Women in Aviation 1946 – 1980

After the end of World War II there were plenty of women pilots in the United States. There were former WASP pilots who had flown for the Civil War Patrol and pilots who hadn’t flown at all during the war years but who were ready to take up flying again.  This posts focuses on those women in aviation after the war years and into the jet age.

Most of these pilots wanted to simply fly for recreation, but a few wanted to make a living from aviation. They applied for jobs as pilots in the burgeoning airline industry, but were turned down because it was believed passengers would not want to fly with a woman pilot.

In 1947, a few former WASP decided to put on an all-woman air show in Florida. They invited some 99s (the women pilot’s organization founded in 1929) from a California chapter to participate in a cross-country race to publicize the event.

The first All Woman Transatlantic Air Race (popularly known as the Powder Puff Derby – not to be confused with the Powder Puff Derby of 1929) was hardly worthy of the name. Due to organizational difficulties only one woman actually made the flight. But the All Woman’s Air Meet was held in Florida the next year, and this time the AWTAR would have 6 entries. Although the air meet would eventually go by the wayside, the AWTAR would continue until 1977. In its peak year over 200 women pilots participated.

This race received a great deal of publicity along its route each year. Honorary starters included actors such as Robert Stack and Martin Milner. Actress Susan Oliver actually won the race one year. Charles Schultz featured the race in some of his Peanuts strips, and Bitsy, a female pilot in Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon comic strip, was always too broke to afford the price of entry.

The AWTAR was not the only all-woman race, although it’s the one that received the most publicity. The All Women’s International Air Race, better known as the Angel Derby, was founded in 1949 by the Florida Women Pilots Association. The races would start (or end) somewhere in Mexico, Canada, or the Bahamas.

Women overseas were increasing the ranks of pilots as well, albeit to a lesser extent than their American counterparts. Most of Europe had to recover from the ravages of World War II before recreational aviation could recover.

Jackie Cochran set several speed records, in unofficial competition with Diana Barnato Walker of England. Cochran was the first woman to break the sound barrier, in 1953. Walker broke the sound barrier in 1963.

In the early 1960s, several women pilots attempted to try out for NASA’s Mercury program. Because of the tiny space in the capsule, many scientists suggested that women would actually be more suitable than men to become astronauts – though of course this suggestion was not really taken seriously. The Mercury 13 – 13 established women pilots – took the same tests as the male pilots did, and many passed with flying colors – especially Jerrie Cobb. However, the testing had been for information only, and when NASA changed the requirements so that only jet pilots were eligible to become astronauts, the testing program ended.

It was not until the early 1970s that the hard work of the women pilots up until that time began to pay off (with a little assistance from Civil Rights legislation). Bonnie Tiburzi became the first female pilot at a major airline (American) in 1973. A trickle of other women pilots soon followed (although those gates would not really open until the mid-1980s.)

In 1977, the Air Force accepted women pilots, and graduated its first class of ten women on September 2, 1977. A press release about the event claimed that these were the first women to ever fly for the US Air Force. The surviving WASP, forgotten for thirty years (thanks to the fact that their program had been classified secret – *after* the war had ended!) immediately attempted to set the record straight about their own accomplishments. Since that time, many books have been written about the WASP and their exploits during the war.

The stage was then set for the 1980s and more achievements to come.

Further Reading

A WASP Among Eagles: A Woman Military Test Pilot in World War II, by Ann B. Carl. Smithsonian Institution Press. 1999
The Stars at Noon, by Jacqueline Cochran. Little Brown and Company. 1954
Tethered Mercury: A Pilot’s Memoir: The Right Stuff…but the Wrong Sex. Bernice Trimbe Steadman with Joy M. Clark. Aviation Press. 2001
Takeoff! The Story of America’s First Woman Pilot for a Major Airline. Bonnie Tiburzi. Crown Publishers. 1984
Spreading My Wings, by Diana Barnato Walker. Grub Street. 2003