In this post we’re going to provide a short history of women in aviation, from the aviatrices of the early 20th Century to the present day.
Pioneer Women Pilots, 1900 to 1945.
Many women as well as men have looked to the skies and dreamt of flight. Women went up in hot air balloons soon after their invention in the 1700s, and as soon as practical aircraft became available, women wanted to learn how to fly them, too.
Learning to fly cost money (some things never change) and the social mores of the day didn’t encourage women to seek out such adventurous pursuits. Some women defied those conventions, but in terms of the percentage of all pilots, there were not very many. Only 6% of pioneer pilots in the early 20th Century were female.
On March 8, 1910, Raymonde de Laroche was the first woman to earn a pilot’s licence. More French women would earn pilot’s licences between 1910 and 1914 and a further dozen or so would fly without bothering to obtain a licence. A handful of women in Belgium, Germany, Italy and even Russia would earn their licences before 1914 as well.
In the United States, Harriet Quimby earned her licence on August 2, 1911. Six more Americans would earn their licences before 1914. Unlike women in European countries, who were stymied by World War I, a couple of American women earned their licences in 1916.
It took courage to fly these early aircraft. There were no cockpits in the earliest aircraft. The pilot sat on the leading edge of the bottom wing, with his or her body exposed to the elements.
To begin with, women wore dresses while flying, dresses that extended all the way down to their ankles, but eventually they began wearing trousers – much to the outrage of polite society who thought it wasn’t acceptable to be able to see a woman’s “lower limbs.”
When World War I broke out, civilians in Europe were no longer allowed to fly. A few women attempted to volunteer to serve their country in the Armed Forces, but none were accepted. In the United States, after 1916, the same restriction applied. Katherine Stinson, a renowned aviatrix known as the “Flying Schoolmarm” spent the war years teaching male pilots how to fly.
After the war, few of the original women pioneers returned to aviation. A few had died while performing at air shows before the war (Harriet Quimby was one), most had married, and with a husband and children to care for they no longer had time to pursue their love of aviation. However, a new generation of women learned to fly during the ‘20s and ‘30s.
Some of the more famous American pilots were Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, Elinor Smith, Phoebe Omlie and Jackie Cochran.
In Britain, after the outbreak of World War II, Britains’s Air Transport Auxiliary was formed. Female civilian pilots ferried aircraft from the factories to military airfields. much to the amazement of some of their male counterparts. Women, as well as male pilots judged unfit for military service due to age, were able to serve their country in this way.
During the course of the War the ATA pilots delivered more than 309,000 aircraft of 147 types, totalling 415,000 hours logged. The United States Army Air Force saw the wisdom of such an organization – especially when pressed by well-known pilots Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love. After some jockeying between the two determined women and the top brass, the Women Air Force Service Pilots were created. Eventually, over a thousand women became WASPs.
In addition to ferrying planes and transporting cargo, they also towed targets for male pilots to practice their marksmanship. Thirty-eight WASP made the ultimate sacrifice – some dying in training accidents, others while ferrying aircraft from the factories to airfields. In late 1944, when the American top brass knew that the war was won, the WASP program was disbanded and the women sent back home – their request to be granted military status denied.
Despite having proven their ability to fly over 78 different aircraft and having safely delivered over 12,000 of them to their destination in the course of a little over a year, women would not fly for the US Air Force again until 1977.
Women in Aviation 1946 to 1980: Flying For Recognition.
After the end of World War II, there were plenty of women pilots in the United States. There were former WASP, pilots who had flown for the Civil War Patrol, and pilots who hadn’t flown at all during the war years but who were ready to take it back up again. Most of these pilots wanted to simply fly for recreation, but a few wanted to make a living from aviation. They applied for jobs as pilots in the burgeoning airline industry, but were turned down because it was believed passengers would not want to fly with a woman pilot.
In 1947, a few former WASP decided to put on an all-woman air show in Florida. They invited some 99s (the women pilot’s organization founded in 1929) from a California chapter to participate in a cross-country race to publicize the event. The first All Woman Transatlantic Air Race (popularly known as the Powder Puff Derby – not to be confused with the Powder Puff Derby of 1929) was hardly worthy of the name.
Due to organizational difficulties only one woman actually made the flight, but the All Women’s Air Meet was held in Florida the next year, and this time the AWTAR would have 6 entries. Although the air meet would eventually go by the wayside, the AWTAR would continue until 1977.
In its peak year over 200 women pilots participated. This race received a great deal of publicity along its route each year. Honorary starters included actors such as Robert Stack and Martin Milner. Actress Susan Oliver actually won the race one year. Charles Schultz featured the race in some of his Peanuts strips, and Bitsy, a female pilot in Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon comic strip, was always too broke to afford the price of entry.
The AWTAR was not the only all-woman race, although it’s the one that received the most publicity. The All Women’s International Air Race, better known as the Angel Derby, was founded in 1949 by the Florida Women Pilots Association. The races would start (or end) somewhere in Mexico, Canada, or the Bahamas.
Elsewhere around the globe, women were increasing the ranks of pilots as well, albeit to a lesser extent than their American counterparts. Most of Europe had to recover from the ravages of World War II before recreational aviation could experience a resurgence.
Jackie Cochran set several speed records, in unofficial competition with Diana Barnato Walker of England. Cochran was the first woman to break the sound barrier, in 1953. Walker broke the sound barrier in 1963.
The Mercury 13
In the early 1960s, several women pilots applied for places on NASA’s Mercury program. Due to space restriction within the capsule, many scientists suggested that women would actually be more suitable than men to become astronauts – though of course this suggestion was not really taken seriously.
The Mercury 13 – 13 established women pilots – took the same tests as the male pilots did, and many passed with flying colours – especially Jerrie Cobb. However, the testing had been for information only, and when NASA changed the requirements so that only jet pilots were eligible to become astronauts, the testing program ended.
It was not until the early 1970s that the hard work of the women pilots up until that time began to pay off (with a little help from civil rights legislation). Bonnie Tiburzi became the first female pilot with a major airline (American) in 1973. A trickle of other women pilots soon followed, although those gates would not really open until the mid 1980s.
In 1977, the US Air Force accepted women pilots, and graduated its first class of ten women on September 2, 1977. A press release about the event claimed that these were the first women to ever fly for the US Air Force. The surviving WASP, forgotten for thirty years (thanks to the fact that their program had been classified secret after the war had ended!) immediately attempted to set the record straight about their own accomplishments.
Since that time, many books have been written about the WASP and their exploits during the war. The stage was then set for the 1980s and more achievements to come.
Women in Aviation: 1980 to the Present Day.
In times of war women have always wanted to serve their country. At the onset of World War I, many women pilots attempted to volunteer but were turned down. As World War II began, women pilots in Britain (plus a handful of American pilots) joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA),
Some ATA pilots flew many aircraft types, far more than some of their male counterparts, and had to navigate alone, sometimes in appalling weather.
The ‘Attagirls’ included pilots from not just Britain but also volunteers from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, the Netherlands and Poland.
Russia needed all the person-power it could get, and women pilots actually served in combat, gaining renown as the Night Witches. And after the war was over, they were all told, “Thanks, you can go home now. We don’t want you anymore.”
Thanks to Civil Rights legislation of the late 1960s and other legislation in the 1970s, women pilots were allowed to fly in all branches of the armed services, and once they got that chance, women jumped at it.
From the late 1970s until the 2000s, many ‘firsts’ were established.
First woman pilot in the US Air Force, Royal Air Force, US Marines, Coast Guard, US and Royal Navy, the first African-American pilots, and so on. Black women had been working toward this opportunity for decades.
In 1921, Bessie Coleman had had to study French and travel to France to train as a pilot – no one in the United States would teach her. Coleman, who died while a passenger in an aircraft in 1926, inspired African Americans to follow their dreams of flight.
Willa Brown was the first African American woman to earn her licence in the United States, in 1937. Janet Harmon Bragg, an experienced pilot, attempted to join the WASP but was turned down because of her skin colour.
From the 1980s onward, minority women have set their own ‘firsts’ in the Armed Forces, not only as ground soldiers in the Army and Marines, but also as pilots, maintenance crew and so on in all branches of the services.
Although the percentage of women pilots in the military is still only about 7%, there are now so many women in the military that an all female crews can be formed. The armed forces of other countries have followed suit.
Lt.-Col Nicole Malachowski became the first woman Thunderbird pilot (the US Air Force demonstration team) in 2006. The Canadian Snowbirds welcomed their first woman pilot, Lt.-Col Maryse Carmichael in 2010. Also in 2010, the British Red Arrows welcomed Flight Lieutenant Kirsty Moore.
Each woman had to serve for several years in the regular Air Force, before being allowed undergo training as a demonstration pilot. Some Islamic countries now have a handful of women pilots, and that is a tremendous achievement in itself.
Women in the civilian sector have not been idle, either. The Air Race Classic, which replaced the All Woman Transcontinental Air Race beginning in 1978, has never missed a year since then. And of course, women fly in all sorts of other cross-country events and solo adventures. Business women fly their own aircraft and there innumerable recreational women pilots who have gained a Private Pilots Licence.
In the 1930s, the US National Air Races featured pylon races. High speed flying at low level with sharp turns around pylons carries some risks. When a male pilot died, it was deemed unfortunate, but when Florence Klingensmith died in 1933, it was held up as proof that women didn’t possess the required skills, and they were banned from further races.
This changed in the 1960s and since then over two dozen women have competed in the Reno Air Races to date (each returning over the course of several years). There are several classes of pylon racing – Biplane, Formula 1, Sport Class, Jets, and Unlimited – there are women pilots in each class.
As for aerobatics, women participate in competitions there as well. Russian Svetlana Kapapina is a world-renowned aerobatic pilot, as is American Patty Wagstaff.
Britain’s Mélanie Astles is the reigning aerobatics Unlimited champion and competes in the Red Bull Air Races. Women have not been immune from tragedy during these events. Experienced aerobatic pilot Vicki Cruse died while flying at Silverstone in England in 2009. Aerobatic pilot Nancy Lynn died at an airshow in 2006.
But they all died doing what they loved, and as with the many male pilots who have also unfortunately crashed during over one hundred years of sporting aviation the thrill, excitement, and shear exhilaration of flying keeps men and women coming back for more.
Meanwhile, the number of women pilots flying commercial aircraft continues to grow and all female air crews in airliners are not unusual.