In honor of the upcoming Women’s History month, I wanted to celebrate some of the women who have made an impact on aviation as pioneers in air and space. Today, women fly charter planes, commercial airlines, fly in the military and in space, compete in air races. They command helicopters in mercy flights and as first responders for fighting fires and emergency response. They haul freight through the air, seed clouds, teach flight, build airplanes and maintain jet engines. Just as women have pushed the boundaries everywhere throughout history, they have pushed the bounds of air and space travel as well.
Blanche Scott was the first American woman to pilot a solo flight, though it was not an official one. She was also the first woman to drive an automobile coast to coast, so she clearly had a little adventure in her veins, as most of the women in air travel do. She was given lessons on operating an airplane and was permitted to taxi the plane in 1910, however the man who was teaching her placed a block of wood behind the throttle pedal so that she could not take flight. However, on September 2nd, 1910, “something happened” to the block, and she “mysteriously” took flight and managed to reach an altitude of about 12 meters before coming back down. She later went on to become a member of several flight teams, including performing stunts and tricks for exhibitions, but retired from flying when she became frustrated in the lack of opportunities for other women as pilots, engineers, and mechanics.
In 1911, Harriet Quimby was the first woman to be licensed as a pilot. Her career as a pilot was brief, but undeniably heroic. Known for her stylish statement flying suit in purple satin, she was also the first American woman to fly alone across the English Channel. She became an instant sensation upon her landing after the English Channel flight. She was flipped out of her plane and neither her or her flying companion William Willard survived, but she made a lasting impact on female aviation.
Bessie Coleman was the first African American, male-or-female, to receive a pilot’s licence. She was unable to secure flight training in the United States due to her race and gender, and so she went to France to earn a licence. She earned her licence June 15th of 1921, from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She moved back to the United States that fall and began to perform in air shows in Chicago, and later in the South where she began to attract more attention from African Americans who were inspired by her flying and by her groundbreaking career. What she had most wanted to do was build a flying school for African Americans, however, before the school open her plane went into a dive and flipped, and she was thrown from the plane and did not survive. There are still tributes and aviation clubs in her name, in honor of the hope and inspiration “Brave Bessie” gave to aspiring pilots all over the world.
These are just some of the boundary-pushing ladies with an adventurous heart and nerves of steel that made aviation what is is today. We haven’t even begun to touch on Dr. Sally Ride, first American woman to fly in space, or Jeana Yeager who helped build the aircraft that would carry her and her partner Dick Rutan around the world to break one of the last records in aviation: to fly around the world non-stop and non-refueled.
These women prove that what it takes to be a hero is simply the determination to go after what you want, no matter what.