“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” – Leonard da Vinci
The skies have always been seen as the territory of men. The daring aces of both world wars, the pilots who first broke sound barriers and speed records, even the first humans to walk on the moon — They were all men. But next to these great pioneers were those who waded through the rivers of barriers and persevered through hardships in order to reach the skies.
Women of aviation have carved out their own niche in the history books. Their incredible feats in the early years of American aviation have shown the finest in the adventuring spirit of this country. To them, the skies were never a barricade that held them back, but something to be tamed and explored. Aida de Acosta, an American socialite, was recorded as the first American woman to pilot a motorized aircraft alone in 1903. While on a trip to Paris with her mother, Aida witnessed dirigibles in flight and took three lessons before taking to the sky herself. This horrified her parents, who believed that no man would marry a woman who’d done such a scandalous thing, so this part of her life was covered up, until Aida told her husband about it over dinner many years later.
The belief at the time was that flying was not an appropriate pastime for a woman and because of that opinion, most women were either forbidden or didn’t even try to fly. But others just didn’t care about the public’s perception. That mindset that carried Bessie Raiche to pilot a Wright-style biplane in 1910. The car-driving, pants-wearing dentist from New Hampshire built the plane she flew in her living room with her husband. She was awarded a medal that was inscribed with “First Women Aviator in America” by the Aeronautical Society of America.
At the beginning of the Age of Flight, women like Aida and Bessie faced an immeasurable amount of prejudice and spite from their male counterparts. It was believed that women’s “natural emotional constitutions” would hinder them while flying. It was socially unacceptable for a woman to get into the seat of an airplane and even Orville Wright refused to teach women to fly, believing they were only seeking fame by wanting to become pilots. This attitude even seeped into the medical world of aviation, where the first federal aviation medical examiner stated that female pilots should not fly while on their menstrual cycle and cited this as the reason for many recent crashes.
Obviously, these reasons were beyond false and as the country entered the Roaring 20’s, women of the country began to change drastically in their social norms. This led to more pushback from females who wanted to fly, who insisted on breaking with social constraints and getting into the cockpit of an aircraft. As they became more visible, many aircraft manufacturers, such as Lockheed, began to use women as flight demonstrators. The idea was that if a woman was able to fly the aircraft, then it was easy to fly and more importantly, safe, making them a viable commodity for the military and male pilots.
“The men flyers have given out the impression that aeroplaning is very perilous work, something that an ordinary mortal should not dream of attempting. But when I saw how easily the man flyers manipulated their machines, I said I could fly,” said Harriet Quimby, the first American woman to fly across the English Channel. Quimby and others like her were gaining more ground in the industry and making it more rewarding to other women.
Bessie Coleman was the first African American female to become a pilot but because of the barriers of racism, she had to go to France to learn how to fly. Nancy Harkness Love, who would become commander of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron during World War II, rented an aircraft during her time at Vassar University and made extra money by taking students for rides. She was suspended from school for two weeks and was prohibited to fly for the remainder of the semester. The famously enigmatic Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo over the Atlantic Ocean in 1932, but tragically went missing when her plane crashed on a flight over the Pacific Ocean months later. There is no doubt that Earhart would have been an immense supporter and even member of the women who flew during World War II had she not gone missing.
Women flying was still considered a social taboo in most circles but the coming decades of the 1930s and ‘40s saw a great change in not only the industry, but the country. Female pilots were becoming a more frequent sight and in 1939 President Franklin Roosevelt, on recommendation from his wife Eleanor, signed the Civilian Pilot Training Act into law. This law stated that “None of the benefits of training or programs shall be denied on account of race, creed or color.” The program boasted one woman for every 10 men and many of the 2,500 graduates went on to become Women Airforce Service Pilots.
At the beginning of World War II, women from all over the country were filled with a sense of duty and wanted to serve in order to do their part for the war effort. Many took up jobs in factories, making ships and bombs and other weapons needed in both the European and Pacific theaters. Others, however, decided the best place to lend their aid would be in the skies.
Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran, an astute pilot who learned to fly in just three weeks, was tenacious in her quest to allow more women into the service as pilots. When she first became a pilot herself, she worked with Amelia Earhart to open the Bendix race to women. She won the race, set a new speed record and was considered the best female pilot in the United States. At the beginning of World War II, Cochran flew in volunteer status for the Royal Air Force. She was also the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean. When America entered the war, she began a push for women pilots in domestic, noncombat roles. In 1943, she got her wish after two divisions, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (commanded by Nancy Harkness Love) and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, were merged into one unit, the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, more commonly known as WASP.
The WASP, commanded by Cochran, were an organization of civilian female pilots that few noncombat missions during World War II. Upon completion of their training, they were stationed at 122 bases across the United States. These women flew 80% of all ferrying missions, totaling more than 60 million miles, and freed more than 900 male pilots to fly combat missions in both Europe and the Pacific. During their time of active service, 38 of the women were killed in the line of duty. Due to their nonmilitary status, the bodies of these women had to be shipped home at their family’s expense. Many times the women of the unit would pitch in to help with burial expenses and other financial expenditures of the family, if one of their own was killed in the line of duty. Even with the hardships and the prejudice they faced, the WASP persevered through not only war time dangers, but through constricting social constructs at home.
Throughout the war, these women were not given military status; this honor wouldn’t be given to them until nearly 30 years later. In the 1940s, some media portrayed the WASP as an unfair drain on taxpayers who were stealing flying jobs from men. Fast forward to the late 1970s, the American people now saw the WASP lack of military and veteran status as a grave injustice. After all they gave for their country, their country should be responsible in giving back to them. Eventually gaining congressional support, the WASP finally earned their status as military members with full veteran’s benefits in 1977. This act finally gave these brave women the well-deserved recognition for what they’d done during war.
“It gave the families of the girls that were killed a feeling that they died for their country,” one WASP said. The WASP displayed courage, tenacity and determination during a time their country needed them the most. Their invaluable contributions cannot and should not be overlooked.
The pioneers for women in aviation were strong, forward-thinking women. To them, flight represented freedom, equality and bravery; all the qualities of what America stands for. They paved the way for even more women to reach for the sky, some even to space, and made way for new roads to be paved not only within the military, but the entire country.