In times of war women have always wanted to serve their country. At the onset of World War I, many women pilots attempted to volunteer but were turned down. At the onset of World War II, women pilots in England (plus a handful of American pilots) joined the ATA. In America there was the WASP. Russia needed all the person-power it could ge, and women pilots actually served in combat, gaining renown as the Night Witches. At the end of the war they were all told, “Thanks, you can go home now. We don’t want you any more”, but today women in aviation are more numerous that in many private, commerical, or military areas of activity.
Thanks to Civil Rights legislation of the late 1960s, and other legislation in the 1970s, women pilots were allowed to fly in all branches of the armed services, and once they got that chance, women jumped at it. From the late 1970s until the 2000s, many “firsts” were established. First woman pilot in the Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and Navy, first African-American pilots, and so on.
Black women had been working toward this opportunity for decades. In 1921, Bessie Coleman had had to study French and travel to France to train as a pilot – no one in the United States would teach her. Coleman, who died – while a passenger in a plane – in 1926, inspired African Americans to follow their dreams of flight. Willa Brown was the first African American woman to earn her license in the United States, in 1937. Janet Harmon Bragg, an experienced pilot, attempted to join the WASP but was turned down because of her skin color.
From the 1980s onward, minority women have set their own “firsts” in the Armed Forces, not only as ground soldiers in the Army and Marines, but also as pilots, maintenance crew and so on in all branches of the service.
Although the percentage of women pilots in the military is still only about 6%, there are now so many women in the military that an all-woman crew can be formed, strictly because of normal duty rotation, in order to fly the President of the United States on Marine One.
The militaries of other countries have followed suit. For example, Lt.-Col Nicole Malachowski became the first woman Thunderbird pilot (the US Air Force demonstration team) in 2006. The Canadian Snowbirds welcomed their first woman pilot, Lt.-Col. Maryse Carmichael in 2010. Also in 2010, the British Red Arrows welcomed Flight Lieutenant Kirsty Moore. Each woman had to serve for years in the regular Air Force, before being allowed to try out as a demonstration pilot.
Even some Islamic countries now have a handful of women pilots – and *that* is at tremendous achievement in itself.
Women in the civilian piloting world have not been idle, either.
The Air Race Classic, which replaced the All Woman Transcontinental Air Race beginning in 1978, has never missed a year since then. Women also fly in other cross-country events that feature both male and female pilots.
Business women fly planes, other women fly planes strictly for fun – albeit that is becoming harder and harder to do with the restrictions on air space these days.
Back in the 1930s, the National Air Races featured pylon races. Pylon racing is a dangerous sport. When a male pilot died, it was just one of those things. When Florence Klingensmith died in 1933, this was proof that women just didn’t have the skill to fly pylon, and they were banned from further races.
This changed in the 1960s, but since then only 24 women have raced pylons at the Reno Air Races to date (each returning over the course of several years). There are several classes of pylon racing – Biplane, Formula 1, Sport Class, Jets, and Unlimited – there are women pilots in each class.
As for aerobatics, women participate in competitions there as well. Russian Svetlana Kapapina is a world-renowned aerobatic pilot, as is American Patty Wagstaff.
Tragedy has not been absent from women in these dangerous events – experienced aerobatic pilot Vicki Cruze died while flying at Silverstone in England in 1910. Stunt pilot Nancy Lynn died at an airshow in 2006.
But they died doing what they loved, as with the many male pilots who have also unfortunately crashed in the many decades of sporting aviation, and the thrill and excitement of it keeps men and women coming back for more.
Bibliography and Selected Books
Girls Can’t Be Pilots, Margaret Ringenberg with Jane Roth, Daedaluas Press, 1998
High, Wide, and Frightened,Louise Thaden. University of Arkandas Press, 2004
Military Fly Moms, Linda Maloney, Tannenbaum Publishing, 2012
Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II, Bruce Myles. Academy. 1990.
Nancy Batson Crews: Alabama’s First Lady of Flight. Sarah Byrn Rickman. Fire Ant Books. 2009
Sisters of Heaven: China’s Barnstorming Aviatrixes, Modernity, Feminism, and Popular Imagination in Asia and the West. Patti Gully. Long River Press. 2008
Sharpie: The Life Story of Evelyn Sharp, Nebraska’s Aviatrix. Diane Ruth Armour Bartels. Great Americans Publishing. 1996
The Sky’s The Limit: Women Pioneers in Aviation. Wensy Boase. Osprey. 1979.
Race With the Wind: How Air Racing Advanced Aviation. Birch Mathews. MBI Publishing. 2001.