Wing Women: Women in Aviation

Through skill, competence, experience and fortitude, women have played a pivotal role in aviation, from its dawn to the present day.

Harriet Quimby, in Moisant monoplane, Moisant Aviation School, Mineola L.I. 1911.
Harriet Quimby, in Moisant monoplane, Moisant Aviation School, Mineola L.I. 1911. (Photo: Giacinta B. Koontz Collection)

Harriet Quimby was once described to me by her biographer and aviation historian, Giacinta Bradley Koontz, as “a woman moving forward with purpose.’’ In Koontz’ book, The Harriet Quimby Scrapbook, The Life of America’s First Birdwoman, 1875- 1912, Quimby’s life story is that of a modern woman living in a not-so- modern age “that touched the fringes of the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the Ragtime Era, and the new Age of Aviation.” 

Harriet was born in 1875 on a family homestead in Michigan. In 1888 the Quimbys embarked on a gypsy-like journey west that ultimately landed them in the “diverse, bawdy and artistic” city of San Francisco. Harriet, now a stunningly attractive young woman, developed a passion for the stage and dreamt of being an actress. Instead, her curious nature and her bright writing style lead her toward a career in journalism, relocating to New York City in 1903. Between 1903-1912, Quimby worked as a drama critic and photo-journalist for Leslie’s Weekly, travelling the world over. Fascinated with the automobile and with a love of speed, she drove her own car, learned how to repair it, smoked cigarettes and lived on her own, personifying a model of feminine independence. 

In 1910 Harriet attended the Belmont Air Meet in New York and became enthralled with the idea of flying an aeroplane. In the spring of 1911, she began flying lessons at the Moissant School of Aviation in Mineola, Long Island. In August of that year, Quimby passed all her flying tests and became the first American woman to earn an aviator’s license which was officiated by the Aero Club of America and certified by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI). Shortly after, Harriet entered the world of professional flying exhibitions, which were all the rage in the United States. Donning an unconventional plum-colored satin flying suit of her own design, Quimby added her unique style of glamor to the male dominated occupation of aviation. 

Grumman women workers assembling forward firewall for aircraft 1943.
Grumman women workers assembling forward firewall for aircraft 1943. (Photo: Cradle of Aviation Museum)

Later, in the spring of 1912, as Harriet continued her career in journalism, she flew a 50 horse-power Bleriot XI monoplane across the English Channel, becoming the first woman to accomplish this daunting feat. 

On July 1, 1912, during a publicity flight for the Boston Aviation Meet, with her manager as a passenger, hundreds of spectators watched in horror below as Harriet and her passenger fell to their deaths when the aircraft suddenly pitched forward. The ongoing speculation as to the cause of the aircraft’s malfunction spawned the development of safety devices for pilots and several patents for parachutes. Just prior to her untimely death at age 37, Harriet wrote in her article for Good Housekeeping: ‘’There is no reason why the aeroplane should not open up a fruitful occupation for women. I see no reason they cannot realize handsome incomes.” 

Reflecting upon Quimby’s legacy, Giacinta Koontz emphasized how Harriet left behind a vision of courage, glamor, intelligence and with pen and camera, an intimate view of life at the turn of the century… a ‘person’ in a society, in a world defined as ‘man’ and ‘woman’…. a timeless role model who redefined her destiny, placing her as a metaphor for the American Dream and the opportunity of limitless potential prior to her death.

While Quimby’s place in history as a pioneering aviator is most notable, the many stories of her predecessors, contemporaries and successors involved in various aviation interests have largely gone unnoticed. Regardless, women’s involvement in aviation began at its dawn, from lighter-than air travel, to powered aircraft, from the earliest bi-planes to single wing aircraft and helicopters to the Space Shuttle, from the Golden Age of Aviation to the Jet and Space Age, as civilians and military…and it is a pursuit that continues today into the widening technology of air travel and future careers for women in aviation.

Dorothy Kienzle, Air Traffic Control, Republic Aviation 1945.
Dorothy Kienzle, Air Traffic Control, Republic Aviation 1945. (Photo: Cradle of Aviation Museum)

Pioneering women in the field of aviation were never exclusively involved as pilots. After the advent of the Wright Brothers first machine-powered flight on December 7, 1903, Wilbur Wright said:

 “If ever the world thinks of us in connection with aviation, it must remember our sister.” A forgotten contributor to her brother’s historic flight, Katharine Wright provided financial and moral support, as well as publicity, to Wilbur and Orville Wright and first flew with them for their demonstration flights in France in 1909. That same year the French Baroness de Laroche became the first woman to pilot a plane and the world’s first licensed female pilot in 1910. 

While it would take a volume of text to cite the hundreds of notable females involved in the field of aviation since de Laroche and Quimby, some of the most prominent include Lillian Todd, who designed and built aircraft in 1906, Bessica Raiche who built a flying machine in her living room on Long Island and who is credited as the first American woman to solo this aircraft in 1910. That same year, Blanche Stuart Scott was ‘technically’ the first American woman to solo, when a block on the throttle of her aircraft loosened and briefly sent her aloft. She was, however, not credited as the first to solo since the flight was ruled as ‘accidental’. Other notable women in aviation include Tiny Broadwick, who began her career as a parachutist and was the first woman to parachute from an airplane in 1915. Katherine Stinson became the first woman to fly airmail and to own a flying school, creating the Stinson Aviation Company in 1913.

In 1921 Bessie Coleman was the first African American (male or female) to earn a pilot’s license, travelling to France to do so as American schools refused to accept blacks into pilot training. 

Others Include, Phoebe Omlie, the first woman to earn a transport license in 1927, Elinor Smith who in 1927 at age 16 became the youngest pilot ever to receive a FAI license signed by Orville Wright. Most visibly was Amelia Earhart, who in 1932 was the first woman to solo across the Atlantic. Following her participation in the first Women’s Air Derby in August 1929, Earhart became the first president of the Ninety-Nines, an organization of women pilots, established in November of that year for the advancement of women in aviation and the mutual support of women pilots. Three years later, Katherine Cheung became the first Asian-American woman to earn a license in the USA in 1932

In the decade to follow, during World War II, Rose Clement served as a navigator in the US Navy. Ann Wood was recruited to be one of the first American women pilots to serve in the British ATA ferrying more than 900 airplanes. Between 1942 and 1944, Nancy Love and Jacqueline Cochran commanded the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Mary Feik taught aviation mechanics for the US Army Air Force and is credited with becoming the first woman engineer in research and development for the Air Tech Service Command. Mary Utterback Barr worked in a factory to pay for flying lessons and moved to New York to attend aircraft mechanic’s school. She worked on airplanes during the Second World War and later served as an FAA pilot examiner and accident prevention counselor. Willa Brown was the first African American woman to earn a pilot license in 1938 and in 1942 she was a member of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). With her husband Cornelius Coffey, Brown created the Coffey School of Aeronautics, the first US government approved school of aviation for African Americans.

In the world of commercial aviation, Nadine Jeppesen was hired by United Airlines as a stewardess. She and her husband Capt. Elrey Jeppesen later established a flight chart business, the Jeppesen Airway Manuall. In 1973, Bonnie Tiburzi became the first female pilot for a major American commercial airline.

In the early years of the aerospace industry, pilot Jerrie Cobb was selected as one of 13 women to undergo intense screening tests at the same time as the original Mercury Seven astronauts, but ultimately she was not chosen to fly into space because of her gender. Women would not go to space until July 1983 when astronaut and physicist Sally Ride became the first woman aboard the Space Shuttle ‘Challenger’ and in 1992 Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman in space on the ‘Endeavor’. Three years later Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot the space shuttle, ‘Discovery’ and command the shuttle ‘Columbia’ in July 1999. 

Over the last two to three decades the number of women involved in the aviation industry has steadily increased and women can be found in nearly every aviation occupation. Despite the endless list of achievements made by women in aviation, their numbers in the field are relatively small by comparison. As an example, statistics show that women represent only six percent of the total pilot population, and in the last decade the needle on the scale has barely moved. 

Additionally, the organization, Sisters of the Sky, comprised of professional black women pilots, cite on their website www.sistersoftheskies.org that they represent less than half of 1% of the total professional pilot career field.

In 1988 the publication, Women in Aviation was founded by Amy Carien, a founding board member of Women in Aviation International (WAI). At the first annual WAI conference in 1990, participants recognized the need for more women in the industry and for a support group to serve as mentors and advisers. After a number of successful conferences, in 1994 Dr. Peggy Chabrian, also a founding board member of WAI, established Women in Aviation International as a professional, non-profit organization to address those needs. Women in Aviation International states on their website, www.wai.org , that the organization currently has a membership of more than 15,000 worldwide, including aviation professionals, students, and enthusiasts. Women and men from ALL segments of the industry, including general, corporate, and commercial aviation, education, government, and the military are eligible for WAI membership. 

As WAI’s steadfast mission continues, Women in Aviation International CEO, Allison McKay recently stated, “It is vital that our industry work to attract the next generation of talent as well as to retain those women who have already entered the industry. WAI continues to foster a dynamic community of extraordinary women in aviation through our worldwide chapter network, annual scholarship program, as well as our Mentor Connect and Jobs Connect programs. We know it is critical to catch the interest early and inspire girls at a young age to explore the aviation industry, and our annual Girls in Aviation Day events continue to grow each year.”

With a common mission to foster a dynamic community of women in aviation, many more like-minded organizations have been launched with the intent to significantly improve the number of women in aviation through mentorship, STEM education, scholarships, professional development, and outreach. And like Harriet Quimby…they will be women moving forward with purpose.

Youngest Woman to Fly Solo Around The World Inspires Young Women Everywhere

Shaesta Waiz was born in a refugee camp, her family traveled from Afghanistan to America in 1987 to escape the Soviet-Afghan war. She grew up with her parents and five sisters in Richmond, California in an underprivileged school district where substitute teachers, sharing textbooks with classmates, and watching friends drop out of high school was the norm.

Believing her future consisted of getting married at a young age and starting a big family. It wasn’t until Shaesta found aviation that she started thinking about having a career and going to college.

After a long journey of pursuing an education in a non-traditional field, she became the first certified civilian female pilot from Afghanistan and the first person in her family to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree — both from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Geraldine L. “Jerrie” Mock
Geraldine L. “Jerrie” Mock poses beside the nose of her Cessna 180 Spirit of Columbus at Port Columbus Airport, Columbus, Ohio, March 19, 1964, immediately before she takes off on her record setting solo flight around world in single engine plane. She was first woman to do so.

At Embry-Riddle, she also started the Women’s Ambassador Program — an initiative that seeks to mentor and support young women pursuing an education in aviation and engineering — then sought to advance her efforts to a global scale. She started Dreams Soar to share her story with women around the world, to let them know it is possible to achieve your dreams, regardless of the challenges and traditions you may face.

The Dreams Soar mission is to partner with strong female role models at the stops along the route and together, share and promote the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education.

“Every time I open the door to an aircraft, I ask myself, ‘How did a girl with my background become so lucky?’ The truth is, anyone can be me.” said Shaesta.

Jerrie Mock, the first woman to fly solo around the world, provided a wealth of information for Shaesta and her journey. Before Jerrie’s passing in 2014, she was Shaesta’s mentor and inspiration. Shaesta honored Jerrie by making Columbus, Ohio, Jerrie’s home town, the first stop on her solo global flight. Upon her arrival in Columbus, Shaesta received a warm welcome from Jerrie’s sister, Susan Reid.

Sources and References: 

For further reading check out these women in aviation and aerospace resources online: 

Julia Lauria-Blum earned her BA degree in the Visual Arts at SUNY New Paltz. After a brief career in the hospitality industry she began research on women pioneers in aviation. In 2001 she curated the WASP exhibit at the American Airpower Museum (AAM) in Farmingdale, NY and was a consultant on the History Channel documentary, Women Combat Pilots, The Right Stuff. She later curated the exhibit, 'Women Who Brought the War Home, Women War Correspondents, WWII’ at the AAM. Julia is the former curatorial assistant at the Cradle of Aviation Museum and now works as an independent registrar and archivist.

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