Ladies of the Skies

Caroline Jensen

© Copyright 2018 by Caroline Jensen

Photo of Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie.
                   Phobe Fairgrave Omlie

 I have been fascinated by airplanes since I made my first flight at the age of nine from Canada to England. Though there are more women pilots than ever before, the field is still dominated by men. My story is about those women who were flying planes in the 1920s and before, particularly those brave women who ferried various aircraft across the Atlantic to Europe in WWII - something not many people are even aware of. I have also made mention of Amelia Earhart and I have also included some facts about female astronauts.

An aviatrix is a woman aviator, a woman pilot, or a woman flyer. Another term, although not commonly used, is aviatress.

In the 20th century (the 1900s) women progressed significantly in the area of aviation. The first pilot’s license issued to a woman was in France in 1910. The United States first issued a pilot’s license a year later. In Canada, Ontario did not have a licensed female pilot until 1928. Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie became the first female Transport Pilot in 1927 and was also the first woman to become a licensed aircraft mechanic.

All through the 1920s and 1930s women became fascinated with flying, especially the rich socialites who had the money to pursue it. In 1929 the Women’s Air Derby, the first cross-country race for women pilots took place. Amelia Earhart took third place. The race took eight days to complete and was called the ‘powder puff derby’, a name that is still used to describe auto car racing today when women compete.

Amy Johnson was also a pioneer in women’s aviation. She was the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia in 1930. Although she did not break the world record, which was made by a man (16 days) she did complete the 11,000 mile tour in 19 days.

Perhaps the most famous and well-known aviatrix was Amelia Earhart. She set her first record when she was only twenty-five years old in the early 1920s, being the first woman to attain an altitude of 14,000 feet. In 1928 she was the first woman to fly across a continent (U.S.). In 1930 she set a speed record of one hundred and eighty-one miles per hour.

That same year she was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Three years later she became the first female pilot to perform a solo flight across the Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to California, setting two records – one for the fastest time and the other for the longest distance by a woman. This also made her the first person, male or female, to cross both oceans by air.

When she was nearing forty, Amelia wanted to do something spectacular. She wanted to convince both men and women that gender had nothing to do with what people were able to accomplish. In 1937 she made the decision to fly around the world. She would be the first person, male or female, to accomplish this. It was a tough task to undertake, and was discouraged by many because she was a woman. She began her journey in Miami, Florida. She completed the first part of the flight to Puerto Rico. When she left Africa, over the Pacific Ocean things appeared to go horribly wrong. Due to unexpected bad weather and loss of radio contact she and her navigator never made it to Howland Island (an island only one and a half miles long and a half a mile wide).

What happened to them still remains a mystery to this day – her plane was never found.

Even though she met with disaster she became a living legend and an inspiration to women, paving the way for women who wanted to try areas that were dominated by males. In 1963 the United States Post Office honored her by issuing an eight cent stamp
Many female pilots eventually put their good skills to work during World War II.

Because all eligible men were fighting combat missions in war zones there was a shortage of men (who failed the military physical but were still qualified pilots) available to fly newly built aircraft to the locations needed.

It was a cute novelty act for women to fly planes (and even to drive cars). However, the shortage of men as the war progressed made it necessary to at least give women the opportunity to prove themselves. And they did. Not only did they prove they were every bit as competent as the men but they apparently got lost less frequently!

Another very famous aviatrix was Jacqueline Cochrane who was most well known for her efforts in the promotion of women pilots during World War II. She was the director of the training program for the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). These women pilots exhibited “the right stuff” risking their lives for their men and their country. They lived in military style in the cramped bunkhouses and underwent rigorous military training.

Other divisions included the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying (WAFS), Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF – later renamed Women’s Royal Air Force), Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), and the Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF –WD).

They flew 120 different kinds of aircraft. They were limited at first to single engine planes such as the Tiger Moth, Spitfires and Hurricanes, Tiger Moths (open cockpit bi-planes) were used primarily as training planes for pilots learning to fly. Spitfires and Hurricanes were also “beginner airplanes” although these single engine planes with dropped wings were capable of much higher airspeed. The women were flying twin engine and even four engine bombers by 1943. They did not have radios, fearing that the enemy may overhear information regarding their location and/or destination and were not rated for instrument (IFR) flight. These factors made them more diligent in their navigational skills.

Before the war, in 1934, Cochrane was the first female test pilot and years after the war, in 1953, she was the first woman to break the sound barrier.

Two years after the end of World War II, in 1947, the first All Woman Air Show was held in Florida where a new speed record for a woman pilot was reached – 337 miles per hour.

Transair hired its first female pilot in 1974, a year after America Airlines hired its first female pilot.

Women pilots were not permitted to make announcements over the intercom until 1977. Some passengers, hearing that a woman was the pilot, actually got off the plane! Women are slowly infiltrating the ranks of commercial airlines but still only 10 per cent of pilots for major airlines are female and less than two per cent are captains (at the time of this writing).

The Navy was the first military division to actually hire and train women pilots. In 1974 six women became naval aviators.

The Army started training women to fly helicopters that same year. In 1976 the Air Force followed suit but would not allow women to fly in combat missions. In 1977 the first 10 women pilots graduated from the Arizona Air Force base.

In 1953 the first woman underwent astronaut testing. In 1961 thirteen women (called “Mercury 13) qualified for astronaut training for NASA. However, this was being kept a big secret from the public and in 1963 the testing was mysteriously cancelled.

Russia sent its first woman into space in 1963. She was only twenty-six years old.

Dr. Sally Ride, a high school teacher, was the first female U.S. astronaut to go into space aboard the Challenger in 1983. In 1986 the same aircraft exploded after takeoff killing all seven crew members, including a woman.

The first Canadian woman to fly into space was Roberta Bondar, on the Discovery, in 1992.

On March 1, 1991 the 32 year old Major Marie Rossi was the first woman to die in combat when her helicopter crashed in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm.

In 2001 the Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds hired their first female pilot, Captain Maryse “Marcy” Carmichael.

As Jenny Dyke, volunteer with the Experimental Aircraft Association, said, “It sure beats housework!”

I was born in England and immigrated to Canada with my parents at the age of three. My interest in writing began when I was nine years old. I have been fortunate enough to have won several fiction contests and had stories published both on the Internet and in print. I have self published three books: one nonfiction and two fiction.

Contact Caroline

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher