Until today, many activities have been and still are considered masculine and flying is no exception. However, this attitude towards piloting is becoming outdated and many of us are not aware that, in fact, there have been countless female pilots since 1903. In addition, now we have the Women in Aviation Worldwide Week (March 7–13) to fight gender imbalance in the air and space industry.
We have surely all heard about the Wright Brothers and their groundbreaking achievements, but have you ever thought who was the first female pilot? Who was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean? Or around the world? Let’s meet these women pilots!
Aida de Acosta: First woman to fly solo
During the summer of 1903, Aida de Acosta became the first female to fly a powered aircraft. While traveling to Paris with her mother she noticed a flying dirigible and immediately became fascinated by it. This encouraged her to ask the pilot for lessons.
Since the dirigible only had one seat, all her pilot training was on the ground. And after only three lessons she made her solo flight. It is essential to mention that it happened six months before the Wright Brothers made their first flight.
Raymonde de Laroche: An actress who became a pilot
At first, Raymonde de Laroche was an actress. However, in 1908 with the influence of the Wright Brothers, she entered the world of aviation. Inspired by their achievements, she was immediately attracted to this new exciting and challenging sport.
Despite being an actress she also was an experienced balloonist and the possibility of learning to fly an aircraft thrilled her. So she took flying lessons from a famous French aircraft builder Charles Voisin. And in 1910, this woman, unlike Aida de Acosta, did earn a pilot’s license.
In her aviation career, she made some significant world records. In June 1919, she set a new women’s altitude record of 15,700 feet and also the women’s distance record of 201 miles flown.
Raymonde has been commemorated in various ways around the world. There is a statue of de Laroche at Paris–Le Bourget Airport in France. What’s more, Women in Aviation Worldwide Week has also marked the anniversary of Raymonde de Laroche’s pilot license.
Bessica Raiche: Woman of the Renaissance
Bessica Raiche was also one of the first women pilots. The main difference is that she made her solo flight in an aircraft she built herself. She built this aircraft inspired by the Wright brothers out of piano wire, bamboo, and silk.
Besides aviation, she was a dentist, physician, musician, painter, and linguist. Moreover, she was also a real woman of the Renaissance, being skilled in many ‘unfeminine’ activities like driving a car, swimming, and shooting.
Surprisingly, she became a solo pilot without any real experience. She was supposedly given lessons by a mechanic who pointed to the control wheel and said, “Pull it this way to go up and push that way to go down.”
Aeronautical Society of America declared Bessica’s flight as the first solo flight by a woman in the U.S.. Bessica was awarded an inscribed diamond-studded gold medal ‘First Woman Aviator in America’ at a dinner the Society held in her honor.
Harriet Quimby: Queen of the Channel Crossing
Harriet Quimby was a journalist and after writing about Japanese aeronauts and covering New York’s Belmont Air Meet became interested in flying. She convinced the magazine she worked for to pay for her flying lessons so that she could write about the experience first-hand. And in 1911, she became the first American woman pilot.
The most important event in her aviation career was the English channel flight. On April 16, 1912, Quimby became the first woman to pilot an aircraft across the English Channel, piloting her French Blériot monoplane from Dover, England, to Hardelot, France. This event earned her the nickname “America’s first lady of air”.
Bessie Coleman: The first African American woman pilot
Inspired by World War I pilots, Bessie Coleman became eager to learn to fly. She could not learn that skill in America because no flight instructor was willing to teach her. Driven by her passion, she learned French and attended a flight school in France. This way she became the first black woman to fly.
Her goal was to motivate African American women to reach their dreams. She gave speeches and showed films of her air tricks in churches, theaters, and schools to earn money. And after she became popular in the U.S. and Europe, she began touring the country giving flight lessons for African American women and performing in flight shows.
Pancho Barnes: The first woman stunt pilot
Pancho Barnes was a woman of wealth and privilege. In 1928, she purchased her first airplane, hired a flight instructor, and made her first solo flight after only six hours of lessons.
In August 1929 she participated in the first Women’s Air Derby. Her average speed of 196.19 miles per hour set a new world speed record for women, surpassing Amelia Earhart’s record from the previous year.
In the same year, Pancho Barnes became the first woman stunt flier in the motion picture industry. She performed air stunts for Howard Hughes’s film Hell’s Angels.
Amelia Earhart: The first Transatlantic flight pilot
In 1920, after her first airplane ride, Amelia Earhart bought a plane and two years later earned her pilot’s license. She set many aviation records and spoke in favor of the support for women in aviation.
She became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and the first person ever to fly solo from Hawaii to the US. Also, she tried to fly around the globe. Unfortunately, Earhart disappeared somewhere over the Pacific. Her disappearance is one of the world’s unsolved mysteries.
It is believed that she knew she was in danger because before that crash she said her last fatal words “KHAQQ calling Itasca. We must be on you but cannot see you. Gas is running low.”
Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock: The flying housewife
Geraldine had the dream of flying since she was a child, but her marriage and three kids got a little in the way. However, in 1958, she earned her private pilot’s license. Her husband was the one who encouraged her to pursue her dream of flying around the world.
Geraldine was 11 years old when Amelia Earhart disappeared. Amelia became Mock’s idol and maybe that’s why Geraldine did what Earhart always wanted to do: to fly around the world.
Mock made the 23,103-mile flight in 29 days 11 hours 59 minutes, landing at Port Columbus Airport, Ohio. Besides that, Jerrie Mock went on to set a number of other flight records, such as being the first woman to fly across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Jeannie Leavitt: The U.Ss Air Force chief
Shortly after graduating from Stanford University with her Master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics, Jeannie Levitt joined the Air Force. She finished all required training and when restrictions on women flying combat missions were dropped, she began formal combat training. That’s how, in 1993, she became the first female fighter pilot.
She served as Director of Operations and Communications where she was responsible for the world’s largest training organization, providing initial skills, undergraduate flying, post-graduate combat crew, and supplemental training.
She is still on duty now. She was promoted to major general and is currently working as the Air Force Chief of Safety. She develops, executes, and evaluates all Air and Space Forces’ aviation, ground, weapons, space, and system mishap prevention as well as nuclear surety programs to preserve combat capability. Additionally, Jennie manages, develops, and directs all safety and risk management courses.
Helen Richey: Queen of airmail
The story begans when she was a young girl. Helen Richey and her friend hitched a flight on a Waco biplane taking off from McKeesport, Pennsylvania to Cleveland, Ohio. There she met one of the most famous female aviators of the time, Ruth Nichols. Helen was so impressed by her that she decided that this should be life for her.
After some years everyone saw proof that Helen was born to fly. In 1932, She with her co-pilot Frances Marsalis set a women’s endurance record, during which she remained in flight for about 10 days.
Despite her records and winnings, she felt that her future was to be in the airline industry. Regardless of the airlines’ lack of interest in woman pilots, she still tried to become one. In 1934, she won the job after competing with eight male pilots and became the first female commercial pilot.
However, Helen worked for commercial airlines for only a year, because there were not enough flights for her. Unfortunately after Helen, until 1973, there was no woman to become an airline pilot again.
There have been many designated and achieved women in aviation and space history. Even in the presence of 30% gender inequality in aviation, more an more women are set on starting a career in aviation.
Maybe you too have some female relatives working in the aviation industry? Let us know in the comments.
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A curious traveler with a passion for writing whose journey began with translation and led to the aviation industry.
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