Aviation Pioneers

The Woman Who Dared the Skies

Marjorie and Katherine Stinson were the first women to make a real mark in aviation.

Marjorie, a legendary flight instructor, ran a flying school in San Antonio, Texas, and Katherine supported her sister’s flying school, the Red Cross, and Liberty Bonds with the money she made with stunt flying.

Katherine Stinson, a member of the prominent Stinson Flying School, set a non-stop long-distance record in 1917, when she flew from San Diego to San Francisco. Source: Wikimedia

Ruth Law, who came from a family of aviators, set several altitude and distance world records.

After World War I, Law formed a flying circus and became one of the United States’ most popular barnstormer.

During World War I, Ruth Law volunteered to fly combat missions, but was turned down by the Air Force, much to her dismay. Source: Wikipedia

Phoebe Omlie pushed for safety markers to help aerial navigation. Together with two other women pilots, she traveled the country to find the best location for these directional markers.

President Roosevelt appointed Omlie to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Thus, she became the first woman to work for the government in the field of aviation.

Adrienne Bolland, from France, was the first woman to fly across the Andes Mountains, when she successfully flew from Argentina to Peru.

In 1927, Ruth Elder announced that she would attempt to fly across the Atlantic in an airplane she called American Girl. Frances Grayson decided to make the attempt at the same time. At the time, not many planes were equipped to make the transatlantic journey.

Elder was forced to give up just short of reaching the Azores. Grayson, who had attempted to fly the shorter North Atlantic route, took off from Newfoundland and was never heard from again.

Elinor Smith and Evelyn Trout set several aviation records, both individually and as a team. They became the first women to refuel their planes in flight.

Bessie Coleman faced additional discrimination because she was African American. After flying instructors across the United States turned her down, she moved to France to get a pilot’s license. Eventually, she returned to the U.S. to begin a barnstorming career.

Bessie Coleman wore a military uniform and flew a military plane to emphasize that she could fly an airplane as well as any military pilot. Source: Wikimedia

Famous pilots like Amelia Earhart, Ruth Elder, Bobbi Trout, Pancho Barnes, German pilot Thea Rashe, and Australian pilot Jesse Miller all participated in the Women’s Air Derby in 1929. The winner was Louise Thaden, who already held several flying records for women.

After the Air Derby, women fliers formed the Ninety-Nines, an association of female pilots. The group advocated for women’s aviation, promoted the careers of female fliers, and highlighted the latest in aviation development.

In 1931, Ruth Nichols attempted to repeat Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic.

Ruth Nichols began her flying career in 1928. Because of her high social standing, the press called her the “Flying Debutante.” She greatly resented the nickname. Source: Wikimedia

When she chose to refuel in Canada, her plane overshot the runway, and Nichols broke five vertebrae.

The weather prevented her from making another attempt at a transatlantic solo flight, soshe decided to set a new non-stop solo overland distance record instead.

Still in a steel brace from her last crash, she flew from Oakland, California, to Louisville, Kentucky—just far enough to set a record. At the next takeoff, her plane caught fire and she just managed to escape certain death.

In 1936, Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes won the prestigious Bendix Trophy. It was a triumph for women fliers across the world.

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Rob V.
Rob V. founded Century-of-Flight.net in October of 2019. He holds commercial single and multi-engine instrument ratings, and is a licensed CFI / CFII for both single and multi-engine aircraft. Rob currently has 1,500+ hours of flight logged, 1,000 of which is dual-given as an instructor. Learn more about him in his full bio here.

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