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Calling all Women – We Need You! History of Women in Aviation

Throughout the history of aviation, women have played an integral role in establishing records, achieving milestones and breaking barriers. While female participation in flying has grown considerably since the early days, the ratio of men to women is extremely lopsided. At Inflight, we think this needs to change.

At every turn in the timeline of modern aviation, women have been there, right alongside men (and ahead, in many cases). If you’re a female considering a career as a pilot, airplane mechanic or aeronautical engineer – we need your talents, intelligence and overall enthusiasm to help advance equality within the entire industry.

If you’re curious about the important ways women have influenced aviation, read about the history of women in aviation and get inspired to take flight yourself!

Origins

Since the Wright Brothers’ first successful machine-powered flight in 1903, women have made significant contributions to the aviation industry. Although Orville and Wilbur Wright are credited with the start of modern aviation, they would never have lifted off had it not been for the financial, intellectual and emotional support of Katherine Wright, their sister. While she didn’t accompany her brothers on a flight until later in 1909, she was an essential piece to their success in the early stages, providing knowledge and insight into the workings of their machines, as well as the funding to make it happen.

The first documented evidence of a female piloting an aircraft came in 1910, when a plane that Blanche Scott was taxing on a runway suddenly took off from the ground. While she only reached an altitude of 40 feet, she is credited by the Early Birds of Aviation as the first female aviator to fly solo in the U.S. The following year, Harriet Quimby was awarded the first pilot license given to a woman in the U.S., and in 1912 she again broke the glass ceiling by flying across the English Channel solo.

Within the first two decades of powered flight, women across the world had started flying, skydiving, performing aerial stunts and even chartering passengers. As the 1920s came, women aviation professionals became increasingly involved in the use of planes for disaster relief or public health services, as well as setting distance records, aerobatic records and more.

Some major firsts for women in aviation include:

  • 1920: Ethel Dare walks from one plane to another mid-air, becoming the first woman to perform the death-defying stunt.
  • 1921: Bessie Coleman becomes the first female African-American pilot, when she moves to France and studies at the country’s most prestigious flight school, the École d’Aviation de Frères Caudron. Upon graduation, she flies back to the U.S. and pursues a career as a barnstormer.
  • 1927: Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie becomes the first woman to receive an airplane mechanic’s license, as well as the first licensed female transport pilot. She develops a program for training women flight instructors and is instrumental in implementing the National Air Marking and Mapping program, which establishes airport identification symbols.
  • 1928: Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to fly across the Atlantic in a time of 20 hours, 40 minutes.
  • 1929: Louise Thaden sets the women’s endurance record, flying just over 22 hours. Elinor Smith broke the record a month later, flying almost 26.5 hours.
  • 1929: Elsie MacGill becomes the first woman to earn a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering.
  • 1930: Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindbergh, becomes the first woman to receive a U.S. glider pilot license.

In 1930, there were only 200 women pilots – however, by 1935, records indicate that there were almost 800 licensed women pilots in the country.

Major Breakthroughs and the Start of World War II

Air racing was popular throughout the country in the 1920s and 30s, providing pilots a public venue to show off their skills and take home big prize winnings. A female-only air race was organized in 1929, known as the National women’s Air Derby. 20 contestants raced from Santa Monica, CA to Cleveland, OH over an eight-day period. The general public was less than thrilled about this event at first, however the race went on and brought together female pilots in a competitive environment for the first time.

In 1936, women aviators received a huge breakthrough, when women were given the opportunity to race against men. In the first year women had the chance to compete, Louise Thaden won the Bendix Trophy race, setting a new world record of 14 hours, 55 minutes from New York City, NY to Los Angeles, CA. Laura Ingalls, another aviator, came in second by just 45 minutes. Thaden received $4,500 in prize money, and she also won the $2,500 prize for a woman finishing. Women have competed against men in races around the world ever since the remarkable upset victory.

As World War II ramped up, women from all around the world assisted with war efforts, and although they were mainly restricted from military flight, flew many essential auxiliary missions. Almost 950 U.S. women gained their licenses by in 1941, meeting the high demand for pilots. From flight controllers, to instructors to test pilots and production line workers, World War II helped to push women into several facets of the aviation industry.

At the beginning of 1943, just under a third of the aviation workforce were women. Around this time, The Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS) and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) were combined by President Roosevelt, founding the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, also iconically known as WASP.

The development of this new organization marked an essential turning point in the timeline of women in both general and military aviation. The pioneering group of civilian female pilots were employed to fly military aircraft under direction of the United States Army Air Forces. With a total roster of 1,074 female pilots, the WASPs flew more than 60 million miles in all types of military aircraft. Unfortunately, the WASPs were not recognized as military personnel until the Senate granted veteran status in 1977 and it was approved by President Carter. They were finally awarded the much-deserved Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.

Post WWII and through the 1980s

After the war, women continued break records and bust down barriers. In May of 1953, Jacqueline Cochran became the first woman to break the sound barrier. By June 1953, she held all but a single one of the primary world airplane speed records for straightaway and closed-course flight.

In 1959, women came one step closer to space flight when Jerrie Cobb completed the Mercury astronaut physiological tests. She successfully underwent all three stages of the physical and psychological tests that were used to select the original seven Mercury astronauts. 12 other women completed this initial round of testing, however NASA refused to acknowledge their success. U.S. women wouldn’t reach space until 1983, when Dr. Sally Ride flew on the six-day mission of the orbiter Challenger.

By the 1960s there were 12,400 licensed women pilots in the United States, making up 3.6 percent of all pilots. This number grew by the end of the decade to nearly 30,000 women. In 1963, Betty Miller became the first woman to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean, while in the year following Geraldine Mock flew the iconic Spirit of Columbus, a single-engine Cessna 180, around the whole world.

As the hugely unpopular Vietnam War progressed throughout the late 60s, many men were refusing to volunteer for the military, and many women were being turned away because of sexist restrictions. In 1967, a law was passed allowing more women into the military and to be promoted to high ranks.

As the 70s and 80s arrived, the firsts continued, including feats such as:

  • 1971: Louise Sacchi sets a speed record by flying a single-engine land plane from New York to London in 17 hours, 10 minutes, a record that is still standing today.
  • 1973: Emily Howell Warner becomes the first woman captain of a major U.S. airline, American Airlines.
  • 1974: For the first time since WWII, women are permitted to fly in the United States Navy and Army.
  • 1976: Women are permitted to fly for the Air Force.
  • 1977: The first graduating class of ten female Air Force officers receive their Silver Wings.
  • 1980: Lynn Rippelmeyer becomes the first woman to fly a Boeing 747; four years later she’s the first woman to serve as captain of the plane.
  • 1983: Charlotte Larson and Deanne Shulman become the first woman to captain a smokejumper aircraft and the first woman qualified as a smokejumper, respectively.

The End of the 20th Century to Today

From the early 90s up to today, women around the world have continued to make significant strides in the aviation industry. From the British Royal Air Force lifting their ban on women flying, to the United States Senate lifting the ban on military women flying in combat, to smaller countries like Zimbabwe, Malawi and the Philippines developing their own, home-grown pilots, the industry quickly evolved.  

Presently, women’s participation rate in the aviation sector is still lower than we’d like – but the good news is that the number is growing. As of 2010, just over 7 percent of certified civilian pilots (both private and commercial) in the United States were women. As of July 2014, approximately 5.1 percent of certified airline or commercial pilots in the United States are women. Overall, in 2008,16 percent of women worked in the manufacturing of aircraft and spacecraft. Women who work as aerospace engineers made up 25% in the field in 2014.

Calling All Women: Learn to Fly Today!

The women pilots of today’s industry fly for the airlines, military and NASA, as well as participate in air races, emergency operations, flight instruction and more. We’d love to see the participation rate among female aviators grow in the next decade, so it’s up to you to carry the torch!

If you want to write your name in the stars and join the ranks of famous women pilots, contact Inflight Pilot Training today to find out how we can get you off the ground. Get in touch.