When last I wrote, we had just been introduced to some of the foremost women in early aviation history: Harriet Quimby (first American female pilot), Raymonde de Laroche (first female pilot), and Bessie Coleman (first African American female pilot). Today, we move on down the list celebrating those women around the world that continued to pave the way into the future of aviation.
First Belgium Female Pilot…
Our next aviatrix, Hélѐne Dutrieu, was born in Belgium in 1877 and started her career in her early teens. She became an acclaimed cyclist, breaking the women’s distance record for most distance cycled in one hour. Her racing earned her the nickname, “The Human Arrow”, and she went on to win races all over Europe and the United Kingdom. She also became a stunt cyclist, motorcycle stunt rider, stunt driver, and automobile racer. However, this was only the beginning of her adventurous life.
Hélѐne entered the world of aviation in early 1910 when she learned to fly on a monoplane (an airplane with a single control surface). Later that year she became the fourth woman in the world, and the first from her country, to earn her pilot’s license – license #27. Hélѐne later appeared at air shows earning the nickname “Girl Hawk”. She broke cultural barriers, like those before her, when she did not wear a corset while flying which was a minor scandal at the time. Let’s just say I’m glad women no longer have to wear those while flying.
Hélѐne continued to dazzle the world as she was as fashion conscious as she was a good pilot. She made famous a very stylish flight suit designed by a Paris couturier. She continued to fly over the next few years throughout Europe and the United Kingdom winning many races and competitions in addition to using her skills to transport passengers. She went on to become the first woman to pilot a seaplane and later the first woman to be awarded membership into the French Legion of Honour.
World War I (WWI) came around and Hélѐne used her skills to help the war effort. She was an ambulance driver during the war and was given a position that entailed overseeing all of the ambulances for the Messimi Hospital. When WWI came to an end, she pursued other interests and became a journalist, married, and became a French citizen. Her accomplishments don’t stop there, however, and she went on to become the vice president of the women’s section of the Aero Club of France and was awarded the French Medal for Aeronautics. Late in life, she created the Hélѐne Dutrieu-Mortier Cup with a prize of 200,000 francs. The Cup was given to the French or Belgium woman pilot who made the longest, non-stop flight every year.
Hélѐne lived to be 83 and her legacy continues to live on. Not only did she make leaps for Belgium, but also France and only served to solidify the aviatrix history across the pond. She also, once again, proved that women were a force to be reckoned with in aviation.
First Female Military Pilot…
The list doesn’t stop with Hélѐne, and next up is Amy Johnson. Like those before her, she was an exception to her time in history and hailed from England born in the early 1900s. For her era, she was quite up to date when it came to education and graduated from the University of Sheffield with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and went on to work for a solicitor in London.
Unlike the other aviatrix, she was introduced to flying as a hobby and earned a Class “A” License in 1929. An “A” license was for motor gliders, not to be confused with gliders. Early aircraft were nothing more than powered gliders even though powered gliders do exist today. Amy later became the first British woman to earn a ground engineer Class “C” license.
Amy’s father was a big supporter of her flying hobby and gave her the money to purchase her own aircraft: a 2nd hand de Havilland DH.60 Gipsy Moth dubbed “Jason” after her father’s business trademark. After purchasing her own aircraft, Amy set out to break records and make history. In 1930, Amy was the first British female pilot to fly solo from England to Australia – this feat earned her the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and the Number 1 civil pilot’s license in Australia. This was not her only record breaking flight as she went on to fly non-stop from London to Moscow, and then through Siberia to Japan. Another notable flight was that from London to Cape Town, South Africa.
Eventually, England found itself embroiled in World War II, and Amy joined a new organization; the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). The ATA was responsible for transporting aircraft of the Royal Air Force around the country. Eventually, Amy earned the title of First Officer and continued to fly until 1941. While flying a routine transport flight, Amy’s plane went off course due to inclement weather and she bailed out reportedly out of fuel. However, the rescue was unsuccessful and Amy’s body was never recovered. She was posthumously awarded several prestigious awards and is hailed as a key piece of British aviation history.
First Director of the WASP…
Jacqueline Cochran is a continuation in the litany of “firsts” for aviation. Born in a small town in Florida in 1906, Jacqueline, better known as “Jackie”, had a humble beginning. Like others before her, she started out as hairdresser and ended up in New York City. Her personality, driving in nature, and looks helped her obtain a job in a prestigious salon on Saks Fifth Avenue.
Later, in the early 1930s, Jackie was offered a plane ride in Long Island and earned her license in just three weeks – how aviation has changed since then! Within two years she has soloed and earned her commercial license. She ended up naming her cosmetic business Wings at the suggestion of her savvy business husband. She then used her own aircraft to fly around the country promoting her company. Not only was Jackie a pilot, but a savvy business woman! Eventually, her husband used his business contacts for a celebrity endorsement from Marilyn Monroe.
Despite the success of Wings, Jackie continued to be immersed in the world of American aviation. She competed in many air races including the MacRobertson Air Race in 1934, and was the only woman to race in the Bendix race in 1937. She also worked with another great female aviator, Amelia Earhart, to get the race opened for other women to compete in. In addition, Jackie set the national women’s speed record and by 1938 was considered the nation’s finest female pilot. She went on to win the Bendix race and set both altitude and transcontinental speed records. Many awards followed her career and she was dubbed the “Speed Queen” for all of the records she held over the years.
Before the U.S. joined World War II, Jackie worked with “Wings of Britian” ferrying aircraft between the U.S. and Britian. During her time in the war effort, she became the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic, volunteered her skills to the Royal Air Force, recruited qualified woman in the U.S. to travel to Britain to fly as pilots for the British ATA. Jackie felt that women could fulfill a niche in the Army Air Force by flying domestic, noncombat flights to free up men for missions overseas. She wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt in September of 1940 proposing a women’s division or the Army Air Force. Due to restructuring of other military flying units, Jackie’s dream wasn’t realized right away. She approached other figures in military aviation such as General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold to let women join the Army Air Forces to fill the shortage of pilots during the war. She was sent to Britain to study the ATA and Jackie found 76 qualified women to bring with her to train in the ATA. Qualifications, at the time were high and the ATA demanded 300 hours at least. However, many of these women already had over 1,000 hours! Despite their high qualifications, the wash out rate for the ATA was high and only 25 women passed the final exams – they went on to join Jackie at the ATA in 1942.
Later, in 1943, two women’s aviation organizations merged and the Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) was born – Jackie was named the first director and Nancy Love, former director of the Women’s Ferrying Aviation Squadron, was put in charge of the ferrying division. As Director of WASP, Jackie oversaw the training of hundreds of WASP pilots in Texas and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945 for her wartime efforts.
After the war, Jackie was very active and joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve 1948 as a Lieutenant Colonel. Later in 1969, she was promoted to Colonel and retired in 1970. She continued to set records and became the first woman to go “supersonic”. Jackie became a consultant for the Northrop Corporation, an aircraft manufacturer, and the accomplishments go on and on.
The 1960s brought the space race and Jackie cosponsored the Mercury 13 program. The Mercury 13 program was mainly designed to train women to be astronauts. However the program was fraught with problems and the requirements, both flight and education, for all applicants (male and female) was considered impossible. The program couldn’t attract women with the necessary qualifications and it was scrapped before it even gained altitude.
Jackie passed away after a long life well into her 80s. Her contributions to aviation history are by far extremely important for women in America. Her skill as a successful business woman, military leader, and in her family make a truly amazing aviatrix. Jackie showed the country that women as pilots during the wartime effort were a necessary cog in a wartime machine and was responsible for founding and leading the WASP which went on to be one of the foremost military aviation organizations during World War II.
More Aviatrix Right Around The Corner…
Hélѐne, Amy, and Jackie blazed a trail into the 20th century that showed no signs of slowing down. Their contributions to aviation history, especially in wartime, made a huge impact on the future of women all over the world. They showed that they could be daredevils, wives, businesswomen, and war heroes all at once. I wonder how many little girls looked at them and thought “someday I’ll be a pilot too!”
Check back with me next week for Part 3 of my series on Aviatrix through history!
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