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Although perceived by many to be a male-dominated domain, aviation has seen women contribute in all kinds of fields, from flying, to design, and testing. Here are five women who made their mark, from the dawn of aviation to the 1960s.
On 16 April, only a day after the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, a woman dressed from head to foot in a purple satin flying suit climbed into a little monoplane at Dover, took off and promptly disappeared into a thick bank of cloud. Less than an hour later, the aircraft touched down safely in the Pas-de-Calais. Its pilot was 37-year old American Harriet Quimby and she had become the first woman to fly the English Channel, just three years after Louis Bleriot had done so.
Quimby’s triumph was sadly overshadowed by the Titanic disaster and she never received the publicity she deserved. Only three months later, her aeroplane inexplicably pitched forward during an air display in the United States, throwing Quimby and her passenger to their deaths.
The first African American woman to earn a pilot’s licence was Bessie Coleman. Wanting, in her words, ‘to amount to something’, she chose to take up flying. However, racial prejudice forced her to learn to fly in France. Clearly gifted, she completed the ten-month course three months early in 1921. In the following years, she toured the United States, giving flying displays and speaking frequently about race and aviation. She fought consistently against racism, refusing to appear at flying displays where the crowd was segregated.
In a tragic turn of events, Coleman was killed on 30 April 1926, when the mechanic piloting her aircraft lost control and she fell from the cockpit to her death. She was just 34. However, her memory and legacy continued, with the establishment of the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles in 1929, where members of the famous ‘Tuskegee Airmen’ later learned to fly.
Nancy Harkness Love
Born in 1914, Nancy Harkness Love enrolled at Vassar College, before the Depression squeezed her family’s finances and forced her to drop out prematurely. Nancy, however, had already caught the flying bug.
She swiftly gained a reputation as a gifted and methodical aviatrix, became a charter pilot (eventually marrying the company’s owner, after turning down one of Joseph Kennedy’s sons) and qualified to fly a variety of aircraft.
As early as 1940, she wrote to the United States Army Air Corps, offering a cadre of women pilots to ferry aircraft around the country. Although her idea was initially rejected, the idea was revived in 1942 and the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Service was born that September. The organisation was merged in 1943 with the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, headed by her rival, Jackie Cochran, to form the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Perhaps unfortunately, it was Cochran and not the more emollient Love who emerged as the overall commander. The WASP was disbanded in December 1944, after delivering more than 12,000 aircraft around the United States. Love was honoured with the award of the Air Medal in 1946.
Nancy Harkness Love succumbed to cancer in 1977. Touchingly, after her death, a box was discovered among her effects, containing press clippings on those pilots who had lost their lives flying under her command.
Jackie Cochran was brought up by foster parents and it is alleged she never knew her real mother and father. She may have taken the name Jacqueline Cochran from a telephone book and her education was so curtailed that it is said she struggled to read and write for the rest of her life.
In 1932 she learned to fly in a single three-week period and in 1936, she married the millionaire Floyd Bostwick Odlum, bringing her some influence in Washington circles.
Cochran enjoyed immense success in the late 1930s, winning many prestigious aviation prizes and awards. After the USA entered the war, Cochran became head of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment and in 1943, took over the entire organisation (the WASP) when it merged with Nancy Harkness Love’s ferry organisation, before it was dissolved in 1944.
Cochran went on to further fame in the post-war years, taking several speed records for women. Although she attracted criticism for her ‘brash’ and ‘self-serving’ demeanour, nothing can detract from Jackie Cochran’s achievements as one of history’s most distinguished pilots, male or female.
Amelia Earhart had a desire to fly from an early age. She became a 'celebrity' in 1928, when she became the first woman (flying as a passenger) to fly the Atlantic.
Earhart went on to make a succession of record-breaking flights. Despite a number of inflight setbacks, she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932, and three years later she flew solo from Hawaii to the United States, earning President Roosevelt’s comment that ‘You... have shown even the “doubting Thomases” that aviation ... cannot be limited to men only.’
Earhart’s graceful personality, appearance and record of success put her at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. She became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt (another passionate advocate of women’s rights), founded the ‘Ninety-Nines’ (an organisation which promoted women in aviation) and even endorsed a line of luggage and sports clothing.
In 1937, Earhart began the most ambitious flight of her career. Flying a Lockheed Electra with the aid of a navigator, she intended to fly around the world.
Although the first attempt ended prematurely, a second attempt proceeded relatively smoothly and Earhart and Fred Noonan eventually arrived at the airfield in New Guinea, exhausted and behind schedule, with 22,000 miles behind them and another 7,000 remaining.
On 2 July 1937, the Electra took off from the airstrip in New Guinea, destined for the tiny speck of Howland Island, 2556 miles away. Neither Earhart nor Noonan would ever be seen again.
A US Navy ship stationed off Howland made repeated attempts to contact Earhart during the flight. Shortly after her voice was heard for the last time, a search for Earhart and Noonan began, which in the days that followed, turned into a massive air and sea operation. However, as the months passed, hope faded and eventually, even George Putnam himself accepted that his wife would probably never be found.
Since then, many further searches have been mounted in the intervening decades and dozens of outrageous theories have been generated.
Although Amelia Earhart’s disappearance continues to fascinate, it may remain an unsolved mystery.
Julian Hale is the author of Women in Aviation, which was published by Shire Publishing in June 2019. Click here to Buy A Copy.