Greatest Women in Aviation History
From the humble days of biplanes and dirigibles, mankind has made immense strides in the aviation and astronautics fields. But, within these fields, there is an element which has often been overlooked in the past, the contributions of womankind.
Whether you fly commercially or prefer to charter a private jet there are men and women both whose involvement in the industry made your flight a possibility. Since most of the men have had plenty of credit over the years we decided to create a list focusing on the Greatest Women in Aviation History, and maybe we’ll get to the men down the line.
In no particular order:
Emma Lilian Todd
Remembered for: First female inventor in aviation
Emma began inventing around 1903, having been inspired by airships she saw in London. Her own final design before she retired from inventing was successfully flown by test-pilot Didier Masson, since she was denied a licence herself – not for lack of trying. A 1909 issue of ‘Woman's Home Companion’ notes that she inherited her mechanical and inventive talent from her maternal grandfather. One of her earliest jobs was in the office of the governor of Pennsylvania, which may also have made her one of the first women to hold such a position in the state.
Her work in aviation was noticed very quickly when she exhibited her first design at Madison Square Garden during an airshow. Philanthropist Olivia Sage was drawn to Emma’s work and quickly became her patron, giving her $7,000 to design and build her aircraft. Other than her work on her biplane design she also began the first Junior Aero Club in 1908, created and patented “a cabinet with a folding table, a solar powered noon-day cannon, a unique sundial, and an aeolian harp device to be fastened in a tree where it would be played by the wind”, according to an archived edition of the New York Times.
Occupation: Sculptor and aviator
Remembered for: First female to pilot an aircraft
Therese was at first incorrectly labelled by newspapers at the time as being the first woman to be a passenger in an airplane but this later turned out not to be the case. In fact, the first female aircraft passenger turned out to be a Belgian woman named Mlle. P. Van Pottelsberghe who had gone up shortly before with pilot Henri Farman. Therese Peltier had bigger things in mind, however, since her own time spent as a passenger of aviator Léon Delagrange so entranced her that she ultimately became the first woman to fly solo in a powered, heavier-than-air aeroplane in history.
In those days there were no courses as we would recognise them today, so Therese basically had to learn the controls by observation. To add to the complexity, the aircraft of those years were far from intuitive or reliable, but she managed a solo flight of 200 metres at a height of 2.5 metres at the Military Square in Turin, Italy without incident. She flew Léon Delagrange’s Voisin boxkite, but sadly Mr Delagrange was to die from a fatal crash a year or two later, in 1910, and a heartbroken Therese never piloted a plane again, leaving aviation entirely. At a time where the sexist slogan of ‘woman can’t drive’ was almost institutional, she successfully piloted a plane where many male pilots had not, and the feat did not go unnoticed.
Katharine Wright (Haskell)
Remembered for: Support of the Wright Brothers
That’s right, although you’ve probably never even heard of her, Wilbur and Orville Wright had a sister and she played a large enough role in the success of the brothers that Wilbur is reported saying that, "If ever the world thinks of us in connection with aviation, it must remember our sister." Sadly, for the most part it does not, but her influence on their endeavour is quite well documented. Katharine graduated from Oberlin College in 1898 and maintained the Wright household and finances while the brothers ran around the globe trying to bring in funding and partners. She was very close to her brothers and they exchanged messages regularly.
She quit her job in 1908 to stay by Orville's bedside during his seven week recuperation from a dangerous flight demonstration accident. In 1909 Wilbur asked Katharine to go to France with Orville. She was an immediate hit on the trail as French newspapers took a shine to her charming and outgoing personality, attributes which her notoriously shy brothers lacked. French newspapers were captivated by what they saw as the human side of the Wrights, and Katharine took on financial responsibilities for the Wright Company. She was eventually awarded the Légion d'Honneur alongside her brothers.
Raymonde de Laroche
Remembered for: First female in the world to earn a pilot license
Known by some as the ‘Baroness of Flight’, de Laroche was incorrectly dubbed a ‘Baroness’ by the initial report done during her first solo flight. She was, in fact, born to a plumber who was curiously known for his speciality of ‘unclogging stopped up toilets’. Needless to say (and much to her father’s dismay) she instead began a career as an actress, but she’d always had an interest in mechanics. She happened to cross paths with Léon Delagrange and attended the same 1908 Paris exposition in which the Wright Brothers enchanted the world. She determined right then and there that this was to be her world and attended Charles Voisin’s rudimentary flight school.
In a newsletter of the time the ‘Royal Aero Club’ wrote that, “Yet another sphere which some had thought man would, for some time, at any rate, retain for his own has been invaded by the gentler sex. Baroness La Roche has been successfully piloting a Voisin biplane, and has thereby earned the right to be known as the first lady flyer or “aviatress.” On 8 March 1910, de Laroche became the first woman in the world to receive a pilot 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 an experimental plane went into a dive in 1919 tragically killing her. There is a statue of her at Le Bourget Airport in France.
Remembered as: The first woman of African-American descent, and the first woman of Native American descent, to gain a pilot license.
The daughter of sharecroppers in Texas, Bessie Coleman 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 the ambition to become a pilot, took a second job at a restaurant to earn the money for flight training, before discovering that neither women nor African Americans were allowed to attend pilot school. Undeterred, she took French classes and moved to France in 1920, taking advanced classes from ace pilots in France and later Germany and the Netherlands.
Coleman saw her work in aviation as a way of furthering the civil rights movement and said, “The air is the only place free from prejudices.” Returning to the US, Coleman became a famous air show stunt pilot, nicknamed “Queen Bess”. She planned to start a school for African-American pilots, but before Coleman could realise her ambion she was tragically killed in plane crash caused by faulty equipment.
Died: Declared dead in absentia, 1939
Remembered for: First female to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and more
Arguably the most famous female pilot of all time, Amelia Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas in 1897 and was quickly noted for being a tom-boy and a ring leader amongst her siblings. When she was 11 years old she saw her first plane at the Iowa State Fair, it was one of the Wright Brothers’ early models but it failed to capture her interest. Instead she changed courses and schools several times before ended up in her first plane and realised this would be her future, saying “I knew I had to fly." She worked hard from that point and with some financial assistance from her mother managed to pay for flight classes and to ultimately purchase her own plane. After obtaining her licence she set a new altitude record for female pilots of 14,000 feet.
In 1928 Amelia was invited to take part in a historic flight across the Atlantic, making her the first to make the trip in history. Although she’d merely been the navigator she was received in the US with critical acclaim and met the president. She was far from satisfied with her position as a navigator, however, and set out to make the journey herself. She chose to emulate Charles Lindbergh in a perilous flight which took her from Newfoundland and forced her to ultimately land in Northern Ireland due to technical difficulties and bad weather. She accumulated several accolades, and became the first woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross, and was the second person in history to make the trip.
By now her fame had reached critical levels and she determined to challenge herself further by being the first woman to fly around the world. The adventure ended badly, however, as Amelia and her navigator, Fred Noonan, vanished while crossing the Pacific Ocean on their way to Howland Island in 1937. Despite a concerted effort by the United States government they were never found. Her attempt would later be completed by Geraldine Mock, who successfully flew around the world in 1964.
Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie
Occupation: Aviation mechanic
Remembered for: First female aviation mechanic, and more
Phoebe Jane Fairgrave is easily one of the most notable and yet underrated females in the field of aviation specifically, and advancing women professionally in general. This was so much the case that Eleanor Roosevelt said of her that she was one of "eleven women whose achievements make it safe to say the world is progressing."
Phoebe was born in Des Moines, Iowa and attended the Madison School and Mechanic Arts High School, graduating in 1920. Due to a visit from then President Woodrow Wilson, a small air show took place over her town, and Phoebe fell in love on the spot. After nagging an airport manager for a while she was finally allowed to go up in the air with one of his pilots. The pilot engaged in several flying stunts in an attempt to make her ill and put her off, but this had the exact opposite effect on the young Miss Fairgrave.
While still in her teens she began performing aerial stunts herself, taking up wing walking and parachuting. She set the record for highest parachute jump by a female, jumping from her plane at 15,200 ft. This got her into the movies, flying aerobatic stunts for the film series ‘The Perils of Pauline’. In 1927, Phoebe set yet more records for women, by becoming the first female to receive an airplane mechanic's license, as well as the first licensed female transport pilot. But she wasn’t close to being done. In 1928, she set a world altitude record for women when she ascended to 25,400 ft as well as becoming the first woman to cross the Rocky Mountains in a light aircraft. Phoebe was later appointed by President Roosevelt as the ‘Special Adviser for Air Intelligence to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’, making her the first female to be appointed to a federal aviation position.
When WWII rolled around she established 66 flight schools in 46 states in order to support the growing need for pilots, including academies in which women specifically taught men how to fly, of which she said, “if women can teach men to walk, they can teach them to fly.” She died in 1975 under unfortunate circumstances and was buried beside her husband. Today there is an air traffic control tower dedicated to her at Memphis International Airport.
Remembered for: First female to fly from England to Australia, and more
The tragic darling of British aviation, Amy Johnson remains the country’s most famous aviatrix. Amy was born in Yorkshire and studied economics, eventually working in London as secretary to a solicitor. Airplanes were initially just a hobby for her but she gained her licence in 1929, under the tutelage 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 and tried to raise funding which didn’t go very well, but her oil baron father managed to give her £600 which was enough for her to purchase a small, two-seat touring and training aircraft.
She departed Croydon on May 5th 1930 and arrived in Darwin on May 24th, having covered a distance of 17 702.784 kilometres (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 which they flew non-stop in record time to India in 1934. With the outbreak of WWII Amy joined the Air Transport Auxiliary and rose to the rank of First Officer. In 1941, in a report full of controversy, she was shot down by friendly-fire after supposedly giving the wrong call sign to British military personnel twice. She was found alive and in the water by the crew of HMS Haslemere, but the conditions were extremely poor and one crewman died trying to reach her. Sadly, she was never retrieved.
Occupation: Soviet cosmonaut / pilot / politician
Remembered for: First female in space
In 1963 Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel into space, aboard Vostok 6. She was born in Bolshoye Maslennikovo, a village in western Russia. Valentina was interested in parachuting from a very early age and trained in skydiving, making her first jump in her early twenties. In 1961 she became the secretary of the local Young Communist League, ultimately joining the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The following year she applied to a female cosmonaut programme and was accepted as one of over 400 applicants. After rigorous training she was ready and in 1963 Vostok 6 was launched, with Tereshkova aboard. During the launch she was recorded as saying “Hey sky, take off your hat. I’m on my way!”
She orbited the earth 48 times (more times than any man in space before her) in just under three days. While in orbit she spoke with then Soviet leader Khrushchev who said, “Valentina, I am very happy and proud that a girl from the Soviet Union is the first woman to fly into space and to operate such cutting-edge equipment.” Upon her successful return Valentina graduated with distinction from the Zhukovsky Military Air Academy in 1969 and went on to become a successful pilot and politician. She was a torchbearer of the 2008 Summer Olympics and received the Eduard Rhein Ring of Honour from the German Eduard Rhein Foundation in 2007. She since retired from military and political service with the rank of Major General of the Soviet Air Force, although she joked with Prime Minister Putin that she would still like to travel to Mars.
The 588th regiment, a.k.a “Night Witches”
Occupation: Fighter pilots
Remembered as: The only regiment of female pilots in WWII
The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was a Soviet all-female World War Two air force regiment formed in 1941. The pilots, who were all volunteers in their late teens or early twenties, primarily took part in night missions, and the regiment was nicknamed “Nachthexen” or “Night Witches” by Nazi officers. They flew precision and harassment bombing missions against Hitler’s air force from 1942 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 pilots of the 588th made daring use of the maneuverability of their planes, 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, and by the end of the war each surviving pilot had flown over 800 missions; 30 members died in combat, and 23 were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title.
Occupation: Aerobatic pilot
Remembered for: Becoming the first female pilot to compete in a Red Bull air race.
Mélanie Astles dreamed of becoming a pilot ever since her parents took her to a British air show when she was six years old. Now aged 34, the determined athlete has exceeded her wildest ambitions by becoming a five-time French Aerobatic Champion and the first female pilot to ever compete in a Red Bull air race.
Born to a French mother and British father, Mélanie grew up in the South of France and left school at age 18. Unable to afford flying lessons, she saved money by working in a gas station and finally began taking flying classes when she was 21, earning her private pilot licence four years later. Mélanie’s big break came when she wrote an essay about her love of flying, which won her free admission to an aerobatics training camp.
Since discovering her talent for aerobatic flying, Mélanie has become the reigning French Aerobatic Champion and is ranked as the fifth-best female aerobatic pilot in the world. In 2000, Mélanie was placed on the ministerial list of high-level French athletes and she made history by competing in the 2016 Red Bull Challenger Cup.