We love Amelia Earhart, don’t get us wrong, but there are so many amazing and brave women pilots to know about! Here are just 7 of them.
Thérèse Peltier was a sculptor who learned to fly from her friend and flew in a straight line for 200 meters, about 2.5 meters off the ground (8 ft, 2 in) and then landed. Her flight happened sometime in September 1908. After her friend Leon Delgrange died in a flying accident, she never flew again.
Did you know the famous Wright brothers had a sister? That’s right, they did. Her name was Katharine Wright and she earned money as a teacher to support them and even learned French in order to help them! Without her, they might not have been able to accomplish all that they did! Okay, she wasn’t a pilot, but we wanted to include her on this list, because she’s pretty cool and people should know about her.
The list of things she did to assist them is so long, I’m going to quote the whole thing here:
The Wright brothers’ endeavors were privately funded. Early on, this funding came primarily from their own bicycle shop which Katharine managed. She packed supplies for the Wright Brothers, managed official correspondence, supplemented funding their continued work at Kitty Hawk with her stable income from teaching, and provided solutions to problems not having to do directly with the planes or the mechanics behind it. Katharine helped Wilbur and Orville to negotiate a one-year extension of their contract with the U.S. Signal Corps. She also learned French in order to speak with European dignitaries for her brothers during their exhibition trips funded by Charles Ranlett Flint. Source
Raymonde de Laroche of France was the first woman to pilot a solo flight in a heavier than air plane. The flew 300 yards (270 meters). She became the first woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license on March 8, 1910, a day that is still celebrated as part of Women of Aviation Worldwide week.
Bessie Coleman was the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license, and she had to go to France to earn it. Her international pilot’s license was awarded by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale in France in June 15, 1921. She made a living performing stunts in airshows across the U.S. Though her dream was to own her own plane and open a flight school, she died in a plane crash at the age of 34 in 1926.
Women pilots of World War II
Though Black women were explicitly banned from serving in the WASP, two Chinese-American Women and one Native American Woman served.
In 1944, Hazel Ying Lee became the first Chinese-American woman to fly for the U.S. military, as a WASP. The second Chinese-American woman to join the WASP was Margaret “Maggie” Gee. Maggie Gee was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in 2010. There is a movement now to rename the Oakland, California airport for Maggie Gee.
Mildred “Millie” Rexroat was the Native American member of the WASP, she began learning to fly before she even had her driver’s license.
Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochrane is an important pilot to know about. She learned to fly in the early 1930s, worked with Amelia Earhart to get women pilots allowed into the important Bendix Race. In 1937, she was the only woman pilot to participate in the race. She won the Bendix race in 1938 and was considered the best female pilot in the United States.
By the time she died, no other pilot in aviation history held more records for speed, distance, or altitude than she did. In WWII, she flew planes built in the U.S. over the Britain, as part of the “Wings for Britain,” program. She was instrumental in getting a program started for the U.S. for women pilots to fly non-combat flights, such as flying planes from the factories to the seaports where they could be taken to Europe, and flying planes in training flights for soldiers. This eventually became the WASP, the Women Airforce Service Pilots.
She then became director of the WASP and oversaw the training hundreds of women at a training center set up in Sweetwater, Texas. She later received the Distinguished Service Medal for her wartime service.
But that’s not all, after the war, she beat the then-record for the fastest flight by a woman, in 1952.
“Cochran was also the first woman to land and take off from an aircraft carrier, the first woman to pilot a bomber across the North Atlantic (in 1941) and later to fly a jet aircraft on a transatlantic flight, the first pilot to make a blind (instrument) landing, the only woman ever to be president of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (1958–1961), the first woman to fly a fixed-wing, jet aircraft across the Atlantic, the first pilot to fly above 20,000 feet (6,096 m) with an oxygen mask, and the first woman to enter the Bendix Transcontinental Race. She still holds more distance and speed records than any pilot living or dead, male or female.” (wikipeida)
But that’s not all! She was also the first woman pilot to break the sound barrier, that is, to go faster than the speed of sound. And, in the 1960s, she ran a program to put women pilots through all the same tests that NASA was putting male pilots through, as part of a process to figure out who withstand space travel. The unofficial program was ended, but not before 13 women passed all the tests.
Want to read more about the WASP? There’s a young adult historical fiction novel called Fly Girl by Sherri L. Smith about a young Black woman who aspires to join the WASP. It’s a really good read.
In 1964 Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock was the first woman to fly solo around the world. Her plane, the Spirit of Columbus, is in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (the Udvar-Hazy Center). It is a Cesna 180.
In July, 1982, two women pilots became Captains of B-737 Jets and flew as co-pilots. Their names were Lynn Rippelmeyer and Bev Burns.
Note: Some of these women pilots were born with a different name and later went by a different name, either because of marriage, taking a nickname, or choosing to change her name. For the sake of brevity, I have chosen to use only their professional name, the name they used consistently in their adult life.
All images used are in the public domain or have otherwise been released by the owners or originators. In cases where the woman is not pictured, it is likely because no public domain image is available.
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