The women who shaped the history of aviation

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Since the early days of aviation, women were among the pioneers. Their conquest of the skies was not limited only by the laws of physics, but also the laws of men. Here is a small collection of the many women that aviation history will remember.

Emma Lilian Todd, the inventor who saw her right to fly denied

When she took an interest in aviation, Emma Lilian Todd was already an accomplished inventor. In 1906, she presented her first model aircraft at Madison Square Garden. Impressed by her work, Olivia Sage, widow of politician Russell Sage, decided to patron her and fund the design of her first real plane. Todd began her work in 1908, while in parallel she opened America’s first Junior Aero Club to support the training of future female aviators. In order to test her biplane, she applied for a pilot’s license, but the request was refused. Her aircraft would therefore be flown, successfully, by Didier Masson rather than by her on November 7, 1910. Following the flight, she abandoned aeronautical designs.

Thérèse Peltier, the first female passenger and pilot

Thanks to her friend, the aviation pioneer Léon Delagrange, Thérèse Peltier took an interest in aviation. However, at the turn of the XXth century, no flying schools were established yet. Instead, Thérèse Peltier had to observe other pilots in order to learn how to fly. She received a few lessons from Delagrange, during which she became the first woman passenger on a plane. In September 1908, she took off solo, thus becoming the first woman pilot.

The Wright sister, Katharine

If the Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville, are such famous pioneers, they may partly owe it to their sister, Katharine. After graduating from college, the young woman joined her two brothers in Europe as their spokesperson, while they were presenting their invention in various salons. She was qualified by the local newspapers as the “human side of the Wrights.” Wilbur himself said, “If ever the world thinks of us in connection with aviation, it must remember our sister.”

Raymonde de Laroche, the first woman to receive a pilot license

Elise Raymonde Deroche started her professional life as a drama actress in Paris, where she adopted the stage name of Raymonde de Laroche. During that time, she met several aviators and developed an interest in that new discipline. When she witnessed the flight of the Wright brothers in Paris in 1908, Raymonde de Laroche decided that she would not remain a spectator: she would also fly. De Laroche applied to the aviation school of Charles Voisin, where she was the first woman in the world to receive her pilot license on March 8, 1910. From then, she toured the aviation meetings in Europe and beyond, and broke several women’s altitude records.

Hilda Hewlett, pilot and entrepreneur pioneer

Hilda Hewlett was not even a licensed pilot yet when she opened the first flying school in the United Kingdom, along with aviation engineer Gustav Blondeau. In 1911, Hilda Hewlett became the first woman in the UK to earn a pilot’s license and went on to teach her own son how to fly. Still partnered with Gustav, she became the first woman to co-found an aircraft factory, Hewlett & Blondeau, that built Farman, Caudron, and Hanriot aircraft under license.

Bessie Coleman, the first woman of color to become a pilot

After hearing the exploits of French and American aviators during the First World War from her two soldier brothers, Bessie Coleman became passionate about aviation and decided to learn how to fly. But at the time, the United States was marked by racial segregation, and no flight school agreed to teach her how to pilot.  Therefore, she moved to France and after seven months of training, she became the first person of African American and Native American descent to hold a pilot’s license, which she obtained on June 15, 1921. Her dream to open a flying school that would allow African-Americans to learn how to fly would have to wait two years after her death in a plane crash, to materialize when in 1928, William J. Powell opened the Bessie Coleman Flying School and the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles.

Amelia Earhart, a life of records

In 1922, at the age of 25, Amelia Earhart broke her first record, reaching 4,300 meters (14,000 feet) onboard her bright yellow Kinner Airstar biplane named the Canary. She would break a dozen records throughout her career. In 1928, she became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic (as a passenger). Four years later, she flew solo from Newfoundland to Paris aboard a Lockheed Vega, becoming the first woman, and the second pilot after Charles Lindberg to cross the Atlantic alone. In 1937, she embarked on an even more ambitious adventure: she projected to become the first woman to fly around the world. Sadly, her twin-engine Lockheed Electra 10-E disappeared on July 2, 1937, as Amelia and her navigator Fred Noonan were trying to reach the tiny Howland Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. To this day, the disappearance remains a mystery.

Sabiha Gökçen, the first female fighter pilot

The first President of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, made military and civil aviation a priority in his desire to modernize the country. During the opening of the Türk Kuşu (Turkish Bird) civil aviation school, in 1935, his adoptive daughter Sabiha Gökçen was deeply impressed by the flight and parachute demonstrations. Her father suggested she enrolled in the school, which she did. It is unclear if it was of her own volition, or an attempt of her illustrious father to demonstrate the modernity of the young nation, but as she was completing her training in the Soviet Union, she expressed interest in becoming a fighter pilot. Enrolled in the Turkish Air Force Academy, she learned combat training on the Breguet 19 light bomber and the Curtiss F11C Goshawk fighter, becoming the world’s first woman fighter pilot.

Jacqueline versus Jacqueline, a supersonic duel

In the early 1950s, two women pilots were rivaling to be the fastest: the American Jacqueline Cochran and her French rival Jacqueline Auriol. After beating record after record, it was eventually Jacqueline Cochran that became the first woman to break the sound barrier (with the assistance of Chuck Yeager, the first man to do the same) on May 18, 1953, onboard her North American F-86 Saber. Jacqueline Auriol would do the same three months later, flying a Dassault Mystère II, and thus “only” becoming the first European woman to break the sound barrier.

Further than the clouds, Valentina Tereshkova

When she was selected for the Soviet Space program in 1962, the 25-year-old textile factory worker Valentina Tereshkova had only carried 90 jumps in a club of amateur parachutists. After seven months of training, she was picked among five other women, most probably because of her humble beginnings. The whole process was kept in the greatest secrecy, even to her whole family, until the mission was eventually announced by the Soviet regime to the rest of the world, two years after Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight. Tereshkova, onboard the Vostok-6 spacecraft, orbited around the Earth 48 times, during a three-day mission, in tandem with Valeri Bykovsky, in Vostok-5. On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to have flown in space and remains to this day the youngest.

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