Breaking barriers: how women shaped aviation history in the US

Women in the United States were an integral part of aviation and its evolution from the very beginning. However, it took many years before their role was duly recognized.

On August 26, the US celebrates Women’s Equality Day, which commemorates the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote. To mark the occasion, AeroTime spoke to Dolores Martin, Division Director, Management and Business Services at the US Federal Aviation Administration, who explained some of the history surrounding women’s involvement in aviation and the barriers they still face in North America and elsewhere, even today.

“Early advances in the aviation industry came about because of military necessity in gaining advantage during World Wars I and II,” Martin said. “Eleanor Roosevelt became a fierce advocate for aviation and particularly women in aviation during her tenure as First Lady of the United States in the 1930s. Mrs. Roosevelt’s passion for equality in the United States and abroad was evident in her many efforts to advance human rights and especially the rights of women.” 

While the industry and the attitudes of its members have evolved along with society, is the situation still unbalanced to this day?

“Despite Mrs. Roosevelt’s determination to break down barriers that existed for women in aviation, nearly a century later, we still have little more than 5% of the pilot population represented by women and less than 3% of aviation mechanics represented by women,”  Martin explained.  

She added: “Women are underrepresented in nearly all technical aspects of the aviation industry. This includes all career paths that rely on rigorous STEM-related curricula; require significant financial resources; or are traditionally male-dominated career paths. Nearly every woman that I know in the aviation industry can relay an experience in which they felt isolated while working in the industry – whether it’s entering a cockpit as a pilot or leading a team to rebuild an airplane engine.”

Better recognition of the contributions of women to aviation is not only morally necessary but also indispensable if we are to continue moving forward.

“The single most compelling thing is that the world should enthusiastically embrace the fact that women are inextricably woven throughout the fabric of global aviation – the industry has evolved and flourished in large part due to the contributions of women.

“By increasing awareness of women’s contributions to global aviation, we ensure that the industry continues to benefit from the creativity and innovation that women have provided in the past…and beyond,” Martin concluded.

Below, AeroTime has compiled a non-exhaustive list of nine women who contributed to the development of aviation in the country. 

Emma Lilian Todd, the plane inventor who never flew

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 become her patron and fund the design of her first real plane. Todd began her work in 1908. At the same time, she opened America’s first Junior Aero Club to support the training of future female aviators. To test her biplane, she applied for a pilot’s license, but the request was refused. Instead of flying the aircraft herself, it was flown, successfully, by Didier Masson on November 7, 1910. Following the flight, she abandoned aeronautical designs, and donated her aircraft to the State of New York.   

Katharine Wright, the forgotten sister  

The Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville, are considered famous pioneers, but they may owe some of their success 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. Having learned French for the occasion, she met with several major political figures of the time, such as King Edward VIII of England, and the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. 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.”  

Harriet Quimby, the first licensed female pilot in the US  

While working as a journalist, Quimby was brought to cover the Belmont Park Airshow in New York City in 1910. After seeing John Moisant, then-known as the “King of Aviators”, excel in most of the air races held during the event, Quimby hoped to become a pilot herself. After being taught in secret by his brother, Alfred Moisant, she received her pilot license, becoming the first woman in the United States to do so. Less than a year later, on April 16, 1912, Quimby broke another record by becoming the first woman to cross the Channel at the controls of an aircraft, flying from Dover to Equihen. She died shortly after in a plane crash while taking part in the Harvard-Boston Airshow.  

Jeannette Piccard, the first licensed female balloon pilot in the US  

Often overlooked by the general public, balloonists have nevertheless also participated in the evolution of aerospace. Jeannette Piccard, the first woman to become a licensed pilot in the United States in 1934, contributed alongside her husband Jean to the development of high-altitude balloons. The same year, the Piccards decided to break the record for the highest balloon flight. In a pressurized cabin under their balloon named Century of Progress, with Jeannette at the controls and their pet tortoise Fleur-de-Lys as passenger along with Jean, they reached an altitude of 17.5 meters (10.9 miles), making her the first woman to pilot an aircraft to the stratosphere. She would hold onto the women’s altitude record for another 29 years until the space voyage of Valentina Tereshkova.  

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

After hearing about 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 was not realized until two years after her death in a plane crash, when, in 1928, William J. Powell opened the Bessie Coleman Flying School and the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles.  

Azellia White, the first black woman to earn her pilot’s license in the US  

In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt opens the training and integration of African American pilots and technicians within the US Army Air Corps, leading to the creation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, later known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Azellia White, whose husband was a mechanic for the squadron, attended the visit of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to the Tuskegee Army Air Field, during which she flew with one of the pilots. Inspired, White decided to train with the Tuskegee Airmen and soon became one of the first black women to earn her pilot’s license in the United States. After the war, she co-founded the Sky Ranch Flying Service, in which she trained members of the black community of Houston, Texas. In 2018, White was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame.   

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 go on to 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 aimed to become the first woman to fly around the world. Sadly, her twin-engine Lockheed Electra 10-E disappeared on July 2, 1937, as Earhart 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.  

Jacqueline Cochran, the first woman to fly supersonic  

After hitching a ride on a friend’s plane, Jacqueline Cochran decided to learn to fly an aircraft. In September 1939, as the Second World War broke out in Europe, Cochran wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt asking to create a female unit in the Army Air Forces. Eventually, she was granted command of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) corps. Under her supervision, WASP assisted with various missions, including, but not limited to, cargo transport, target towing, and test-flying aircraft after repairs. Following the war, Jacqueline Cochran became a racing pilot and established multiple records for women. On May 18, 1953, onboard her North American F-86 Saber, Cochran broke a historical record and became the first woman to break the sound barrier at 1,050 kilometers per hour. In a friendly duel with her French namesake Jaqueline Auriol, she continued pushing the record until 1964, when she reached a speed of 2,097 kilometers per hour in the cockpit of a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter TF-104G. Cochran became the first woman president of the International Aeronautical Federation (IAF).  

Martha McSally, the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat  

At 18, and despite being only 1.60m tall, Martha McSally joined the US Air Force school in 1984. She began her military career as an instructor pilot on the T-37 trainer. However, when the US Congress repealed the prohibition law that barred women from flying aircraft in combat in 1991, McSally transitioned to the A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft. She was assigned to a combat unit in Kuwait and enforced the no-fly zone over southern Iraq, becoming the first woman in US history to fly in combat and command a combat aviation unit. In a lawsuit against the US Department of Defense filed by McSally in 2001, she challenged the regulations that required servicewomen stationed in Saudi Arabia to cover themselves with an Islamic abaya when traveling off base. The regulation was repealed a year later. In 2019, as she was serving as Senator for Arizona, she revealed she had been raped by a superior officer while in the USAF and spoke against the shortcomings of the military in dealing with sexual abuse.  

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