Celebrating Women in Aviation Pioneers

March 12, 2014 (Scottsdale, AZ)

This month we celebrate the women of aviation history. These trailblazers “cleared the runway” for all women aviators – from Harriet Quimby and Amelia Earhart, two of the earliest women pilot-adventurers, to Dr. Sally Ride, the first woman astronaut, and Lieutenant General  Michelle D. Johnson, the first woman to lead the U. S. Air Force Academy.

Today, women pilots fly for commercial airlines, in the military and in space. They fly air races, command helicopter mercy flights, haul freight, stock high mountain lakes with fish, seed clouds, patrol pipelines, teach students to fly, maintain jet engines and transport corporate officers.

Women have made a significant contribution to aviation since the Wright Brothers’ first 12-second flight in 1903.

Blanche Stuart Scott was the first women pilot, in 1910, when the plane that she was allowed to taxi “mysteriously became airborne” in her first public flight and the first public appearance of a woman aviator in the country. During the time, there was no formal training for aviators and discrimination against women was widespread.

She virtually had to teach herself in dangerous and unstable aircraft, and had no career path to look forward to in the industry or the military. Yet, she launched herself into a career of firsts in fields that were completely male-dominated, new and dangerous.

She set a long distance flying record for women of 10 miles on July 30, 1911 and then a 25-mile record in August 1911.

In 1912, she joined aviator and designer Glenn Martin and as a Martin employee became the first woman test pilot in America.

Blanche performed the lead role in the first movie made about flying, The Aviator’s Bride.

In September 1948, she became the first woman passenger to ride in a jet plane.

Her life spanned the era when airplanes were just being invented and given trials, to the moment she saw Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon.

Harriet Quimby

Harriet Quimby

Harriet Quimby was an early American aviator and a movie screenwriter. In 1911, she became the first woman in the U.S. to get her pilot’s license, and the very next year became the first woman to maneuver her 50hp monoplane across the English Channel. Although Quimby lived only to the age of thirty-seven, she had a major influence upon the role of women in aviation.

America’s first female aviators were required to maintain and fly their aircraft. Quimby encouraged women to learn how to maintain and drive their own automobiles too, and once said that a lady can accomplish about the same results as the opposite sex, “if she will only lose that dread of getting her hands all greasy and grimy.”

Amelia Earhart endures in the American consciousness as one of the world’s most celebrated aviators. She remains a symbol of the power and perseverance of American women, and the adventurous spirit so essential to the American persona.

Amelia Earhart 1936

Amelia Earhart

As a young social worker in Boston, Massachusetts with a passion for aviation, Amelia was chosen to be the first female passenger on a transatlantic flight. In 1928, with pilot Wilmer Stultz and mechanic Lou Gordon, she flew from Newfoundland to Wales aboard the tri-motor plane Friendship. Her daring and courage were acclaimed around the world.

Amelia Earhart in Hawaii with maps 1935

Later, she helped found The Ninety-Nines, an International Organization of Women Pilots and served as their inaugural president. She became the first woman to make a solo transatlantic flight in 1932, and three years later, she was the first person to fly from Hawaii to the American mainland. This made her the first person ever to solo both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Amelia Earhart

In June 1937, Amelia embarked upon the first around-the-world flight at the equator. On July 2, after completing nearly two-thirds of her historic flight — over 22,000 miles — Amelia vanished along with her navigator Frederick Noonan. They took off from Lae, New Guinea, bound for tiny Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. A massive naval, air and land search failed to locate Amelia, Noonan, or the aircraft, and it was assumed they were lost at sea. To this day, their fate remains a mystery.

Rosie the Riveter’s Story: First Paid Women Airplane Mechanics

Rosie the Riveter vintage poster

When she and her co-workers walked through the doors of the airplane factory, they immediately punched a time clock.  A number of posters were up on the wall all over the plant, exclaiming, “Keep ‘em Flying” and “The Enemy May Be Listening.”  They were forbidden to take pictures inside the plant.

She belonged to the union, and worked as a riveter on the B-17 wings. A beginning riveter would start as a rivet bucker, climb into a wing on the frame, and then she would hold up a small metal bar against the wing for the riveter.  The riveter would rivet the wing from the outside against the small metal bar.  She had to climb up on a third story platform on a scaffold to rivet the wings from the outside with a very noisy rivet gun.  A light was shining on the aluminum wings, and the reflection made it so bright it was difficult on her eyes.   All the women had to wear scarves around their heads so their hair would not get caught in the machinery.  They would each wear a button which signified their department.

At the end of the day, she felt really stiff from climbing around the airplane.

She built the ships, the planes and the tanks needed for the U.S. and the allies to fight Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini. Back then, “Rosie the Riveter” was a morale-building device to show just how important women were to the war effort.  Today, it is seen as one of the most liberating events for women in United States history.

Ride-s630x800

Dr. Sally Ride

Dr. Sally Ride, Educator, Astronaut, Physicist

On June 18, 1983, astronaut and astrophysicist Sally Ride became the first American woman in space aboard the space shuttle Challenger.

The next year, Ride again served as a mission specialist on a space shuttle flight in October. She was scheduled to take a third trip, but it was canceled after the tragic Challenger accident on January 28, 1986. Ride served on the presidential commission that investigated the space shuttle explosion.

After NASA, Ride became the director of the California Space Institute at the University of California, San Diego, as well as a professor of physics at the school in 1989.

For her contributions to the field of science and space exploration, Ride received many honors, including the NASA Space Flight Medal and the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

She started her own company, Sally Ride Science in 2001 that created educational programs and products to help inspire girls and young women to pursue careers in science and math.

She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

Ride died on July 23, 2012 at the age of 61, following a battle with pancreatic cancer, but she will always be remembered as a pioneer astronaut who went where no woman had gone before.

Lieutenant General Michelle D. Johnson

Lt. Gen. Johnson Aug 2013

Lieutenant General Michelle D. Johnson

In August of 2013, Lieutenant General Michelle D. Johnson became the first woman to lead the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado as Superintendent. Lt. General Johnson also broke the glass ceiling at her alma mater, after becoming the first woman to lead a class as cadet wing commander before graduating with distinction in 1981.

She went on become a command pilot and logged more than 3,600 hours in aerial tanker operations and air transport missions, according to the U.S. Air Force. Lt. General Johnson is a command pilot with more than 3,600 flying hours in C-141, T-41, KC-10, C-17, C-5 and KC-135 aircraft.

She returned to the U.S. Air Force Academy as a T-41 instructor pilot and assistant professor of political science and Associate Air Officer Commanding from 1989-1992.

Lt. General Johnson served as an Air Force aide to Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton from 1992-1994 and numerous positions including Director of Public Affairs, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force and at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C. (2007-2009) before becoming Deputy Chief of Staff, Operations and Intelligence at NATO headquarters in Belgium in 2011.

Angel MedFlight salutes these courageous women pioneers of the aviation industry.

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