The popular name of the organization of International Women Helicopter Pilots. The term is also used to refer to a member of that organization or any female helicopter pilot.

Anyone who has ever watched a hummingbird hover in midair near a flower or seen a maple seed twirl down to the ground has experienced the fascination of vertical flight. The Chinese wrote about the possibility in 320 c.e. and are credited with designing the first toy to display the principles of vertical flight, but it was not until the years right before World War II that inventors were able to create a machine capable of lifting a pilot vertically into the air and hovering. The first true vertical aircraft was flown by Hanna Reitsch of Germany in 1938. Reitsch became Whirly-Girl #1 in eyes of the organization that continues to encourage helicopter aviation to this day.

The Early Years

Jean Ross Howard-Phelan learned to fly airplanes in college, but she fell in love with helicopters in 1947 after her first flight. After receiving her helicopter rating in 1954, Howard-Phelan began her search for other women helicopter pilots. She identified twelve other women, whom she invited to Washington, D.C., in 1955. Six of these women met on the mezzanine of the Mayflower Hotel that year and formed the organization known as the Whirly-Girls. At first, the Whirly-Girls had no officers, no dues, and no record of their meetings, which they called “hoverings.” They did, however, begin a tradition that continues to this day of giving each new member a number. The Whirly-Girls adopted as their logo a helicopter featured in 1950’s ads for U.S. Army pilots. The female helicopter has long eyelashes and an expression resembling that of the cartoon character Betty Boop. Membership was open to all women who had received a certified helicopter rating from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or its foreign equivalent. The goals of the organization were to promote helicopter aviation, encourage safety, and advance the opportunities of women in helicopter aviation. By 1961, there were forty-one members of the Whirly-Girls. That same year, twelve members of the Whirly-Girls met with President John F. Kennedy in the Rose Garden of the White House. The meeting had been arranged by Janey Hart, Whirly-Girl #25, who was the wife of then Senator Phillip Hart (D-Mich.).

The Organization Today

The Whirly-Girls now have over one thousand members from thirty countries. Their membership includes physicians, airline pilots, military pilots, law enforcement agents from dozens of state, local, and federal agencies, engineers, and homemakers. They sponsor three annual flight scholarships to encourage the further training of women interested in helicopter aviation. The first scholarship was created in 1966 in memory of Doris Mullen, who was fatally injured in an airplane crash that year. It is awarded to a Whirly-Girl interested in receiving advanced training in helicopter aviation. The second scholarship, established in memory of Gini Richardson, Whirly-Girl #64, is awarded to a woman airplane, balloon, or glider pilot for use toward obtaining her initial helicopter rating. The third scholarship fund was established in 1991 in honor of Major Marie Rossi, a helicopter pilot killed during the Gulf War. In addition to these activities, the Whirly-Girls also support a program to encourage the establishment of hospital heliports.

A Who’s Who of Women in Aviation

Whirly-Girl #1 is often considered the greatest female pilot of the twentieth century. Hanna Reitsch was born in the Silesian town of Hirschberg in 1912. While studying medicine, she began taking flying lessons and soon received a license in both gliders and powered aircraft. In 1937, she became the first person to fly over the Alps in a glider. That same year she was appointed as flight captain in Germany for her work in the development of airplane “dive-breaks.” She set another first in 1938 when she became the first women in the world to pilot a helicopter at the International Auto Show in Berlin. During World War II, Reitsch was one of Germany’s leading test pilots, flying horizontal bombers, dive-bombers, fighter planes, a V-1 rocket, and the ME-163 rocket plane. In 1971, she became the first woman to win the World Helicopter Championships.

Dora Strother, Whirly-Girl #27, earned her pilot’s license in 1940 and became the youngest member of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). Following World War II, Strother earned her doctorate in aerospace education and began work as a human-factors engineer specializing in cockpit design. In 1958, she went to work for Bell Helicopters, where she established distance and altitude records in a Bell 47G-3 and went on to help design the cockpit of the Army OH-58D, the first helicopter cockpit with computerized, digital avionics.

Other Whirly-Girl firsts include Commander Joellen Drag Osland, Whirly-Girl #179, the first female naval helicopter pilot in 1974; Sally Murphy, Whirly-Girl #181, the first woman aviator in the Army; Angelica Myles, Whirly-Girl #653, the first African American helicopter pilot on the West Coast; and Nancy Sherlock, Whirly-Girl #621, the first Whirly-Girl astronaut. Through the years, women like these have continued to pursue the dream of helicopter flight and to pass that dream onto a new generation of women.


  • Cardigan, Mary. Women with Wings. Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1993. Discusses the history and contributions of women in aviation.
  • Holden, Henry M. Hovering: The History of the Whirly-Girls International Women Helicopter Pilots. Mt. Freedom, N.J.: Black Hawk, 1994. An excellent introduction to the organization and the women in it, featuring photographs and brief biographies of some of the most famous Whirly-Girls.
  • Holden, Henry M., and Lori Griffith. Ladybirds: The Untold Story of Women Pilots in America. Mt. Freedom, N.J.: Black Hawk, 1991. Another good source of information about the women of aviation by an author of numerous books and articles about aviation.
  • _______. Ladybirds II: The Continuing Story of American Women in Aviation. Mt. Freedom, N.J.: Black Hawk, 1993. A follow-up to the well-received first book on women in American aviation.


Hanna Reitsch


Women and flight