Women and flight Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A brief history of women’s struggles and accomplishments in the world of aviation.

In the early days of aviation, women faced many more obstacles than just finding a way to fly. The original notions of flight and flying always involved the image of men. “Those magnificent men in their flying machines” became a lofty image of bigger-than-life male pilots. The public believed that the world of flying belonged to an elite group of men, a band of adventurers bonded by the magic, fears, and challenges of conquering this new realm.

Women constantly had to prove themselves worthy of a chance to enter the cockpit. In the early 1900’s, when airplane flight had its birth, women were expected to be in the home as mothers and wives. To dare to dream outside of that realm caused extreme problems for women. Women needed permission from families, husbands, and even society itself. The traits that were envied in male pilots were found to be unattractive, unnatural, and unacceptable in women. Women not only had public image problems with flying but acceptance problems with male pilots. These pilots believed that men and only men qualified to be the true pioneers of the skies.

Even when given permission to try flying, many early women applicants were unable to find a flight school or an instructor that would accept a woman student. The parents of famed aviator Amelia Earhart made her find a woman instructor. They did not like the idea of their unmarried daughter spending so much unchaperoned time alone with men. Earhart was lucky to find the first woman to operate her own aviation business, Anita “Neta” Snook.

Flight, the Ultimate Adventure

In early accounts of flying, it is rarely mentioned that there were, indeed, women who not only had dreams of being airborne, but were actually a part of the very beginning of aviation. It is a little-known fact that six months before the Wright brothers’ historic 1903 flight, Aida De Costa had already flown solo in a Dumont dirigible with a three-horsepower engine. De Costa’s astounding accomplishment was not reported in the press because her parents were afraid that it would make her unmarriageable. There are thousands of stories of pioneer women pilots who seldom, if ever, got into print.

Women were piloting aircraft as early as 1798, when Jeanne Labrosse made a solo balloon flight over France. Margaret Graham of England dedicated a thirty-year career to the sport of balloon flying by charging a fee for carrying passengers for a ride, most likely becoming the first woman charter pilot. Mary Myers set altitude records in balloons, including one to 21,000 feet over Pennsylvania in 1886. She accomplished this feat without the aid of oxygen.

In 1911, Germany’s first aviatrix, Melli Besse, found that her male colleagues had tampered with her plane’s steering mechanism and drained gas from the fuel tank. The sabotage efforts were finally uncovered and eventually Besse was able to fly without interference.

From the 1920’s to the 1940’s, women aviators faced the same problems as other women wishing to enter male-dominated careers or hobbies. The question of the day was whether a “real lady” would fly around in an airplane.

Women in Early Competition

It was not unusual in the late 1920’s for women pilots to go into business for themselves. Women established passenger-carrying operations in several cities, but these ventures did little to promote women in the field of aviation. If they were to receive national recognition, they would have to compete, as male pilots were already doing, in the record-breaking arenas of distance, altitude, and speed.

Viola Gentry is credited with one of the first attempts by a woman to set an endurance record. On December 20, 1928, she stayed aloft for 8 hours, 6 minutes. Two weeks later, her record was broken by Bobbi Trout, who managed to stay in flight for more than 12 hours. The following spring, Elinor Smith astounded fliers everywhere by staying in the air for 26 hours. Women still had a long way to go, however, because the men’s record at that time was 60 hours.

In 1929, the first National Women’s Air Derby was held. The race began in Santa Monica, California, and ended in Cleveland, Ohio. The winner was Louise Thaden.

When World War II began, it looked as though American women pilots would be grounded or forced to fly only in civilian capacities. Thanks to people such as Jacqueline Cochran, women did have an opportunity to fly and help with the war effort. Many went to England to join the Air Transport Auxiliary to ferry airplanes to the fighting men. These women flew with great valor, facing many obstacles.

In 1942, a similar group of women pilots was formed in the United States, known as the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). Indeed, throughout World War II, groups of women defied convention en masse to fly for their countries. The Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in the United States, the Women’s Section of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in England, and the 586th Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Union were composed of women who gladly utilized their skills as pilots to help the Allies win the war. Many of these pioneer women pilots enlisted in war efforts against the wishes of their husbands and families.

Breaking into a Man’s Field

Flying today is totally different than it was in the early days of flight. In the first aircraft, it was pilot judgement and skill as well as the aircraft that made for a successful flight. The sky was all but free from other aircraft; rules and regulations were just about nonexistent. There were only a few types of aircraft available. Famed pilot Dorothy Stenzel would often recount that it was a delight to fly in 1927: “Everything looked so neat from up there and you feel so free. You were your own boss and you could get up there alone.”

Dorothy Stenzel started to fly in 1927, one day after her seventeenth birthday. She found a place where she could go for an airplane ride; she spent her birthday money and her adventure began. The biplane was a Waco 9 with a Curtiss OX-S engine. She sat in an open cockpit and felt the rush of air sweep over her when the engine started. “When we lifted off the ground, my heart swelled and I felt like I was in heaven. It was the most wonderful feeling I had ever had, and I decided right then that I had found my calling.” After landing, she spoke to Tex Rankin, who owned the Rankin School of Flying. She asked if he would teach her to fly. Tex Rankin agreed, even though she was not a boy. The only problem was obtaining the $250 she needed to pay for the ground course, a large sum at the time. Rankin mentioned that if she were male, she could earn the money parachute jumping in his air shows. Indignant at the implication that women could not parachute merely because of their gender, she convinced Rankin through forcible argument to break the established barrier of men-only in the air.

Stenzel’s determination has become legendary, and she became the first woman in Oregon to parachute during an aerial show. She got $100 per jump, and she earned her pilot’s license and flew. Dorothy Stenzel also held the world’s inverted snap roll record for more than half a century. On May 15, 1931, with twenty thousand people looking skyward from Omaha, Nebraska, Stenzel performed sixty-nine consecutive outside loops, tracing them again and again for more than two hours.

Many factors have changed over the years, as the airplane itself has changed. In the first days of woman pilots, women were considered good if they could fly like men. It meant that they had the physical strength to manhandle the airplane. As the airplanes improved, so did the chances for woman pilots, as it became no longer necessary to muscle an airplane around.

Groundbreakers and Pioneers

Knowing that the life of the early woman pilot came with so many burdens, one must wonder why so many have worked so hard to gain a place in the skies. Nonetheless, the record of women in flight is long and impressive.

Beryl Markham, born in 1902, was a famous adventurer and bush pilot who is most widely known for her record-breaking solo flight from east to west across the Atlantic in 1936, and for her best-selling memoir West with the Night (1942).

Markham was possibly the best pilot to fly out of Kenya, and certainly the boldest. Some likened her courage to that of a lion. In April, 1932, with only 127 hours of flying time, she set off alone from Kenya in a single-engine Avro Avian headed for England. She first headed for Lake Victoria, then over Uganda and down the Nile, crossing the seemingly endless expanses of marsh and swamp known as the Sudd. She then crossed the Mediterranean Sea and Europe and arrived in England. Markham repeated this trip several times in the early 1930’s. While in Kenya, she worked as a bush pilot, transporting people and supplies. She worked for safari companies and even became a flying elephant-herd spotter. All of her daring escapades culminated in one flight that topped them all. On September 4, 1936, she began a 22-hour flight, mostly at night and mostly on instruments, headed across the Atlantic, west with the night. Beryl Markham was an inspiration for millions as a true woman flying pioneer. She died in 1986.

Markham was not the only woman aviation pioneer of her era. Ruth Law was the first woman to fly at night, in 1912. She was also the first to loop-the-loop. She made a living by taking Florida tourists on joyrides for $50. Law was renowned as an inventor as well as for her solution to the problem of keeping a map readily accessible. She cut the map of her route into eight-inch-wide strips and affixed them to cloth, creating a cloth map that she could tie to her knee during the flight and roll out one section at a time, thus keeping her hands free to operate the controls. In 1917, after breaking the cross-country record, Law commanded a salary of nearly $9,000 a week for her exhibitions. Even earlier, Matilde Moisant, born in 1886, was the second licensed woman pilot in the United States and the first woman to fly to an altitude of 1,200 feet. Moisant qualified for her license after only thirty-two minutes of in-flight instruction. In so doing, she established the record for the shortest time spent learning to fly, a record that has never been broken. The first American woman to earn a pilot’s license was Harriet Quimby in 1911, who started her plane manually by turning the propeller.

Amelia Earhart was the best-known woman flier of the early twentieth century, flying across the Atlantic with two companions in June, 1928, and becoming the first woman to make a solo crossing in 1932. She piloted a Lockheed Vega on the west-east solo flight from Honolulu to California on January 11-12, 1935. Earhart was lost in an attempt to fly around the world with pioneer aerial navigator Fred Noonan.

Florence Lowe, also known as “Pancho Barnes,” was a record-breaking stunt pilot who eventually headed the Women’s Air Reserve in 1931 and the first woman to fly into Mexico. Fran Bera held the record of most wins for the Women’s Air Derby. She learned to fly at sixteen, got her commercial license, taught aviation, and worked for the Federal Aviation Administration issuing licenses to pilots. The Women’s Air Derby, however, gained her the greatest fame, winning five second-place trophies and seven first-place trophies. In June, 1966, Bera set a new world altitude record for flying to a height of 40,194 feet over Long Beach, California. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles A. Lindbergh, was the first American woman to earn a glider pilot’s license. She served as her husband’s navigator when he set a transcontinental speed record in 1930, at which time she was seven months pregnant. She was also a best-selling author.

In 1964, Geraldine “Jerrie” Frederitz Mock became the first woman to fly around the world, twenty-seven years after Amelia Earhart’s disappearance in 1937. Joan Merriam Smith was flying with the same goal in mind at the same time and completed her trip successfully, but Mock had registered first with the FAA and therefore won the title. Her plane was named Spirit of Columbus. Katrina Mumaw was the first child, male or female, to pilot a plane through the sound barrier. Federal Aviation Administration regulations do not allow anyone under the age of seventeen to be issued a pilot certificate, but training can begin at any age. She fell in love with aviation at the age of three. She took her first plane ride at the age of five and began training with a flight instructor when she was eight. In 1994, Mumaw broke the sound barrier at the age of eleven. At thirteen, she was both competing and speaking at air meets and aviation events around the state.

Women Aviators in the Military and in Space

The fight to be allowed into the military has been a long and hard struggle for women. Their first toehold came during World War II, when the need to use all qualified male pilots in battle opened opportunities for woman pilots in noncombatant roles. Nancy Harkness Love, already a commercial airline pilot, was one of the first women to head a military unit of female pilots, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, which ferried military planes from manufacturing sites to air force bases. Cornelia Fort, a flight instructor who was the first Tennessee woman to qualify for her commercial pilot’s license, was the second woman to volunteer for the WAFS. She was in the air when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 7, 1941. Fort and her student landed safely, but Fort died in a 1943 midair collision while ferrying a plane. She was the first woman to die in U.S. military duty.

Mildred McAfee was the first director of the Women Appointed for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). On July 30, 1942, the WAVES were created by an act of Congress. When she was appointed to lead them, McAfee became the first woman ever commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Navy. She retired from the WAVES as a full captain in December, 1946. For her service she received the Distinguished Service Medal.

In the years since World War II, many women have broken gender barriers to become successful military pilots. Trish Beckman was one of the first women trained to be a United States Navy test pilot. Sarah Deal was the first woman aviator in the U.S. Marine Corps. Troy Devine was the first woman captain in the U.S. Air Force U-2 program. Kelly Flinn was the first woman to pilot a B-52 bomber for the U.S. Air Force. Patricia Fornes was first woman to lead a U.S. Air Force ICBM Unit. On June, 1993, Fornes took command of the 740th Missile Squadron at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. She also became the first woman to take over the command of a squadron once commanded by her own father. Colleen Nevius was the U.S. Navy’s first woman test pilot and the first woman to graduate from the Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland.

In space aviation, Sally K. Ride was the first American woman in space, launching in the space shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983. She was also the youngest American astronaut to orbit the earth. Judith Arlien Resnik was the second American woman to go into space and the first Jewish astronaut. Linda M. Godwin performed the first spacewalk while docked to an orbiting space station. Shannon W. Lucid has logged more continuous time in space than any other American astronaut, male or female. Lucid spent seven months on the Mir Space Station in 1996. She was also the first American woman to go into space five times.

  • Bruno, Harry. Wings Over America: The Inside Story of American Aviation. New York: Robert McBride, 1942. A general account of aviation in America.
  • May, Charles Paul. Women in Aeronautics. New York: Nelson, 1962. An examination of the role of women in aeronautics.
  • Smith, Elizabeth Simpson. Breakthrough: Women in Aviation. New York: Walker, 1981. A study of the women who have played important roles in the history of aviation.
  • Yount, Lisa. American Profiles: Women Aviators. New York: Facts on File, 1995. Biographical studies of famous women pilots.

Astronauts and cosmonauts

Jacqueline Auriol

Jacqueline Cochran

Bessie Coleman

Crewed spaceflight

Amelia Earhart

Amy Johnson

Beryl Markham

Navy pilots, U.S.


Hanna Reitsch

Sally K. Ride

Space shuttle


Valentina Tereshkova

Test pilots


Women’s Airforce Service Pilots

TheWASPs performed valuable service duringWorldWar II, but since they were technically civilian employees of the military, they later had difficulty receiving the veterans benefits to which they should have been entitled.

(AP/Wide World Photos)
Categories: History