Who were the first female astronomers? The first woman to teach her son to fly? What are Night Witches and why are they special?

“Sky Heroines of the World” answers these questions, telling the stories of 2,000 female pilots throughout time, celebrating the special role of women in aviation history.

AeroTime has spoken with the author of the book, professor Radmila Tonković. Having served in the Air Force Air Defense Command of Yugoslavia/Serbia for 24 years, prof. Tonković herself is well familiar with aviation.

Could you tell us briefly about your career in the Air Force and Anti-aircraft Defense unit: what positions did you hold and what kind of aircraft did you fly?

I served in the Air Force and Air Defense Command of Yugoslavia / Serbia, consisting of 400 people, for 24 years. During this time, I have established strong professional relations, gained the respect and high level of honor from my colleagues and high command. I held the post of the main and the only authorized officer to sign documentation for the use and modifications of airplanes and armaments, as well as for modifying combat air defense weapons and military aviation equipment. Only after my signature planes and pilots could fly, which is a very big responsibility. I also had to fly on different planes.

I was also one of editors ‒ and the only woman ‒ in the aviation magazine Aeromagazin for 18 years.  Researching aviation history, I have realized that women and their role are not well covered and recorded. During my career, I have written more than 1,000 published articles on aviation in Serbia and abroad ‒ articles on women in aviation are especially popular.

“Bold and unusual women who have left a deep mark in the history of aviation. Pilots, cosmonauts, doctors, engineers, technicians, military pilots ‒ women who bravely walked before their time, independent, energetic and resolute to move the boundaries of what is  possible, to achieve the impossible”.

Given that the entire planet Earth is reserved for men and they are given priority in all life segments, I realized that all professions, hobbies and sports are fully designed for men ‒ women are rarely present or not present at all. This is also the case in aviation, which motivated me to dedicate a book to bold and unusual women who have left a deep mark in the history of aviation. Pilots, cosmonauts, doctors, engineers, technicians, military pilots ‒ women who bravely walked before their time, independent, energetic and resolute to move the boundaries of what is possible, to achieve the impossible.

Yet there are very few written traces and information about them.

You must have encountered many stereotypes working in a male-dominated industry - what was the prevailing one? How did you deal with such views?

Of course, stereotypes in male professions are present, but I look at it without prejudice. I am sure that there is no significant difference between men and women and I do not accept division of male and female works and professions. Men consider themselves leaders in aviation and do not believe in gender equality in this industry, which is why women will have to fight for their place in aviation. But if you, as a woman, with your mental strength can prove that you are successful and equal, male pilots, like true gentlemen, will recognize and appreciate you. I never had any problems in this regard ‒ we are partners, friends, and true professionals.

“In the course of my research into the history of aviation, I realized that women and their role are not well covered and recorded”.

What advantages do women in aviation have over men?

I know, and statistics also confirm it, that most women work in the military because of their accuracy, pedantry, responsibility, patience, perseverance and an eye for detail. Men heavily dominate in flying because of preconceptions.

How did you manage to juggle your career in the military with your family life?

Family support is very important for women to achieve professional success, because without understanding, love and tolerance there is no success. It is especially important that your spouse understands and takes a share of family responsibilities, so that you can properly handle different aspects of life. Without it, professional success becomes uncertain and difficult to achieve. 

Do you have any advice for female pilots today?

Self-confidence is advice that can be given to every woman. Women should also have a clearly defined goal in life that they want to achieve. Since women have many prosaic life duties, it is much more difficult for them to achieve professional success compared to men. Therefore, women have to be more persistent, more diligent, they need to invest more time and effort than men; also, aviation requires full attention of a person, you cannot work in aviation with half a heart. However, today's modern, smart girls know exactly what they want and they achieve it. I really like it.

How do you view the situation of women in aviation today? How has it changed since (the beginning of) your time in the industry?

Well, there are no differences. Female pilots are special and unusual, bold and purposeful, have their goals and know what they want, they are in love with flying and the sky, they are very energetic and driven by incredible adrenaline as well as desire to conquer the heavens. Female pilots are free in the most positive sense, autonomous and independent. Aviation equipment is changing and improving, new technologies emerge, new materials for building aircraft are developed, and therefore pilots are constantly improving to be able to operate an aircraft safely.

How to encourage women to become pilots, especially those thinking about a career in the military?

Today, female pilots are organized in associations in their own countries. The global association, called Ninety Nine (Ninety Nines), operates in the United States. Our organization, called the Association of Female Pilots of Serbia, gathers about 100 female pilots of airplanes, gliders, paragliders, parachutists, and the honorary member, the first female cosmonaut Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova.

Of course, the smallest number of women fly in military because of the specifics of military profession. The love of sky and flight undoubtedly unites all women pilots, but their common features are heroism, courage, curiosity, creativity, imagination… They all are capable of not only dreaming, but also turning their dreams into reality.

Women who choose military aviation as their profession are special, and they already have their own motives and goals, so no additional motivation is required.

You are an honorary member of the Air Force Federation of the Republic of Serbia and you are the only woman holding the "Golden Flight Sign" of the Air Force. What does the recognition mean for you?

These awards for me represent the highest possible recognition, because they were handed to me by colleagues and from the highest command level of the Serbian Army. They represent the pinnacle and crown of my professional success. I am very proud of them, especially since I am the only woman Cavalier holding such high honours in the Balkans.

And finally, tell us briefly about your book “Nebeske heroine sveta: od mita do kosmosa“ (2017): what is it about and what inspired you to write the book? What stories were the most memorable to you?

Collecting data for my book, Sky Heroines of the World, has practically lasted throughout my career. Systematizing the collected data took me long ten years. My travels around the world have become an incentive for a more pedantic and accurate representation of aviators’ achievements and successes, with the role of women in this male area being at the center. I wanted to substantiate and record historical facts. I visited all available archives and libraries in the world, but the most successful was the personal contact with my heroines or their descendants.

My book talks about the best aviators, the pioneering pilots, the first women holding pilot licenses, the breakthrough of the sound barrier, and the special and important role of women in aviation history.

Image: Courtesy of prof. Radmila Tonković

The first female astronomers were Aganika and Hypatia. French Raymond de Laroche was the first to receive a pilot’s diploma in 1910. American Jacqueline Cochran ‒ the first woman to break the sound barrier. Russian Valentina V. Tereshkova ‒ the first woman cosmonaut who flew to space back in 1963. The first woman to be killed in a plane crash was Denise Moore in 1911. The first woman pilot photographer − Osa Johnson.

Russian pilots were the only [females] who fought against the Nazis in World War II. They were organized in three air force units ‒ one of fighters and two bombers. Before World War II, Germans were outstanding sport pilots: Eli Beinhorn, Vera von Basing, Lizel Bach, Thea Rasche, Louis Hoffman. Their fates were different, many of them tragic. Briton Hilda Hewlett was the first woman to teach her son how to fly; her compatriots, organized in Air Transport Association, flew aircraft from factories to the front during WWII.

In my homeland, the first female pilots are Danitsa Tomic, Zagorka Plelevich and Kristina Gorishek, who received their pilot licenses in 1932. The following year, the first woman Bedria Hekman flew to Turkey. In 1939, the first Iranian women were trained as pilots. In Africa, women began to fly in 1934 and in Asia ‒ in 1930.

My encyclopedia Sky Heroines of the World is a tribute to the brave world’s celestial heroines. Among 1700 photos and 2000 biographies, it is very difficult to single out the most interesting one, as they all are interesting and personal in their own way.

Photo: Courtesy of prof. Radmila Tonković

Professor Radmila Tonković has successfully built her professional career in an area largely reserved for men. Pioneer in many segments of aviation, she says that once she felt the charms of flying, her remained forever in the clouds. 

Her biography is full of achievements, complemented by a long list of awards, recognitions, plaques, diplomas and certificates for her numerous merits in aviation. She is the first woman in Serbia to receive the Honorary Golden Flight Sign of the RV and PVO Army Serbia and the first and only woman who won the Honorary Paradise Officer's Dagger.

Prof. Tonković is also the first female aviation journalist and the first female aviation editor in the Balkans in the magazines Aeromagazin, Naša krila and Moma-glasnik. She is a technical and scientific translator, editor and lector in the Scientific Technical Review and Naučnotehničke informacije journals. 

Prof. Tonković has published over 1000 articles in national and foreign magazines, written three (Life Made by Flying, Tadija Sondermayer and Sky Heroines of the World) and co-authored on 12 books.