Sep 18, 2017

Women in Aviation History

When I was researching clothing for my 1930's women's aviation (or Aviatrix) outfit earlier this year I started coming across information on women in the early days of aviation. Being the avid researcher I am, I continued reading as part of my costume research.

When I wear my Aviatrix outfit a lot of people ask me if (or just assume) I'm portraying Amelia Earhart,which some uninformed people then go on to refer to as the first female pilot, which she was not. Below is some of my research of some of the (actual) first female pilots to ever take to the skies.

c. 1944 Pilots at the four engine school at Lockbourne and members of a group of WASPS who were trained to ferry the B-17 Flying Fortresses.
Women first took the the air in 1784 when Elisabeth Thible became the first woman to fly in a hot air balloon. Almost 125 years later Therese Peltier circle the Military Square in Turin in an aircraft, becoming the first woman to fly solo in a heavier-than-air craft and the name Aviatrix, the contemporary term given to women who flew aircraft, was born.

In 1917, after the U.S. entered into WWI, Aviatrix Ruth Law fought for women to pilot aircraft in battle. When she was unsuccessful, she published an article in Air Travel magazine with the title "Let Women Fly!" The following are women, like Law, that continued to open a new territory for women, in the sky and on earth.

Amy Johnson

Amy Johnson was a British pilot and earned her license in 1929. She began flying long-distance record-breaking flights shortly after. She was the first woman to fly from London, England to Australia solo, the first (along with Jack Humphries as co-pilot) to fly from London to Moscow, and set speed records for flying to Japan, and Cape Town, South Africa. During WWII, she joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), flying military planes to and from air bases, factories, and Maintenance Units.

On January 5th, 1941, she was flying from RAF Prestwick in Ayrshire to RAF Kidlington in Oxfordshire when she was forced to ditch her plane in the Thames Estuary. She was off course, and out of fuel when she bailed out. There has been some controversy surrounding her death, including a claim that she was the victim of a friendly fire incident, and the theory that she was on a top secret mission when she crashed. She was the first ATA fatality in the war and her body was never recovered.

Raymonde de Laroche

Raymonde de Laroche was the first woman in the world to earn a pilot license. On March 8th, 1910 she was awarded license number 36 by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. Competing in the Coupe Femina, she won the 1913 award with a flight of over 4 hours. She set two world records in 1919 for longest flight by a woman, with a distance of 201 miles, and for reaching an altitude of 15,700 feet.

On July 18th, 1919, she was killed while flying in an experimental airplane when it crashed while trying to land.

Bessie Coleman

Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman became the first African American women to earn a pilot license. As an African American she was unable to gain admission to flight schools in the US, so she learned French and then traveled to paris where she learned to fly. On June 15 1921 she earned her license and then returned to the united states where she earned a living performing stunts and demonstrating at air shows.

She fought to break down racial barriers in the segregated south. She died in a plane crash in 1926, but her life was seen as an important first step in breaking the racial and gender barriers in the early days of aviation.

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart, one of the most famous pilots of all time, was the 16th woman to earn her pilots license, which she earned on May 15th 1923. She was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean as a passenger, becoming a minor celebrity in the process. She then set a record as the first woman to fly across North America and the first woman to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic.

As her fame grew, she began setting other records for aviation, but her ultimate goal was circumnavigating the globe. Although she wouldn’t be the first, her plan was to fly the longest route around the world. Her first attempt ended when she crashed on take-off. Her second attempt ended with one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century. Flying west to east, she began her trip with a flight from Oakland, CA to Miami, FL. On one of the last, and most difficult legs of the trip, the plane disappeared on the approach to Howland Island in the central Pacific.

Jacqueline Cochran

Jacqueline Cochran earned her pilot license in 1932. A natural pilot, she first used her love of flying to promote “Wings,” her own line of cosmetics. In 1934, she began racing and was the first woman to fly in the Bendix Race, a point to point race from Los Angeles, CA to Cleveland, OH, which she won in 1937.

Before the US involvement in WWII, she proposed a program to allow women pilots to staff non-combat duties, similar to the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). This proposal lead to her becoming the director of the WASPs. She was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. A lifelong friend of Chuck Yeager, she was the first woman to break the sound barrier, with Yeager flying in the chase plane. She went on to set more speed, altitude, and distance records than any other pilot, male or female, holding them until her death in 1980. No other woman, and very few men were as influential to the era of modern aviation.

Photographs of Women in Aviation

Ruth Law (1887-1970)

Elinor Smith, 16 (1911-2010)

c. 1927
"Miss Elinor Smith of New York, and Miss Bobby Trout of Los Angeles with the radio equipment which they will take up on the first woman's refueling flight for endurance. They are all set to take off in their sunbeam plane."

c. 1930
Katherine Sai Fun Choung


  1. This was really interesting to read. I learned a few things, thanks for writing this and sharing.