It’s Women’s History Month and I’ve been researching some of the women pioneers of aviation. Perhaps the most famous woman aviator was Amelia Earhart and I have been fortunate enough to publish an audiobook of one of her memoirs, “20 Hrs. 40 Mins.” But Earhart followed a long line of women pioneers.
Consider, for example, the French actress Raymonde de Laroche, who looked up one day in October,1909, and saw the miracle of a lighter than air machine flying high in the air above Paris, making a circle around the Eiffel Tower.
THE FIRST WOMAN TO FLY A PLANE
The flight impressed Raymonde de Laroche, who was a socially connected lady. One evening she dined with her friend, Charles Voisin, who, with his brother, built aeroplanes at Chalons, 90 miles from Paris. He agreed to give her flying lessons– but there was one big problem: his currently available aeroplane had only one seat and carried no passengers.
The solution: Voisin would teach de Laroche by yelling at her over the sound of the motor. She would sit in the plane, he would be close to the plane on the ground, yelling instructions on how to operate the controls, to keep the plane even and level once it was in flight. However, Voisin forbade Laroche to actually take off into the air, because that would be too dangerous.
But Raymonde de Laroche had an independent mind. On October 22, 1909, once she gained confidence in operating the plane on the ground, there was only one other thing for her to do – fly! She took off into the air and flew the aeroplane 10 to 15 feet above the ground for a distance of about 300 yards, before safely bringing the plane back to earth to the exasperated Voisin.
Raymonde de Laroche didn’t know it at the time, but she had become the first woman to fly an airplane. There had already been women passengers in a plane flown by a man, but Raymonde de Laroche was the first woman to actually fly a plane by herself. Five months later, she formalized her position by obtaining a Pilot’s License, becoming the world’s first licensed female pilot, receiving the Aero-Club of France License Number 36. Women of Aviation Worldwide Week is held on the week of March 8 in her honor and to raise awareness of the opportunities in aviation for women during Women’s History Month.
THE FIRST AMERICAN WOMAN GRANTED A PILOTS LICENSE
A year later, in August 1911, the first American Woman pilot received a US Pilot’s license from the Aero Club of America. Her name was Harriet Quimby. Before she began flying, Quimby had a successful career as a theatre critic for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine, a very popular weekly of the time.
Quimby also wrote screenplays for films that were directed by pioneering director D.W. Griffith for Biograph studios in New York, before the industry moved West.
On April 16, 1912, Harriet Quimby became the first woman to fly the English Channel from Dover, England to Calais, France, about 22 miles. This followed the flight in 1909 of the first man to fly the Channel, Louis Bleriot. In fact, Quimby borrowed one of Bleriot’s aeroplanes for the flight. Her flight time was one hour and nine minutes. Quimby’s accomplishment should have made her an international heroine, but, sadly, the Titanic disaster took place the day before and wiped her news out of the papers.
“In my opinion, there is no reason why the aeroplane should not open a fruitful occupation for women. I see no reason why they cannot realize handsome incomes by carrying passengers between adjacent towns, why they cannot derive incomes from parcel deliveries, from taking photographs from above or from conducting schools for flying.”
THE FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMAN GRANTED A PILOT LICENSE
The first African American woman to hold a pilot’s license was Bessie Coleman, who was also part Native American. Coleman obtained her International Pilots License in 1921 and she did it the hard way. The daughter of two southern sharecroppers, Coleman grew up in poverty, but she knew how to work hard and she saved her money.
Because of racial prejudice, Coleman was denied entry to American flying schools. So, this amazing woman traveled to France, learned to speak French and studied at the Coudron Brothers flying school at Le Crotoy.
Then Coleman returned to the United States to establsh her own flying school, to teach black women how to fly. As she put it:
“The air is the only place free from prejudice. I decided Blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly. If I can create the minimum of my plans and desires, there shall be no regrets. I refused to take for an answer.”
American women have been deeply involved in aviation from the very beginning. Katherine Wright, sister to Wilber and Orville Wright, was instrumental in the Wright Brothers experiments and the establishment of their company.
Probably the most famous American Woman pilot was Amelia Earhart, an adventurous young woman, who had taken up flying as a hobby and was well known in flying organizations. Earhart supported herself as a Social Worker at the Dennison House, a settlement house in Boston.
In 1927, after Charles Lindbergh successfully flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean and became a national hero, Florida socialite Amy Guest felt that whatever a man could do, a woman could do.
Guest made plans to be the first woman to travel by plane across the Atlantic Ocean. She bought a plane and hired a pilot, Wilmer Stutz, and mechanic, Louis Gordon. Mrs. Guest saw herself as being only a passenger – but still the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Eventually, her family persuaded her not to take the risk and Amelia Earhart, was chosen to take her place and join the crew on this very dangerous flight.
Mrs. Guest engaged the services of Charles Lindberg’s publicist, George P. Putnam, to handle the publicity of the Earhart flight, because of his success in publicizing Lindberg’s flight and the post flight excitement.
The news of an American Woman successfully crossing the Atlantic electrified the American population and, in particular, American Women. Amelia Earhart became a heroine and a symbol of Women’s progress toward equality. A few years later Earhart made a solo filght across the Atlantic Ocean. She wrote:
“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is mere tenacity. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.”
If you would like to see the actual take off of Amelia Earhart in her historic flight across the Atlantic in the “Friendship,” I have obtained the film and have included it in a promotional video for our Listen 2 Read audiobook by Amelia Earhart, “20 Hrs 40 Mins, Our Flight in the Friendship,” where she describes her life and her historic flight.
Here is the link: http://listen2read.com/20-hrs-40-mins/
Sadly, all of the above women, except Katherine Wright and Neta Snook, perished in air crashes during this very experimental time in the history of fight. But all of these women aviation pioneers were blessed with a dream and did whatever it took to pursue their dream. And I believe that anyone who follows their dream is an inspiration for all of us.
Listen To Read
PS: Our audiobook of Amelia Earhart’s “20 Hrs-40 Mins, Our Fight in the Friendship” read by Leslie Walden, is available as traditional CD and an Mp3CD as well as a digital download. As a gift, it might inspire someone. Here is a link: