The first woman known to fly was Élisabeth Thible, who was a passenger in an untethered hot air balloon, which flew above Lyon, France in 1784. Four years later, Jeanne Labrosse became the first woman to fly solo in a balloon and would become the first woman to parachute, as well. Sophie Blanchard took her first balloon flight in 1804, and was performing as a professional aeronaut by 1810. She was made Napoleon’s chief of air services in 1811. Blanchard, the first woman who was a professional aviatrix, died in a spectacular crash in 1819. In June 1903, Aida de Acosta, an American woman vacationing in Paris, convinced Alberto Santos-Dumont, pioneer of dirigibles to allow her to pilot his airship, becoming probably the first woman to pilot a motorised flying machine.
The first machine-powered aeroplane flight was accomplished by the Wright Brothers on December 17, 1903. Both brothers felt that it was important to recognize contributions made by their sister Katherine Wright to their work. She also found people who could help with the Wrights’ flying experiments. Katherine, while she didn’t fly with her brothers until later in 1909, knew “everything about the working of their machines.” Katherine supported them financially, giving them her savings and also supported them emotionally. When Orville Wright was injured in 1908, Katherine moved close to the hospital to take care of him. Later, after the Wright brothers patented their aircraft in 1906, she worked as their executive secretary. In 1909, she traveled to Europe to become the social manager for her brothers. Her brothers were very introverted and relied on Katherine to help promote their work. Katherine was considered the “silent partner” of the Wright Brothers by The World Magazine. The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch called her the “inspiration of her brothers in their experiments.
Starting in 1906, another inventor of aircraft, Emma Lilian Todd began designing her own airplanes. Todd first started studying dirigibles before she moved onto designing airplanes. Todd’s first plane flew in 1910 and was piloted by Didier Masson. A woman who was an early parachutist, Georgia “Tiny” Broadwick started working with barnstormer, Charles Broadwick at age 15 in 1908. She made her first jump in 1908, and in 1913, became the first woman to jump successfully from an aircraft. In 1914 Broadwick was also the person who gave the first demonstrations of parachute jumping to the United States government. When she retired in 1922, she had completed 1,100 jumps.
The first woman passenger in an airplane was Mlle P. Van Pottelsberghe de la Poterie who flew with Henri Farman on several short flights at an airshow in Ghent, Belgium between May and June 1908. Soon after, in July, 1908, sculptor Thérèse Peltier was taken up as a passenger by Léon Delagrange and within a few months had been reported as making a solo flight in Turin, Italy, flying around 200 meters in a straight line about two and a half meters off the ground. Edith Berg, an American, who flew as a passenger with Wilbur Wright in Paris in October 1908, was the inspiration of the fashionable hobble skirt by the designer Paul Poiret.
Early pioneers include French Raymonde de Laroche, who became the world’s first licensed female pilot on March 8, 1910. Seven other French women followed her, earning pilot’s licenses within the next year. One of these, Marie Marvingt, the third Frenchwoman licensed for airplanes, was the first French woman balloonist licensed in 1901, and became the first woman to fly in combat completing bombing raids over Germany for the French war ministry. Marvingt tried to get the government to outfit air ambulances prior to the war and became the world’s first certified Flight Nurse. Hélène Dutrieu became the first woman pilot in Belgium, obtaining the 27th license issued by her country in 1910 and the second female formally licensed in Europe. Later that same year, she became the first woman to fly with a passenger. In 1910, even before she earned her pilot’s license, Lilian Bland a British woman living in Northern Ireland, designed and flew a glider in Belfast.
Blanche Scott always claimed to be the first American woman to fly an airplane, but as she was seated when a gust of wind took her up on her brief flight in September 1910, the “accidental” flight went unrecognized. Within two years, she had established herself as a daredevil pilot and was known as the “Tomboy of the Air”, competing in air shows and exhibitions, as well as flying circuses. On October 13, 1910, Bessica Raiche received a gold medal from the Aeronautical Society of New York, recognizing her as the first American woman to make a solo flight. Harriet Quimby became the USA’s first licensed female pilot on August 1, 1911 and the first woman to cross the English Channel by airplane the following year. Thirteen days after Quimby, her friend Matilde E. Moisant, an American of French Canadian descent, was licensed and began flying in air shows. She broke a world altitude record in 1911 reaching 7,500 ft.
Within a fortnight, Lidia Zvereva had obtained the first female Russian license and by 1914 she performed the first aerobatic loop made by a woman. Hilda Hewlett became the first British woman to earn a pilot’s license on August 29, 1911 and taught her son to fly that same year. In September 1910, Melli Beese became Germany’s first woman pilot and the following year began designing her first airplane which was produced in 1913. On October 10, 1911, Božena Laglerová a Czech native of Prague, obtained the first Austrian license for a woman and nine days later secured the second German license issued to a woman. On 7 December 1910 Jane Herveu, who had previously been involved in automobile racing was licensed in France and began participating in the Femina Cup.
Rosina Ferrario, the first female pilot of Italy, earned her license on January 3, 1913 and was as unsuccessful as Marvingt had been to persuade her government and the Red Cross to allow women to transport wounded soldiers during World War I. Elena Caragiani-Stoenescu, Romania’s first woman pilot got the same response from her government about flying for the war effort and turned to journalism. On December 1, 1913, Russian Lyubov Golanchikova signed a contract to become the first female test pilot. She agreed to test the “Farman-22” aircraft manufactured in the Chervonskaya airplane workshop of Fedor Fedorovich Tereshchenko. The first woman on the African Continent to earn a pilot’s license was Ann Maria Bocciarelli of Kimberley, South Africa.
In 1916, Zhang Xiahun became China’s first female pilot when she attended an airshow of the Nanyuan Aviation School and insisted that she be allowed to fly. After circling the field, tossing flowers, she crashed, becoming a national heroine when she survived. Katherine Stinson became the first woman air mail pilot, when the United States Postal Service contracted her to fly mail from Chicago to New York City in 1918. The following year, Ruth Law flew the first official U.S. air mail to the Philippines.
Women were also involved in teaching others how to fly. Hilda Hewlett and Gustave Blondeau teamed up in 1910 to start the first flying school in England, The Hewlett-Blondeau School. The school had only one plane with which to instruct students and was open for two years. Charlotte Möhring, the second German woman to earn a pilot’s license, worked as a manager of a flying school in 1913.
Both men and women after World War I were able to purchase “surplus and decommissioned airplanes.” Wanting to fly, but with little demand after the war, pilots purchased the planes and went from town to town offering rides. Creating attractions to bring in crowds, these daredevils performed stunts, loops and began wing walking to attract more customers. The ‘aerialists’ and pilots formed flying circuses sending promoters ahead of them to hang posters promoting their dangerous feats.
In 1920, Phoebe Fairgrave, later Phoebe Omlie, at the age of eighteen was determined to make her aviation career as a stuntwoman. By 1921, she had broken the world parachute drop record and worked as a wing walker for the Fox Moving Picture Company’s The Perils of Pauline series. By 1927, Omlie earned the first transport pilots license and airplane mechanics license issued to a woman. Another stuntwoman, Ethel Dare had perfected walking from one plane to another by 1920, the first woman to perform the feat.
Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to become a licensed airplane pilot in 1921. The following year, Japan’s first woman pilot Tadashi Hyōdō earned her license. Kwon Ki-ok of Korea became the first female licensee of that country in 1925 and after World War II, became instrumental in helping establish the Republic of Korea Air Force. German Marga von Etzdorf was the first woman to fly for an airline when she began co-piloting for Lufthansa in 1927 and piloting solo on commercial Junkers F13 on 1 February 1928.
The first African American woman to become a licensed airplane pilot in 1921 was Bessie Coleman. The following year, Japan’s first woman pilot Tadashi Hyōdō earned her license. Kwon Ki-ok of Korea became the first female license holder of that country in 1925 and after World War II, became instrumental in helping establish the Republic of Korea Air Force.
In the late 1920s, women continued to compete in air races and record-breaking flying contests. In 1929, Pancho Barnes moved to Hollywood to work as the first woman stunt pilot. Besides working on such films as Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930), she also founded the Associated Motion Pictures Pilots Union in 1931. The first Women’s Air Derby or Powder Puff Derby, an official women-only race from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio, was held as part of the 1929 National Air Races and was won by Louise Thaden.
Marie Marvingt of France, who had first proposed the idea of using airplanes as ambulances in 1912 continued to promote her idea successfully in the 1920s. During the French colonial wars, Marvingt evacuated injured military personnel with Aviation Sanitaire, a flying ambulance service. Canadian Elsie MacGill became the first woman to earn a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1929. On November 2, 1929, at Curtiss Field in Valley Stream, New York, 26 women pilots gathered and formed an international organization to provide mutual support for advancing women pilots and named themselves The Ninety-Nines, after the number of charter members.
The 1929 stock market crash and ensuing worldwide depression, coupled with more stringent safety regulations, caused many of the flying circuses and barnstorming circuits to fold. During the decade, options for women pilots in the United States and Europe were limited mainly to sales, marketing, racing and barnstorming and being an instructor pilot. In 1930, Ellen Church, a pilot and nurse, who was unable to secure work flying proposed to airline executives that women be allowed to act as hostesses on planes. She was hired on a three-month trial basis by Boeing Air Transport and selected the first seven flight attendants for the airline, requiring them to be under 115 pounds, qualified nurses and unmarried.
So for now our story takes a break, allowing us to concentrate on the female contributions to the pioneering years of aviation, and particularly the girls who became famous for their thrills and spills, their successes and their failures, their lives and loves, but particularly their courage and skills that paved the way towards the present world of aviation – and space travel.
Read much more about these female pilots by selecting their Profiles on the menu above .