Detailing the role of women in aviation, from the very first days of flight to the present, this rich exploration of the subject profiles 26 women pilots who sought out and met challenges both in the sky and on the ground. Divided into six chronologically arranged sections, this book composes a minihistory of aviation. Learn about pioneers such as Katherine Wright, called by many the "Third Wright Brother," and Baroness Raymonde de Laroche of France, the first woman awarded a license to fly. Read about barnstormers like Bessie Coleman and racers like Louise Thaden, who bested Amelia Earhart to win the 1929 Women’s Air Derby. Additional short biography sidebars for other key figures and lists of supplemental resources for delving deeper into the history of the subject are also included.
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26 Stories of Pioneer Flights, Daring Missions, and Record-Setting Journeys
By Karen Bush Gibson
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2013 Karen Bush Gibson
All rights reserved.
Great change came with the beginning of the 20th century. The Machine Age led to the creation of factories. People left the uncertainty of rural agricultural life for the many jobs that factories and machinery provided. The cities pulsated with life from the bright lights, radio, and new motion pictures.
The steam engine made it possible to transport people and goods great distances, whether by train or boat. Transportation possibilities blew wide open when Henry Ford opened Ford Motor Company in 1903. Now people had personal transportation that they could take out whenever they wanted. What could be next?
Even with the vast amount of progress in the world, a heavier- than-air flying machine was still a surprise. Flying was something that had to be seen to be believed, so people flocked to airfields and exhibitions to be amazed.
After aviation was introduced, its popularity spread quickly, and soon countries such as France, Great Britain, and Germany began investing in this new and wondrous industry. France in particular began producing great pilots, airplanes, and flight schools, so it's not surprising that the first licensed woman pilot was French. In fact, five of the first six licensed women pilots were French (number four, Hélène Dutrieu, was from Belgium).
The first 10 women to earn a pilot's license were the following:
1. Raymonde de Laroche, France — March 8, 1910
2. Marthe Niel, France — August 29, 1910
3. Marie Marvingt, France — November 8, 1910
4. Hélène Dutrieu, Belgium — November 25, 1910
5. Jeanne Herveau, France — December 7, 1910
6. Marie-Louise Driancourt, France — June 15, 1911
7. Harriet Quimby, USA — August 1, 1911
8. Lidia Zvereva, Russia — August 10, 1911
9. Matilde Moisant, USA — August 17, 1911
10. Hilda Hewlett, England — August 29, 1911
Women's roles in society were changing. No longer content to sit on the sidelines, women wanted to fly. But most men were uneasy about women in planes. Pilots knew that flying a plane had nothing to do with physical strength, but they doubted that women could understand the technology behind aviation. And if there were an emergency, what women could make the calm, rational decisions needed?
But women had exactly what was needed for aviation, and they were determined to join men in the skies. In the early years, getting a pilot's license wasn't a requirement. Women such as Blanche Scott and Bessica Raiche were reportedly flying before America's first woman pilot earned a license, but neither woman stayed with aviation. Raiche became a physician. Scott became disgusted with the industry after seeing the public's attraction to plane crashes.
The people who pursued aviation, both men and women, were truly remarkable. Most airplanes weren't very sturdy and didn't offer much protection in a crash. American women, who weren't even allowed to vote until 1920, had to work hard just to find someone to teach them how to fly, as most flight schools didn't accept female students.
Seven years after Wilbur Wright flew 120 feet (36.5 meters) in the flyer, women were demanding the opportunity to fly. The early female aviation pioneers made things possible for the women who followed. They were the first.
BARONESS DE LAROCHE
People at the Aéro-Club in the Reims-Bétheny region of France were enjoying a lovely day with comfortable temperatures and a light breeze. For centuries, Reims, located northeast of Paris, was the city where French kings had been crowned. It was a city of important people. Most Saturdays brought the wealthy of Reims to the Aéro-Club to see the new airplanes being flown. People were fascinated that a flimsy machine made of wood and canvas could leave the ground — and with a person inside, too.
Suddenly, a woman moved through the crowd in a way that said she was someone important. Whispers of "baroness" floated through the air as she stopped a few times to speak with different people.
All eyes remained on this baroness as she moved toward one of the airplanes. Almost everyone looked confused as she laced a string around the hem of her dress. At the front of the dress, she tried the string as if she were tying a shoe. Someone said aloud, "That's to keep her dress from flying up."
Even more surprising was what she did next. She quickly hopped into the seat of the plane. After the gasps subsided, a silence settled over the crowd. Then a mechanic stepped to the front of the plane. Reaching as high as he could, he pulled the propeller down. He repeated this motion a few more times until the engine sputtered to life and the propeller spun on its own.
More than a few faces looked around, expecting someone to stop the woman. No one did. The plane moved forward along the ground, gradually moving faster until it lifted off. The stunning vision prompted wild applause from the audience. The woman made a few turns above the airfield before landing smoothly on the ground.
By that time, everyone knew the name of Baroness de Laroche, the first woman in the world to earn a pilot's license.
* * *
Elise Raymonde Deroche was born in Paris, France, on August 22, 1886. The daughter of a plumber, she was not born a baroness. She was, however, born with a sense of adventure. Her sense of style and commanding appearance led to some success on the stage as an actress. She even changed her name to the more dramatic Raymonde de Laroche.
But life as an actress didn't meet Elise's thirst for adventure. The two-wheeled contraption known as the velocipede became popular in France in the late 1860s. It would later become known as the bicycle. Elise taught herself to ride one before moving on to balloons.
Elise loved the feeling of soaring high in the air and looking down upon the earth. She soon became an accomplished balloonist in a time when women balloonists were rare.
Her interest in flying grew when she heard that an American named Wilbur Wright would be arriving in France to demonstrate his new flyer. On August 8, 1908, Wright arrived in Le Mans, a city between Paris and the west coast of France. Only five years earlier, Wilbur and his brother Orville had tested the first flyer in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
A team of horses hauled the Wright flyer onto the center of a racetrack near Le Mans. The audience watched as a couple of men pulled down on the propeller. Suddenly the propeller began moving very fast by itself. At the same time, the flyer began moving forward. Wilbur Wright took off and flew around the racetrack. Not only did he dazzle the crowd in the stands, but he also amazed the French officials who had said that a flying machine was an impossibility. After he landed, Wilbur offered rides to any women in the audience interested in experiencing flight. There was no way Elise would miss this opportunity.
After she had flown with Wilbur Wright, ballooning no longer appealed to Elise. Luckily, the French took to aviation quickly. Within a year, Elise was asking Charles Voisin, a French aviator, to teach her to fly. Voisin and his brother, Gabriel, built and flew airplanes. Voisin agreed to teach the 23-year-old actress how to fly.
Their airplane, called the Voisin, was a single-seater aircraft, which meant the teacher had to teach from outside the airplane. For her first lesson, Charles Voisin showed Elise how to move, or taxi, the airplane down the field. The noise of the airplane was loud. He shouted for her to try it but warned her to stay on the ground.
Elise took her first lesson in Châlons, about 147 miles (237 kilometers) east of Paris. First, she taxied the small airplane down the airfield. When she reached the end, a waiting mechanic turned the plane around, and she taxied back. Then Charles turned her around and told her to do it again. This time, Elise opened up the throttle, rising about 15 feet (4.5 meters) in the air. She flew a few hundred yards, made a gentle landing, and came taxiing back to her starting point.
Charles Voisin must have realized that Elise had a talent for piloting, because he kept teaching her, even though she had defied him. She continued to improve, and the two became very close.
Early airplanes weren't very sturdy, and accidents were common. Elise didn't allow her first accident in early 1910 to stop her. As she approached her landing at Châlons, a strong gust of wind hit her plane, causing her to slam into some trees, fall about 20 feet (6 meters), and break her collarbone. After her injury healed, she left with the Voisin brothers for Egypt to compete in the Heliopolis air meet. Bad weather kept some aviators from competing, but not Elise. She flew through heavy winds and rains to finish in eighth place.
On March 8, 1910, Elise felt she was ready to test for her pilot's license. She flew for the officials at the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), and her performance left no question about whether she was equipped to fly an airplane. Elise was granted pilot's license number 36, becoming the first licensed woman pilot in the world. Earning this achievement meant she was allowed to enter any aviation contest. The newspapers called her "la femme oiseau" (the bird woman).
Elise left acting behind as she traveled, earning money with flying exhibitions and races. She arrived in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg, where the chimneys spit out so much smoke that air currents became unstable and pilots had a hard time seeing. But Elise went up anyway and circled the small airfield. She later told Collier's magazine, "I mounted to a height of 150 meters, being enveloped by the smoke from the factory chimney which surrounded the ground. I flew over houses, then above forests, and turned three times."
Turning off her engine, she glided to a perfect landing in front of Tsar Nicholas II. He was so impressed that he bestowed the title of baroness upon the lovely pilot. Elise, who enjoyed being the center of attention, began to use the title.
Baroness de Laroche encountered smoking chimneys again in Budapest, where she was to race a 68-mile (109 kilometers) course against other pilots. The other pilots — men — refused to fly under such circumstances. The baroness completed the course and came away with first place.
On July 8, just four months after earning her pilot's license, Elise returned to Reims to compete against a field of all men. She was doing well in the competition until the sixth day, when she crashed and broke her arm and both legs. When she regained consciousness in the hospital, she said that another plane had come too close and forced her crash. The pilot of the other plane wasn't disciplined. In fact, some people pointed to the incident as proof that women shouldn't be pilots, stating that women just weren't as capable of flying as men.
Elise's injuries took two years to heal. Many thought her flying days were over, but she began training for the Coup Femina, a competition for women who flew the longest distance solo. But Elise had to pull out of the race when an auto accident left her with severe wounds. Her companion, Charles Voisin, was also in the vehicle, and he died as a result of the incident.
Elise was devastated by the loss of her teacher and romantic interest. As she recovered from the accident, she became more determined than ever to get back into the air. In 1913, she experimented with other airplanes. The Sommer was similar to the Voisin she had been flying, but she liked the Farman. All were biplanes, but the Farman had more power.
On November 25, when she participated in the second Femina competition, she flew 200 miles (322 kilometers) in four hours. She stopped to land only when the plane developed a problem in its gas line. Still, her efforts were enough to win the contest.
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 put Elise's flying career on hold. All airplanes and military pilots were needed for the war. Civilian flying was strictly prohibited. Although Baroness de Laroche volunteered her piloting skills, she was turned down. Instead, she became a chauffeur for the French military, moving items and people from place to place.
As soon as the war ended, the baroness jumped back into flying. She set a woman's altitude record of 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) on June 7, 1919. Three days later, American pilot Ruth Law reached 14,700 feet (4,484 meters). But Baroness de Laroche hadn't gotten to where she was by giving up. Five days later, she reclaimed her record by flying to 15,689 feet (4,785 meters).
More airplanes were filling the skies, and new planes were being unveiled every day. People needed to test these airplanes. As an experienced 33-year-old pilot, Elise believed she would be an ideal candidate for the first female test pilot. On July 18, she had the chance to ride as a passenger in an experimental Caudron, which was located at the airfield in the coastal town of Le Crotoy. She hoped to learn more about being a test pilot.
However, tragedy struck. The airplane went into a spin that sent it plummeting to the ground. The pilot died on his way to the hospital. Elise Deroche, the world's first licensed woman pilot, died instantly.
First Woman to Fly Across the English Channel
Harriet Quimby waved good-bye to friends and officials at the Dover Airfield in England at 5:30 AM on April 16, 1912. Dressed in her usual hooded, plum-colored, satin flying suit, she climbed into a Blériot monoplane, an airplane with one set of wings. Harriet had never piloted the 50-horsepower, single-seat aircraft; she had borrowed it from Louis Blériot, who was famous for being the first aviator to cross the English Channel.
After days of waiting for the bad weather to clear, Harriet was excited to finally be in the air again. A bit of anxiety stayed with her as she navigated through the foggy skies at an altitude between 1,000 and 2,000 feet (300 to 600 meters). This flight had already sent many pilots to their deaths. Harriet tried to think of the flight as a cross-country flight, not "flying in the fog with an untried compass, in a new untried machine knowing that the treacherous North Sea stood ready to receive me if I drifted only five miles too far out of my course."
Harriet's goal was the small coastal town of Calais, France. Although Calais was only 22 miles (29 kilometers) away, she could not see it through the mist, and she landed 25 miles (40 kilometers) south instead, on the beach at Hardelot, France. She was greeted by smiling fishermen who came running when they saw an airplane land. Friends soon arrived, and they carried Harriet on their shoulders after toasting her with champagne.
The trip had taken 59 minutes. Before many people had opened their eyes that day, America's first female pilot, Harriet Quimby, had become the world's first woman to fly across the English Channel.
* * *
When Harriet began making a name for herself, first as a journalist and then as a pilot, she was reported to be the daughter of rich landowners who had sent her to private schools in the United States and Europe. Perhaps Harriet or her mother had wanted to create a new image for Harriet, because the truth was that she came from a struggling farm family and had been educated in public schools.
Born in Michigan in May 1875 to William and Ursula Quimby, Harriet spent her early childhood near Coldwater, Michigan. Although several children were born to the Quimbys, only Harriet and her older sister, Kittie, survived childhood.
William fought for the Union in the Civil War until he became ill. His wife, Ursula, healed him with herbal remedies she was known for creating. When the farm failed in the late 1880s, the family moved to California along with Kittie and her new husband. Harriet and her parents eventually settled in the Oakland-San Francisco area. William worked at different jobs, but the Quimbys continued to struggle financially until William began selling Ursula's herbal remedies.
With her dark hair and engaging personality, Harriet considered being an actress. She spent a little time on the stage in San Francisco before turning to writing. She wrote feature articles for publications such as the San Francisco Bulletin. After some success, she moved across the country to New York City.
Succeeding as a journalist, particularly as a female journalist in New York City in 1903, was almost impossible. But Harriet brought strong writing skills, intelligence, and determination with her. After showing her published work, which included theatrical reviews and articles about life in Chinatown, she convinced the editors of Leslie's Illustrated Weekly to try her as a contributing writer.
Excerpted from Women Aviators by Karen Bush Gibson. Copyright © 2013 Karen Bush Gibson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Part I: Pioneers of Aviation,
Baroness de Laroche: "Bird Woman",
Harriet Quimby: First Woman to Fly Across the English Channel,
Bessie Coleman: Queen Bess,
Neta Snook: The Woman Who Taught Amelia to Fly,
Part II: The Golden Age of Flight,
Amelia Earhart: The Most Famous Female Aviator in the World,
Louise Thaden: Women's Air Derby Winner,
Bobbi Trout: From Service Station to Airfield,
Elinor Smith: The Flying Flapper of Freeport,
Edna Gardner Whyte: Nothing Could Stop Her from Flying,
Katherine Cheung: The First Licensed Asian American Woman Pilot,
Beryl Markham: African Bush Pilot Crosses Atlantic,
Willa Brown: Integrating the US Armed Forces,
Part III: Wartime and Military Flying,
Jacqueline Cochran: Women Pilots Can Make a Difference,
Violet Cowden: Determined WASP,
Valentina Grizodubova: The Soviet Amelia Earhart,
Hanna Reitsch: The World's First Female Test Pilot,
Part IV: All Part of the Job,
Pancho Barnes: Stunt Flyer Extraordinaire,
Lynn Rippelmeyer and Beverly Burns: Airline Pilot Captains,
Wally Funk: Air Safety Investigator,
Patty Wagstaff: Aerobatic Firefighter,
Ingrid Pedersen: Polar Bush Pilot,
Part V: Making a Difference,
Ruth Nichols: Relief Wings in Times of Disaster,
Fay Gillis Wells: Promoting World Friendship through Flying,
Jennifer Murray: Helicopter Flying for Charity,
Ida Van Smith: Teaching Children to Fly,
Jerrie Cobb: Missionary Pilot,