Petticoats-a-Flyin’:  A Brief History of Women in Aviation

Oct 04, 2017 | Categories: Aviation History

Though not as common as some would like, female pilots are not uncommon these days.  The number of female licensed pilots grew significantly from the early 1900’s until the late 1980’s and since then has taken a dip to 1 in 5,623. This number is not to be read as one in 5,623 pilots are women, but one in 5,623 women are pilots.  Given the first woman pilot took flight in 1910, those numbers are nothing to be ashamed of.  History tells the story of how the numbers grew and who the pioneering and daring women were who laid the groundwork for others to follow. 

In 1910, Blanche Scott was allowed to taxi an airplane while under contract to learn to fly.  She became the first female pilot when the aircraft “mysteriously” became airborne.  Keep in mind that in 1910, only four states in the U.S. allowed women to even vote (Colorado being one of them…just sayin’.)  For a woman to be allowed to taxi a plane was huge, to be contracted to learn to fly was enormous, but to take flight was unheard of.  She was a natural and the next year set a long distance women’s flight record of 10 miles. 

Harriett Quimby became the first licensed female pilot and completed a flight across the English Channel in 1912.  In the timespan of one year, women, who were receiving little to no instruction on how to fly because the majority of pilots were men and they felt women did not have any business flying, managed to more than double the distance and fly all of it over water. 

Over the years, the firsts continued.  Bessie Coleman became the first African-American female pilot.  Because of discrimination toward both her gender and race in the United States, Bessie was forced to move to France to learn to fly.  She attended the famous flight school Ecole d’Aviation deFreres Caudron.  Once an accomplished pilot, she returned to the United States to become a Barnstormer.

Louise Thaden was the first to complete a record-setting endurance flight from California’s Oakland Municipal Airport of 22 hours and 3 minutes.  A month later, that record was broken by Elinor Smith in New York.  She managed 26 hours, 21 minutes.  The first licensed Chinese-American female pilot was Katherine Cheung.  The first female glider pilot was Anne Lindbergh, the wife of Charles Lindbergh.  Phoebe Omelie was the first woman transport pilot.  She went on to become quite instrumental in developing a pathway for women in flight.  She developed a training program for women flight instructors and eventually was appointed a Special Assistant for the Air Intelligence of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the forerunner of NASA!) 

Of course, no discussion of female pilot firsts can ignore the contributions of Amelia Earhart who was the first woman pilot to complete a transatlantic flight.  Amelia began her flying lessons in 1921, but her interest in becoming a pilot was sparked a few years prior when watching a flying exhibition in Toronto.  All of these firsts occurred by the early 1930’s.  It is amazing how far women came in just twenty years. 

In 1930 there were 200 women pilots and by 1935 that number had quadrupled.  Now, female pilots comprise approximately 6% of all licensed pilots.