Both women and men had always been fascinated by the dream of flight. Women had gone up in hot air balloons soon after they’d been invented in the 1700s, and as soon as practical airplanes became available, women wanted to learn how to fly them, too. This post introduces us to a few of the pioneer women pilots who flew between 1900 and 1945.
It cost money to learn how to fly, and the social mores of the day didn’t encourage women to seek out adventurous pursuits. Many women defied those mores, but in terms of the percentage of all pilots, there were not very many. Only 6% of pioneer pilots were female.
On March 8, 1910, Raymonde de Laroche was the first woman to earn a pilot’s license. Eleven more French women would earn pilot’s licenses between 1910 and 1914, and a further dozen or so would fly without bothering to test for a license. A handful of women in Belgium, Germany, Italy and even Russia would earn their licenses before 1914 as well.
In the United States, Harriet Quimby earned her license on August 2, 1911. Six more Americans would earn their licenses before 1914. Unlike women in European countries, who were stymied by World War I, a couple of American women earned their licenses in 1916.
It took guts to fly these early planes. There was no cockpit. The pilot sat on the leading edge of the bottom wing, his or her body exposed to the elements. In the beginning women wore dresses while flying – dresses that extended all the way down to their ankles, but eventually they began wearing trousers – much to the outrage of polite society who thought it wasn’t quite polite to be able to see a woman’s “lower limbs.”
When World War I broke out, civilians in Europe were no longer allowed to fly. A few women attempted to volunteer to serve their country in the Armed Forces, but none were accepted. In the United States, after 1916, the same restriction applied. Katherine Stinson, a renowned aviatrix known as the “Flying Schoolmarm,” spent the war years teaching male pilots how to fly.
After the war, few of the original women pioneers returned to aviation. A few had died while performing at air shows before the war (for example Harriet Quimby), most had gotten married and with husband and children to care for, no longer had time to pursue aviation.
However, new generations of women learned to fly during the 20s and 30s. Some of the more famous American pilots were Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, Elinor Smith, Phoebe Omlie and Jackie Cochran.
During World War II, England’s Royal Army Air Force created the Air Transport Auxiliary. Civilian pilots ferried aircraft from the factories to military installations, where RAF pilots took over. Women, as well as male pilots judged unfit for military service due to age, were used.
The United States Army Air Force saw the wisdom of such an organization – especially when pressed by well-known pilots Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Davis Love. After some jockeying between the two determined women and the top brass, the Women Air Force Service Pilots were created.
Eventually, over a thousand women became WASP. In addition to ferrying planes and transporting cargo, they also towed targets for male pilots to practice their marksmanship.
Thirty-eight WASP made the ultimate sacrifice – some dying in training accidents, others while ferrying aircraft across country.
In late 1944, when the American top brass knew that the war was won, the WASP program was disbanded and the women sent back home – their request to be granted military status denied. Despite having proven their ability to fly over 78 different aircraft, and having safely delivering over 12,000 of them to their destination in the course of a little over a year, women would not fly for the Air Force again until 1977.
A WASP Among Eagles: A Woman Military Test Pilot in World War II, by Ann B. Carl. Smithsonian Institution Press. 1999
Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of aviaton. Eileen F. Lebow. Brassey’s Inc. 2002.