interested in aviation.

Another group whose members were technically civilians, but whose military role cannot be denied, was Claire Chennault's American Volunteer Group (AVG) in China, nicknamed the Flying Tigers. Besides pilots and other ground crew, the group included women flight nurses, such as Jane Foster Hanks.

Mary Utterback Barr worked nights in a factory to pay for flying lessons, then moved to New York to attend aircraft mechanic's school and worked on airplanes during World War II. Barr also served as an FAA Pilot Examiner and Accident Prevention Counselor, and in a variety of positions within the United States Forest Service, including being the first woman pilot and smokejumper.

African American Willa Brown Chappell taught other blacks to fly. In 1942 she became the first African American woman member of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). With husband Cornelius Coffee, she created the Coffee School of Aeronautics, the first US government approved school of aviation for blacks. The school ran the studies that led the Army to admit blacks into the US Army Air Corps, and was the beginning of the Tuskegee Institute.

Mary Feik taught aviation mechanics for the US Army Air Corps. During World War II, she became an expert on several fighter planes, and is credited with becoming the first woman engineer in research and development for the Air Technical Service Command. She flew more than 5,000 hours as a B-29 flight engineer, engineering observer and pilot in fighter, attack, bomber, cargo and training aircraft.

Elsie Pickles worked during World War II as one of Boeing's "Rosie the Riveters." She "bucked" rivets under many of the B-29 aircraft being built at the factory. Like thousands of other women at such factories, her efforts helped create the aircraft that helped win the war.

Commercial Aviation

While it is important to credit the first women pilots who flew in commercial aviation, it is equally important to credit some of the women who worked behind the scenes, and publicly, to ensure that women had the opportunity to do so.

On 31 December 1934, Helen Richey won a contest against eight male pilots to become a copilot for Central Airlines, making her the first US woman to pilot an airmail transport aircraft on a regular schedule. The male pilots refused to admit her to their union, and they pressured her employers to prohibit her from flying in inclement weather. She resigned rather than be treated unfairly, and joined Louise Thaden at the Air Marking Department of the Bureau of Air Commerce.

Emily Howell Warner became the first permanent woman pilot for a scheduled US passenger airline, when Frontier Airlines agreed in January 1973 to take the bold step of hiring a woman. In 1974, she became the first woman member of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). She became the first female U.S. airline captain, of a Twin Otter, in 1976.

Fiorenza de Bernardi became Italy's first woman airline pilot in 1967, when she was hired by Aeralpi. In 1969 she became Italy's first woman airline captain. She also founded the Italian Women Pilots Association. She has flown Twin Otters, Islanders, Queen Airs, Yak-40s, and DC-8s all over the world for various airlines and charter companies.

Canadian Lorna DeBlicquy wrote a guest editorial in 1974 in "Canadian Flight" protesting the discrimination against women pilots by Crown Corporation Air Transit. The article attracted national comment in the media and contributed to the improved climate which now ensures women a place in the cockpits of Canada's major airlines. In 1995, she was awarded the Order of Canada, which honors Canadian citizens for outstanding achievement and service to the country or to humanity at large.

Evelyn Bryan Johnson received her private pilot's license in 1945, her commercial rating in 1946, and her flight instructor's certificate in 1947. She has been a flight instructor for 45 years, and has given flight examinations for various licenses and certificates for the FAA to more than 9,000 applicants. In 1991, she passed her 50,000th hour of logged flight time, believed to be the most ever accumulated by a woman pilot.

Loretta Jones has been a licensed pilot since 1957. She has all ratings through Air Transport Pilot and is a certificated flight examiner. Loretta has logged more than 25,000 hours, and has instructed nearly 1,000 student pilots during the past forty years. She was instrumental in changing hiring policies at airlines, and counts among her students the first woman pilot for United Airlines.


The women who founded organizations usually had a very significant aviation experience, which convinced them of the necessity for the organization.

Ada Brown was hired as a stewardess by United Airlines in 1940. Recognizing the widespread discrimination that stewardesses faced on the job, Brown and a group of her flying partners signed up almost 300 women, forming the world's first stewardess union at United, the Air Line Stewardess Association (ALSA).in 1945. Today, thanks to Ada Brown, flight attendants at United Airlines and 25 other carriers are represented by the union that grew from ALSA: The Association of Flight Attendants.

Audrey Poberezny has played an active role in the formation, administration and operation of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) since its founding in 1953. She has been instrumental in helping the organization grow from a local club for amateur aircraft builders into an international organization that embraces virtually the entire spectrum of sport aviation

In 1954 Jean Ross Howard-Phelan became the 13th woman in the world to receive a helicopter rating. She has participated in three international helicopter championships and both U.S. and international fixed-wing air races. She is noted for her efforts in establishing heliports in emergency medical services. Founder of the Whirly-Girls, Inc. in 1955, she has also written extensively on aviation.

Jacqueline Smith Burdette joined the Navy after high school to become an Air Controllman. In 1968, she co-founded Professional Women Controllers, Inc. Her firsts included the first woman manager of an ARTCC to the first woman Division Manager responsible for ATC operation in 4 states and 3400 controllers. She retired as FAA Administrator for the Alaska Region.

Nancy Hopkins Tier started flying in November 1927, and has entered and won many air races. She joined the Civil Air Patrol in 1942, where she served for 18 years and was the first woman to achieve the rank of Colonel as Wing Commander of Connecticut. In 1969 she joined the official board organized by 99s to create the International Women's Air and Space Museum (IWASM), and was IWASMs first President when it opened in 1986.

Amy Carmien founded the publication Women in Aviation in 1988. She was a founding board member of Women in Aviation International (WAI) and a trustee of the International Women's Air and Space Museum (IWASM). Amy has been inducted into the International Forest of Friendship and was honored by the Northwest Michigan Women's History Project.

Seeing the need for an all-inclusive organization to encourage women to pursue careers in aviation, aerospace educator Dr. Peggy Baty Chabrian held her first conference in Prescott, Arizona, in 1990. She then founded Women in Aviation International (WAI) in 1994. Since then, the organization's membership has grown to more than 7000. Annual conferences draw thousands of attendees, who come to network and witness the awarding of hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships, type ratings, and educational benefits.

Source-Women in Aviation, International is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization.
Materials on this web site are copyright ©1996-2015 by Women in Aviation, International

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