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Woman in Aviation - Leading the Way

August, being woman’s month, we decided to pay homage to some of the Ladies that led the way for others to follow in the generally male dominated world of Aviation. Ladies have played a massive role in the world of flying since the dream began at Kitty Hawk in 1903.

Katharine Wright Haskell the sister of aviation’s most famous brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, Katharine played a crucial role in the pioneering duo’s success. In fact, Wilbur once said: "If ever the world thinks of us in connection with aviation, it must remember our sister." Sadly, for the most part it hasn’t, although her influence on the history of flight is well documented.

Katharine graduated from Ohio’s Oberlin College in 1898 and maintained the Wright household and finances while her brothers travelled the globe trying to bring in funding and partners. In 1909, she journeyed to France with Orville, where her charm and outgoing personality, traits her notoriously shy brothers lacked, made her an immediate hit with French newspapers. Katharine took on the financial responsibilities of the Wright Company and was awarded the Légion d'Honneur alongside her brothers.

Katharine Wright Haskell with her brothers Wilbur and Orville

Emma Lilian Todd was a self-taught inventor. Inspired by the airships she saw on a trip to London, she began inventing around 1903 and went on to design an aircraft that was successfully flown by test-pilot Didier Masson (denied a pilot’s licence, she was unable to fly the plane herself).

Todd’s work in aviation was noticed by philanthropist Olivia Sage when she exhibited her first design at a Madison Square Garden airshow. Sage became Emma’s patron, giving her $7,000 to design and build an aircraft. In addition to her biplane design, Todd founded the first Junior Aero Club in 1908 to help educate future aviators.

Emma Lilian Todd

French aviator Therese Peltier developed an interest in aviation when her close friend, aviator Léon Delagrange, moved into the field. Delagrange inspired her to become the first woman to fly solo in a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft.

Remarkably, Peltier learnt to use the aircraft’s controls through observation alone – particularly impressive when you consider that aircraft at the time were less reliable and far more intuitive than they are today. Peltier flew solo in Delagrange’s Voisin Boxkite for 200 meters at a height of 2.5 meters at the Military Square in Italy; quite a feat at a time when the slogan ‘woman can’t drive’ was practically institutionalized.

Therese Peltier

Raymonde de Laroche known by some as the ‘Baroness of Flight’, French pilot de Laroche was interested in mechanics from an early age. After crossing paths with pioneering aviator Léon Delagrange and attending the 1908 Paris expo where the Wright brothers enchanted the world, she set her sights on a career in aviation and enrolled at Charles Voisin’s rudimentary flight school.

On March 8, 1910, de Laroche became the first woman in the world to receive a pilot’s licence when the Aero Club of France issued her licence #36 of the International Aeronautical Federation. She was also a talented aviation engineer and became a test pilot but was tragically killed when an experimental plane went into a dive in 1919.

Raymonde de Laroche

Bessie Coleman the daughter of Texas sharecroppers, Bessie worked in the fields from a young age and later as a manicurist in the White Sox Barber Shop in Chicago. While there she met pilots returning home from World War I and, fired with ambition to become a pilot, took a second job at a restaurant to earn the money for flight training.

At the time, neither women nor African-Americans were allowed to attend pilot school; but undeterred, Coleman moved to France in 1920 and took advanced classes from ace pilots. She saw her work in aviation as a way to further the civil rights movement, saying: “The air is the only place free from prejudices.” Returning to the U.S., Coleman went on to become a famous air show stunt pilot nicknamed “Queen Bess”.

Bessie Coleman

In 1927, at the age of 16, Elinor Smith was the youngest pilot ever to receive a Federation Aeronautique International (FAI) license, signed by Orville Wright. The next year, at age 17, she became the first and only pilot to successfully maneuver a plane under all four New York City bridges, resulting in a 10-day grounding by the Mayor of New York and much publicity.

In November 1929, she joined Bobbi Trout in trying for the first in-flight refueling endurance record for women, which lasted over 42 hours. At age 19 in 1930, she was voted the Best Woman Pilot in the US, the same year that her hero Jimmy Doolittle was voted Best Male Pilot.

Elinor Smith

Arguably the most famous female pilot and aviation role model of all time, Amelia Earhart saw a plane for the first time aged 11 at the Iowa State Fair, one of the Wright Brothers’ early models. She worked hard over the years to pay for flight classes and her own plane. Once licensed, she set a new altitude record for a female pilot of 14,000 feet. In 1928, Earhart navigated an historic flight across the Atlantic. Later, she made the journey as pilot but was forced to land in Northern Ireland due to technical difficulties and bad weather. A number of accolades followed and she became the first woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Still not satisfied with her accomplishments, she determined to be the first woman to fly around the world. In 1937 the adventure ended badly when Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, vanished while crossing the Pacific Ocean on their way to Howland Island. Despite concerted efforts by the U.S. government, they were never found and Earhart was eventually declared dead in absentia. Her attempt was later completed by Geraldine Mock, who successfully flew around the world in 1964.

Amelia Earhart

American aviation pioneer Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie fell in love with flying when a small airshow took place in her Iowa hometown to mark a visit by President Woodrow Wilson. She persuaded an airport manager to allow her to fly with one of his pilots, who carried out several stunts in an attempt to make her ill and put her off. Instead, Omlie began performing aerial stunts herself, taking up wing-walking and parachuting before setting the record for the highest parachute jump by a female when she jumped from her plane at 15,200 feet.

In 1927, Omlie became the first woman to receive an airplane mechanic's license and was also the first licensed female transport pilot. She was later appointed by President Roosevelt as the Special Adviser for Air Intelligence to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, making her the first woman appointed to a federal aviation position. During World War II, she established 66 flight schools in 46 states in order to meet the growing need for pilots. Making use of female flight instructors, she famously said, “If women can teach men to walk, they can teach them to fly.”

Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie

English aviator Amy Johnson initially flew planes as a hobby. After gaining a degree in economics, she achieved her pilot’s licence in 1929 under the guidance of Captain Valentine Baker and became the first woman to obtain a ground engineer's "C" licence.

In 1930 she determined to set a new record by flying from England to Australia. Departing Croydon on May 5, 1930 in a two-seat touring and training aircraft, Johnson arrived in Darwin on May 24 having covered a distance of 11,000 miles. She also set the record from England to Cape Town and competed in an England-to-Australia air race with her husband in 1934, flying non-stop to India in record time. During World War II, Johnson joined the Air Transport Auxiliary and rose to the rank of First Officer before her plane crashed into the Thames Estuary in 1941.

Amy Johnson

American racing pilot Jacqueline Cochran set a number of flight records during her auspicious career and won the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race in 1938. She recruited women for the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) – a World War I civilian organization that transported new, repaired and damaged military aircraft between factories, transatlantic delivery points, maintenance units, scrap yards and active service squadrons and airfields. It flew personnel on urgent duty and carried out air ambulance work.

Cochran also led the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), becoming the first director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots when the WFTD and Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron merged. In 1941 she was the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic and in May 1953, she became the first female to break the sound barrier while flying an F-86 Saberjet.

Jacqueline Cochran

The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was a Soviet all-female World War II air force regiment formed in 1941. The pilots – volunteers in their late teens and early twenties – took part in night missions, earning the regiment the nickname “Nachthexen” or “Night Witches” among Nazi officers. They flew precision and harassment bombing missions until the end of the war, taking part in 24,000 missions and dropping 23,000 tons of explosives.

Equipped with antiquated and slow-moving wood-and-canvas Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes originally designed for dusting crops, the 588th pilots made daring use of their planes’ manoeuvrability, dodging the far more advanced Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s used by the Germans. The Night Witches were experienced and highly decorated; by the end of the war each surviving pilot had flown over 800 missions. Thirty members died in combat and 23 were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title.

Ladies of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment

The Ladies of Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) were members of a civilian organisation set up during World War II to ferry new, repaired and damaged military aircraft between factories, assembly plants, maintenance depots and so on to active service squadrons and airfields, as well as transporting service personnel on urgent duty and performing some air ambulance work.

Originally intended to carry personnel, mail and medical supplies, its pilots were soon in demand to work with RAF ferry pools in the transport of aircraft and by 1st August 1941 had taken all ferrying responsibility, freeing up much-needed male pilots for combat roles.

Although at first seen as less-skilled than their male counterparts, in time they fly all types of aircraft, from Hurricanes and Spitfires to four-engine heavy bombers such as the Lancaster and Flying Fortress.

Ladies of Air Transport Auxiliary

A tomboy throughout her childhood, Ohio-born Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock developed an interest in flying after traveling in the cockpit of a Ford Trimotor aircraft aged seven. She later took a high school engineering course and, in 1964, became the first woman to fly around the world, a feat she achieved in a single-engine Cessna 180 named the Spirit of Columbus.

Mock’s ground-breaking round-the-world flight took 29 days to complete and covered almost 22,860 miles as she travelled over countries including Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. She was also the first woman to fly the Atlantic and Pacific; cross the Pacific in both directions; and cross the Pacific in a single-engine aircraft.

Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock

South African-born British aviator Yvonne Pope Sintes’ career spans several disciplines: air stewardess, RAF Volunteer Reserve member, flight instructor, air traffic controller, pilot and author. She co-founded the British Women Pilots’ Association in 1955 and worked at Gatwick Airport as the first female air traffic controller in the early 1960’s.

Sintes applied to work for British European Airways (which later became British Airways) in 1967 but was turned down in a letter that stated it wasn’t “…present BEA policy to employ women co-pilots”. She persevered, however, and became the first British commercial airline pilot in 1972, flying for Morton Air Services.

Yvonne Pope Sintes

Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova trained in skydiving at an early age, making her first jump in her early twenties. In 1962 she was accepted onto a female cosmonaut program and the following year she famously travelled into space aboard Vostok 6, after being selected from over 400 applicants to pilot the spacecraft. At the launch into space, she was recorded as saying: “Hey, sky, take off your hat. I’m on my way!”

Tereshkova orbited the earth 48 times in just under three days (more times than any man in space before her). Upon her return, she attended the Zhukovsky Military Air Academy and graduated with distinction in 1969. Retiring from military and political service with the rank of Major General of the Soviet Air Force, she joked with Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2007 that she would still like to travel to Mars.

Valentina Tereshkova

American airline pilot Emily Howell Warner developed a childhood interest in planes and decided to become a pilot at the age of 17 after traveling on one for the first time. Juggling flying classes with a full-time office job, she gained her private pilot’s license within a year and secured a job as a flying traffic reporter.

In 1973, Frontier Airlines made Warner the first female commercial airline pilot, opening the door for over 300 other women to take on similar roles within the next five years. Warner became the first female U.S. airline captain in 1976, flying a Twin Otter, and was also the first woman to become a member of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA).

Emily Howell Warner

New York-born Eileen Collins expressed an early interest in aviation. One of just four women chosen to undergo pilot training at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma, she began her career as a military instructor and test pilot before becoming the second female pilot to attend the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School.

Collins was chosen to be an astronaut in 1990 and was the first female space shuttle pilot and the first woman to command a U.S. space shuttle. During a space mission in 1999, she also became the first astronaut to complete a 360-degree pitch manoeuvre in a space shuttle. Collins retired as a NASA astronaut and U.S. Air Force colonel, having received several medals for her service to aviation and aerospace.

Eileen Collins

American aviator Patty Wagstaff has aviation in her blood; her father was a Japan Airlines pilot and her sister flies for United Airlines. She took flying lessons after moving to Alaska in the late 1970s and first qualified for the U.S. National Aerobatic Team in 1985. In 1991, she became the first woman to win the U.S. National Acrobatic Championship, a feat she has achieved three times over the course of her career.

Wagstaff was named the Betty Skelton First Lady of Aerobatics for six consecutive years from 1988 to 1994 and has been inducted into several aviation halls of fame, including the International Women's Aviation Hall of Fame and National Aviation Hall of Fame. Today she is based in Florida, where she runs a pilot training school alongside her work as an airshow pilot, film stunt pilot and flight instructor.

Patty Wagstaff

Born to a French mother and British father, Mélanie Astles grew up in the south of France and dreamed of becoming a pilot after attending an air show when she was six years old. She left school at 18 and worked at a gas station to save for flying lessons, beginning her training aged 21 and earning her private pilot’s licence four years later.

Astles’ big break came when an essay about her love of flying won her a place at an aerobatics training camp. She went on to become a five-time French Aerobatic Champion and made history by competing in the 2016 Red Bull Challenger Cup. Astles is ranked the fifth-best female aerobatic pilot in the world and is on the ministerial list of high-level French athletes.

Mélanie Astles

​Catharine Labuschagne received her wings in 2000 and, a decade later, was one of South Africa’s most highly skilled pilots. Labuschagne trained on the venerable Impala jet before graduating to the Hawk 120 lead-in fighter trainer in preparation for the step up to South Africa’s most formidable aircraft. Pilots are required to accumulate about 430 hours on the Hawk and pass several courses before they can sit behind the controls of a Gripen.

Catherine completed her maiden solo flight in the South African Air Force’s Gripen Jas 39C in October 2010, becoming the first woman fighter pilot ever to fly the supersonic aircraft.

Catharine Labuschagne


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