For this “pilot study” of my Women 101 series, we look at female flyers. Growing up, like many people, I was well aware of the exploits and mysterious disappearance of Amelia Earhart, who I presumed to be the aviatrix of the early twentieth century. What I didn’t realize is that there were plenty of female pilots and aviation pioneers to choose from. Unfortunately, in this age of experimentation and general lack of safety precautions, many of these women did not live beyond their piloting days.
Sophie Blanchard (1778–1819)
First, for a bit of pre-airplane history, look no further than Sophie Blanchard, wife of Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the world’s first professional balloonist. While not the first woman to ascend in a balloon, Blanchard was the first woman to pilot one as a professional. After her husband died in 1809 (he fell from his balloon after suffering a heart attack), Sophie continued her career—primarily to pay the debts her husband left behind—traveling throughout Europe and eventually making sixty-seven total ascents, many at night. If you are interested in learning more, check out this trailer for an upcoming animated documentary called The Fantastic Flights of Sophie Blanchard. Unfortunately, ballooning in the early 1800s was an extremely risky proposition, especially when you choose to launch fireworks from your hydrogen balloon. For that reason, Blanchard also has the misfortune to be the first woman to die in an aviation accident, when her balloon caught fire and crashed onto the roof of a house in Paris, whereupon she fell to her death. Damn, girl.
Katharine Wright (1874–1929)
Despite doing a report on the Wright brothers for my sixth-grade social studies class, I don’t think I ever knew that they had a sister until this Drunk History episode. Or maybe I just forgot. I blame The Man. In any case, Katharine was no slouch herself, graduating from Oberlin College in 1898 and becoming a teacher in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio. [Did you know that Oberlin is the oldest coeducational institution in the United States? I didn’t until just now!] Katharine was the only one of her siblings to go to college and was very close to her brothers, and she does eventually join the family business, but there seems to be some dispute over the exact nature of her work. While Drunk History argues for a pretty key role in their aviation experiments, Historian Cindy Wilkey disputes this. This is one case where I’d like to see more research; if you can recommend any books or other materials on Katharine Wright, I welcome suggestions.
Raymonde de Laroche (1882–1919)
Speaking of the Wright brothers, Parisian-born Elise Deroche (whose stage name was Raymonde de Laroche) was inspired to take up flying after seeing a demonstration by Wilbur Wright in Paris in 1908. She even got to take a ride in his plane—fancy! Having a number of aviator friends, including aeroplane builder Charles Voisin, she was able to take lessons and, in 1910, became the first woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license. However, later that same year, she suffered serious injuries after crashing during an airshow in Reims and didn’t return to flying for two years. With the arrival of WWI, Laroche was effectively grounded, but became a military driver, taking officers to the front under fire. If that wasn’t bad-ass enough, in 1919, after setting both altitude and distance records, she tried to become a professional test pilot, but crashed with her co-pilot while flying an experimental craft.
Harriet Quimby (1875–1912)
Harriet Quimby began her professional life as a journalist in San Francisco (California, represent!) and then moved to New York City in 1903 to become a theater critic and eventually a screenwriter for D.W. Griffith. She became interested in aviation after seeing an airshow in 1910 and, in 1911, earned her pilot’s license from the Aero Club of America, becoming the first American woman to do so (and the second woman in the world after Raymonde de Laroche). She was also the first woman to undertake a night flight. Like many early flyers, she performed on the exhibition circuit and was apparently known for her purple satin flight suit. In 1912, she became the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel; however, this accomplishment received little attention since it occurred just one day after the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Way to get your thunder stolen, Quimby! Later that same year, while flying at an airshow in Boston, her new Blériot monoplane pitched forward for unknown reasons and ejected Quimby and her passenger William Willard, who both fell to their deaths. Yikes.
Lilian Bland (1878–1971)
I think I might have a bit of a girl crush on Lilian Bland, an unconventional Anglo-Irish journalist and photographer who, among other things, smoked, swore, and shamelessly wore trousers. Bland was an avid hunter and horsewoman, who, despite earning a jockey’s license, was denied entry in the Grand National because of her gender. Her photography was at such a level that her 1908 exhibit at the Royal Photographic Society in London is believed to include the first color plates of flying birds ever captured. Her studies of bird flight and interest in aviation eventually led her to design, build, and fly her own biplane, humorously named Mayfly, in 1910. In a pinch, while waiting for a fuel tank, she used an empty whiskey bottle. [Have I mentioned I love this woman?] Unlike many of the women in this post, Bland was able to live a long life, probably due to the fact that her concerned father convinced her to give up the Mayfly in exchange for a new Model T.
Bessie Coleman (1892–1926)
And so we come to the woman that inspired it all. I first learned of Bessie Coleman while editing a U.S. History textbook and realizing that the images in the chapter on the 1920s were incredibly white and incredibly male. A reviewer tipped me to the story of Coleman, which is truly incredible. The daughter of a Texas sharecropper of both African American and Cherokee descent, she had an early interest in flying but her financial circumstances along with her race and gender meant that flight school in the United States was denied to her. Not one to give up easily, she saved her money to take French lessons, got a passport, and then traveled to France where she took lessons and became a licensed pilot in 1921. She was the first black woman, and the first person of Native American descent, to obtain a pilot’s license. Eventually, she returned to the United States and achieved success and fame on the airshow circuit, although she experienced a terrible crash in 1923 in Oakland, California. She consistently promoted equality for African Americans and fought for her audiences to be desegregated. She even hoped to start a school for African American pilots. Unfortunately, she died before she could achieve this dream. While scouting parachute landing sites as a passenger during a practice flight in a recently purchased biplane in Jacksonville, Florida, she was thrown from her plane when it inexplicably went into a tailspin and flipped. Pilots still fly over her grave in Chicago to drop flowers in her honor.
The sky is the only place there is no prejudice. Up there, everyone is equal, everyone is free.
Beryl Markham (1902–1986)
Like Lilian Bland, Beryl Markham (née Clutterbuck) was an avid British-born horsewoman, though she grew up in Kenya, not Kent. She was reputed to be wild and fearless. As a child, she learned to hunt with a both a spear and bow and arrow and once, along with a cousin, killed a deadly black mamba with sticks. Following in her father’s footsteps, she was an excellent rider and trainer of wild horses. She was friends with Danish writer Karen Blixen, even living with her for a time when Markham’s first marriage was breaking down. In 1929, she discovered flying, going up for the first time with Denys Finch Hatton, Blixen’s lover (with whom Markham would eventually be involved). She earned her pilot’s license in 1931 and her B license in 1933, which allowed her to become a commercial pilot. As one of the first bush pilots, she acted as an air taxi for passengers and those with medical emergencies, delivered mail and supplies, and spotted game for those on safari. Her most notable achievement was being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west (aka “the hard way”). It was hard in more ways than one. She almost immediately lost her chart of the Atlantic out the cockpit window, low visibility meant that she essentially flew blind most of the way, and she had no radio. Finally, she experienced fuel starvation during the flight, knew she was well short of New York, but managed to crash land in Nova Scotia. Respect.
Elinor Smith (1911–2010)
I came across New Yorker Elinor Smith while researching some of the other pilots on this list. Mostly, I love the fact that she was known as the “Flying Flapper of Freeport” and that on a dare in 1928 she flew under all four East River bridges. I guess that’s the kind of thing you do when you are the youngest licensed pilot in the world at age 16. By 1929, she had established multiple endurance records and Bellanca Aircraft had hired her as a demonstration pilot. She later worked as a high altitude test pilot for them. Along with Bobbi Trout, in November 1929, she set a new women’s endurance record and the team became the first women to accomplish a mid-air refueling. She was the first woman to be pictured on a Wheaties box. She doesn’t seem to have had any major crashes and continued to work in the industry as a radio commentator, magazine contributor, and aviation policy adviser before marrying and settling down to raise her family. I can’t believe this amazing woman was still alive less than ten years ago, but she was. In fact, she eventually returned to the air after the death of her husband in the 1950s and, in March 2000, she took on NASA’s space shuttle simulator with an all-woman crew and became the oldest pilot to succeed in a simulated shuttle landing. Truly inspirational.
To read more about these incredible women:
- Eileen Lebow, Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation
- Jacqueline McLean, Women with Wings
- Gilbert King, “Sophie Blanchard – The High Flying Frenchwoman Who Revealed the Thrill and Danger of Ballooning” (Smithsonian.com)
- Dominic Sama, “Stamp Honors First Woman Licensed Pilot” (Chicago Tribune, 28 April 1991)
- Lilian Bland, “The Mayfly–The First Irish Biplane And How She Was Built” (Flight, 17 December 1910)
- American Experience, “Fly Girls: Bessie Coleman” (PBS.org)
- “Who was Bessie Coleman and why does she still matter?” (Al Jazeera, 26 January 2017)
- Mary Lovell, Straight on Till Morning: the Biography of Beryl Markham
- Beryl Markham, West with the Night
- Patricia Sullivan, “Pioneering pilot Elinor Smith Sullivan dies at 98” (Washington Post, 24 March 2010)
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Sophie Blanchard and Balloonomania
The History Chicks: Sophie Blanchard
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Four Flights of Female Aviators
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Aviatrix Lilian Bland
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Bessie Coleman: Daredevil Aviatrix
The History Chicks: Bessie Coleman
The History Chicks: Amelia Earhart
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Westward Bound: Beryl Markham’s Transatlantic Flight
For the announcement of this Women 101 series, see From Abigail Adams to Zenobia.
For the next post in this series, see Wasps and Witches.