Harriet Quimby started as a writer and became interested in aviation after attending the 1910 International Aviation Tournament. [Courtesy: Library of Congress]Editor’s Note: This article is part of a month-long series to mark Women’s History Month: March 1: Pioneers of Women’s Aviation | March 2: Carole Hopson | March 4: Martha King | March 8: Association for Women in Aviation Maintenance | March 11: The Air Race Classic | March 15: Sisters of the Skies | March 18: Women in Aviation Conference | March 22: Women In Aviation: The Numbers | March 22: The first graduating class of Air Force female pilots. | March 25: Bonny Simi of Joby Aviation | March 29: Top Female Difference Makers in Aviation
Women have been involved with airplanes since the earliest days of flight, from Katharine Wright managing her brothers’ bicycle shop and flight operations around 1903 to the first “licensed” women pilots taking to the skies a decade later, followed by barnstormers, racers, and record setters in the 1920s and 1930s.
Start looking and you will find far more compelling stories than one can digest in a sitting. Below is our distilled sampling of pioneering women pilots that we hope will inspire readers to continue exploring women’s contributions to aviation.
Born on May 11, 1875, in Arcadia, Michigan, Harriet Quimby began her career as a writer after her family moved to San Francisco in the early 1900s. She moved to New York to work as a theater critic in 1903 and became interested in flying while attending the International Aviation Tournament in 1910. The event, held at the Belmont Park horse racing track in Elmont, N.Y., was a typical exhibition of the period, demonstrating the capabilities of pilots and the latest aircraft.
In August 1911, she took her pilot’s test and received her certificate—then called a “license”—from the Aero Club of America, a social club formed in 1905 to promote aviation, becoming the first woman in the U.S. to do so. In November that year, she became one of the first women to fly an airplane in Mexico City.
While Quimby made money performing demonstration flights and competing in air races, she also used her skill in journalism to promote aviation in general and to encourage women, in particular, to become pilots. According to Women in Aviation International, Quimby wrote in 1912, “The airplane should open a fruitful occupation for women. I see no reason they cannot realize handsome incomes by carrying passengers between adjacent towns, from parcel delivery, taking photographs or conducting schools of flying.”
On April 16, 1912, Quimby became the first woman to pilot an airplane across the English Channel. However, news of the Titanic ocean liner sinking the day before kept her accomplishment from getting much attention. Quimby died on July 1, 1912, during a flight at the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet when her Blériot monoplane unexpectedly pitched forward, throwing her and a passenger out of their seats at an altitude of about 1,000 feet.
Mary Anita “Neta” Snook Southern was born February 14, 1896, in Mount Carroll, Illinois, and became interested in machinery as a child. Her father would allow her to sit on his lap and help steer the family’s Stanley Steamer car and later taught her more details about how the car worked. She moved to Ames, Iowa, as a teenager with her parents and attended Iowa State College. Reading about balloons and airplanes in the college library inspired her to take flying lessons, which led to an Aero Club pilot’s license. She is believed to be the first certificated woman pilot in Iowa, according to the Ames History Museum.
After World War I she brought a wrecked Canadian Canuck biplane, a version of the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, back to her parents’ home and gradually rebuilt it in her spare time while attending college classes. By the spring of 1920, it was ready to fly.
Southern recounts the process of getting it airborne in her autobiography, I Taught Amelia to Fly.
“I removed the wings, loaded them on a truck, hooked the fuselage behind, and took the plane to a pasture which adjoined the Iowa State College campus. After assembling it, I made my first solo flight. That summer I carried passengers and barnstormed through the middle states. I charged $15 for a passenger flight, and tried to give each one fifteen minutes in the air. If there were many waiting, I could cut the time in half without complaints. All were happy to return to the ground safely and be able to say they had been up in an aeroplane.”
When she moved to California in 1920, Neta became the first woman to run a commercial airfield, Kinner Field in Los Angeles, which included business for passenger carrying, aerial advertising, and flight instruction. Her most famous student was Amelia Earhart, whom she instructed in 1921. Later that year, she married William Southern, sold her airplane, and never flew again. She died at 95 in 1991.
Born on May 11, 1906, into a hardscrabble childhood in Florida, Cochran eventually became one of the most notable and accomplished women in aviation. She learned to fly in 1932 while working in cosmetics sales. She soon began competing in races and setting records for speed and altitude. In 1935, she was the first woman to compete in the transcontinental Bendix Trophy race. In 1937, she finished third in the Bendix and won it the following year flying a Seversky AP-7 from Burbank, California, to Cleveland, Ohio, for a total of 2,042 miles.
A friend of Amelia Earhart, Cochran was an influential member of the Ninety-Nines, a women pilots’ organization of which Earhart was a founding member. Before the U.S. entered World War II, Cochran volunteered with the Royal Air Force and worked for the British Air Transport Auxiliary, where she recruited American women pilots from the U.S. to join her. She later lobbied for development of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, which she commanded from 1943 through 1944. She won the Army Air Forces’ Distinguished Service Medal in 1945 for her wartime work.
Perhaps her biggest airborne accomplishment came in 1953, when she set a speed record in an F-86 Sabre and reached supersonic speeds in the process—becoming the first female pilot to do so.
Beyond her flying prowess, Cochran was known for her intense competitiveness and ability to persuade others to her will, often by sheer persistence. Renowned test pilot and the first person to break the sound-barrier, General Chuck Yeager was a lifelong friend who said Cochran was “a remarkable person,” despite her sometimes difficult personality. “She was a pain at times, but I figured she had earned that right. Jackie had paid her dues in spades,” Yeager wrote in his autobiography, Yeager.
Ann Carl was another pilot with a connection to Amelia Earhart. Born Ann Baumgartner on August 27, 1918, she initially became interested in flying when Earhart visited her grade school. After graduating from Smith College in 1940, she was working in public relations at Eastern Airlines when she began taking flying lessons at Somerset Hills Airport in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.
In 1943, she completed training with the WASPs in Texas and worked as a target tow pilot in North Carolina before transferring to Wright Field near Dayton, Ohio, where she became an assistant operations officer with a flight-testing group. After initially working on clerical tasks, she was eventually allowed to fly as a test pilot. She also delivered aircraft and shuttled staff officers between Army bases. She flew a range of aircraft including the B-17, B-24, B29, and the British de Havilland Mosquito, according to the Commemorative Air Force.
Her most famous flight came in October 1944 when she piloted the jet-powered Bell XP-59A Airacomet and became the first American woman to fly a jet aircraft. The following December, her test pilot assignment ended when the WASP program was shut down. She later worked as a flight instructor, journalist, and author. She died in 2008.
Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock made quite an impression in 1964 when she landed her 1953 Cessna 180 in Saudi Arabia, where women were not allowed to drive cars. The stop was one of many on her around-the-world solo flight in an airplane she named the Spirit of Columbus, after her hometown in Ohio. In Three-Eight Charlie, her book about the flight, the title of which recalls her airplane’s registration number, Mock describes how the Saudi men who greeted her seemed amazed that there was no man in the airplane with her.
Often referred to as a “flying housewife,” Mock, a mother of three who had 750 hours and a new instrument rating, was a contrast to the stereotype of a pilot circling the globe (i.e., a man). She wore skirts and sweater sets during the flight, and always looked completely put-together during public appearances. She made the endeavor look easy, even though she had to deal with icing over the Atlantic, sandstorms along the African coast, and numerous other hazards, according to the Smithsonian Institution, whose National Air and Space Museum has her airplane on display.
The aircraft was no ordinary Cessna. Mock’s husband, who suggested the trip, outfitted it with extra radios, direction-finding equipment, and auxiliary fuel tanks. This was a well-planned flight that took about a month, from March 19 to April 17. When it was over, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Mock with the FAA’s Decoration for Exceptional Service medal.
Growing up in a flying family, Bonnie Tiburzi Caputo began taking flying lessons as a 12-year-old, received her FAA pilot’s certificate at 19, worked as a flight instructor, and flew commercial operations in a range of aircraft including Douglas DC-3s. In 1973, when she was 24, she made history by landing a job with American Airlines—making her the first woman hired by a major international carrier as a member of the cockpit crew, following close upon the heels of Emily Howell Warner, who had been hired by U.S. airline Frontier Airlines in early 1973.
She spent her career with American, first as a flight engineer, first officer, and captain on the Boeing 727. When she retired in 1998, she was a captain in 757 and 767 aircraft, flying domestic and international routes. Today, her American Airlines uniform is on display in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Of course being first wasn’t always easy. She had to deal with people mistaking her for a flight attendant or ground support worker—anything but a pilot. In her book, Takeoff! The Story of America’s First Woman Pilot for a Major Airline, she talks about the obstacles she had to clear and the sacrifices she had to make on her way to an airline career, and she explains why the results were worth the effort. She also takes readers inside the cockpit, the flight simulators, and other places passengers never see.
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