Today’s post wraps up the last of a three part series about women from aviation history. We’ve covered many first in aviatrix history and now we’ve reached the end a notable list of amazing and courageous women. Our last aviatrix featured are Amelia Earhart, and Sally Ride. These two women represent a transition from the 19th to the 20th century and a new facet of aerospace: the space race.
First Aviatrix to Fly Solo Across the Atlantic…
I think I can safely say that Amelia Earhart is one female aviator that everyone thinks of. While Amelia is my favorite and probably that of many other modern-day aviatrix, it’s important to remember that Amelia, like those before her and after her, stands on the back of many other important women. Amelia, born in 1897, was an unconventional child much like her predecessors. Along with her siblings, she went on raucous adventures enjoying the great outdoors. She actually made her “first flight” as a child when she decided to fashion a ramp affixed to the family toolshed and gained air with a wooden box turned sled. Her first flight in a real airplane was actually at the age of 10 in Des Moines, Iowa which, surprisingly, was unimpressive to Amelia and she asked to return to the merry-go-around!
High school was a tumultuous time for Amelia and she spent it lonely, but still aspiring to a future career in some field – what she did not know at the time. Eventually she went on to junior college in Pennsylvania, but she did not end up finishing. In 1917, while in Toronto visiting her sister over Christmas break, Amelia was struck by the havoc and ravage that World War I (WWI) had created on the wounded soldiers that returned for medical care. She decided to train as a nurses’ aide to the Red Cross and worked at the Volunteer Aid Detachment at Spadina Military Hospital at the University of Toronto.
In 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic reached Amelia in Toronto and she spent many hours in grueling nursing duties and often did overnight shifts. She eventually became a patient herself suffering from pneumonia and maxillary sinusitis – both of these conditions created health complications and eventually she found herself in Massachusetts, convalescing for the better part of a year with her sister. Chronic sinusitis continued to affect her for the rest of her life, often significantly impacting her aviation career.
Later, in 1920, Amelia visited an airfield in Long Beach, California with her father and had another opportunity to ride in an airplane. After just a 10-minute ride, Amelia knew she had to learn to fly. She worked multiple jobs from photographer to truck driver to earn the $1,000 for her flying lessons. Her hard work paid off and she became the 16th woman to receive a pilot’s license in 1923. By 1927, through a series of events, Amelia was once again in Massachusetts where she became a sales representative for Kinner, an aircraft manufacturer, in the Boston area. During this time, Amelia wrote in local newspaper columns promoting flying and planning a female flyers organization on the side.
Her celebrity status grew through her work and she became increasingly interested in promoting aviation. This was done through lecturing tours, a cigarette brand, a fashion line at Macy’s, and even luggage with her signature “A.E” symbol. Through all of her promotion for flying, Amelia was also among the first aviators to promote commercial air travel by developing a passenger airline service. She later became Vice President of National Airways which conducted service in the Boston-Maine area.
In August of 1928, Amelia was determined to set her own, untarnished record by flying solo across the North American continent and back. In 1929, she competed in the Powder Puff Derby from Santa Monica to Cleveland and placed 4th in the “heavy planes” division. Shortly after that race, Amelia became involved with an organization called the Ninety-Nines – a group of female pilots providing moral support and advancing the cause of women in aviation. Later in 1930, she became the organization’s first president.
On May 20th, 1932, Amelia took off in a single-engine aircraft from Newfoundland with the goal of flying to Paris with the goal of emulating Charles Lindbergh’s flight. Almost 15 hours later, in less than perfect conditions, Amelia landed in Ireland. Subsequently she was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross from Congress, among many other awards. Her fame garnered friendships with other proponents of women in aviation and other careers with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Cochran who was said to be her biggest rival across the pond.
Amelia’s last flight was on July 2nd, 1937 as she set out to circumnavigate the globe. Amid much controversy as to how it happened exactly, Amelia and her co-pilot Fred Noonan disappeared in the central Pacific Ocean somewhere southwest of Honolulu. Little was recovered of the wreckage, if any, and her disappearance remains a mystery to this day.
Despite her disappearance, Amelia once again lived up the history of those before her and created a legacy passed down for generations. Her courage, tenacity, and keen flying skills gave her a fulfilling aviation career and helped her to promote an organization that continues to support and promote women in aviation today.
First American Woman in Space…
Our last aviatrix in this series is Sally Ride. Years after Amelia disappeared over the Pacific, Sally was born into the beginnings of a new phase in aerospace – the great space race. As a young girl, she was fascinated and interested in science in addition to being a nationally ranked tennis player. She moved from college to college before ending up at Standford University as a junior studying physics and English. She went on to earn a Master’s and Ph.D. in Physics while doing research on how x-rays and interstellar mediums interacted.
In 1978, Sally was one of 8,000 people that answered an advertisement in Standford student newspaper for applicants into the space program. She applied and was accepted and served as the ground-based capsule communicator for the second and third space shuttle flights. In addition, she also helped to develop the space shuttle’s robot arm dubbed “Canadarm”. In 1983, among much media attention, Sally became the first American woman to be in space as a crew member on the space shuttle Challenger. During this mission, she became the first person to use the Canadarm to retrieve a satellite in space. Her second flight was also on the Challenger the next year – however, 8 months into her training for her third mission, the Challenger disaster occurred. Eventually Sally ended up in Washington, D.C., doing strategic planning for the space program.
In 1987, Sally left Washington, D.C. to go back to Standford to research and then later became a member of the Physics faculty at the University of California, San Diego and Director of the California Space Institute. In addition, she co-founded Sally Ride Science – a company that creates engaging science programs and materials for elementary and middle school students: specifically focused on educating girls.
Sally continued to benefit the aerospace and local community through her active involvement in the space program and higher education. In 2012, she passed away after battling pancreatic cancer for over a year.
So, What’s Next for Aviatrix History?
Honestly, I couldn’t even begin to speculate. While the number of women involved in aerospace has come so far in the last 100 years, there are still only about 6% currently that make up the U.S. pilot population. That’s a really small number, but oh so much bigger than from the early days. However, this isn’t enough! We need bold, tenacious, driven women in all areas of aerospace whether it be aerospace engineers, airport managers, or airline pilots. The sky truly is the limit.
Overall, I hope that my readers take away the importance of those aviatrix pioneers from the early days of aviation. I also hope that our local and national flying communities endeavor to get young girls interested in aviation. The time is coming where we will need both women and men to fulfill those roles across the industry that are quickly opening as the previous generation retires.
In the meantime, check out Tori William’s articles on GlobalAir.com – she’s an up-and-coming female pilot studying at Eastern Kentucky University in the Professional Pilot Program.