Trailblazing women of flight
The pioneering spirit of aviation has attracted both men and women for millennia. Unlike their male counterparts, female pilots have had to shake off more than the bonds of earth, overcoming social obstacles, gender prejudice and aviation policy restrictions. Here’s our pick of some of the greatest women in aviation history.
Whether you fly commercially or prefer to charter a private jet there are men and women both whose involvement in the industry made your flight a possibility. Since most of the men have had plenty of credit over the years we decided to create a list focusing on the Greatest Women in Aviation History, and maybe we’ll get to the men down the line.
In no particular order:
Emma Lilian Todd
Lived: 1865 - 1937
Remembered as: First female airplane designer
Born in Washington D.C., Todd was a self-taught inventor. Inspired by the airships she saw on a trip to London, she began inventing around 1903 and went on to design an aircraft that was successfully flown by test-pilot Didier Masson (denied a pilot’s licence, she was unable to fly the plane herself). Todd’s work in aviation was noticed by philanthropist Olivia Sage when she exhibited her first design at a Madison Square Garden airshow. Sage became Emma’s patron, giving her $7,000 to design and build an aircraft. In addition to her biplane design, Todd founded the first Junior Aero Club in 1908 to help educate future aviators.
Lived: 1873 - 1926
Remembered as: First woman to pilot an aircraftt
French aviator Peltier developed an interest in aviation when her close friend, aviator Léon Delagrange, moved into the field. Delagrange inspired her to become the first woman to fly solo in a powered, heavier-than-air airplane. Remarkably, Peltier learnt to use the airplane’s controls through observation alone – particularly impressive when you consider that aircraft at the time were less reliable and far more intuitive than they are today. Peltier flew solo in Delagrange’s Voisin Boxkite for 200 meters at a height of 2.5 meters at the Military Square in Italy; quite a feat at a time when the slogan ‘woman can’t drive’ was practically institutionalized.
Katharine Wright Haskell
Lived: 1874 - 1929
Remembered for: Providing crucial support of the Wright Brothers
The sister of aviation’s most famous brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, Katharine played a crucial role in the pioneering duo’s success. In fact, Wilbur once said: "If ever the world thinks of us in connection with aviation, it must remember our sister." Sadly, for the most part it hasn’t, although her influence on the history of flight is well documented.
Katharine graduated from Ohio’s Oberlin College in 1898 and maintained the Wright household and finances while her brothers traveled the globe trying to bring in funding and partners. In 1909, she journeyed to France with Orville, where her charm and outgoing personality – traits her notoriously shy brothers lacked – made her an immediate hit with French newspapers. Katharine took on the financial responsibilities of the Wright Company and was awarded the Légion d'Honneur alongside her brothers.
Raymonde de Laroche
Lived: 1882 - 1919
Remembered as: First woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license
Known by some as the ‘Baroness of Flight’, French pilot de Laroche was interested in mechanics from an early age. After crossing paths with pioneering aviator Léon Delagrange and attending the 1908 Paris expo where the Wright brothers enchanted the world, she set her sights on a career in aviation and enrolled at Charles Voisin’s rudimentary flight school.
On March 8, 1910, de Laroche became the first woman in the world to receive a pilot’s licence when the Aero Club of France issued her licence #36 of the International Aeronautical Federation. She was also a talented aviation engineer and became a test pilot, but was tragically killed when an experimental plane went into a dive in 1919. Paris–Le Bourget Airport in France features a statue in her honor.
Lived: 1892 - 1926
Remembered as: First woman of African-American and Native American descent to gain a pilot’s license.
The daughter of Texas sharecroppers, Bessie Coleman worked in the fields from a young age and later as a manicurist in the White Sox Barber Shop in Chicago. While there she met pilots returning home from World War I and, fired with ambition to become a pilot, took a second job at a restaurant to earn the money for flight training.
At the time, neither women nor African-Americans were allowed to attend pilot school; but undeterred, Coleman moved to France in 1920 and took advanced classes from ace pilots. She saw her work in aviation as a way to further the civil rights movement, saying: “The air is the only place free from prejudices.” Returning to the U.S., Coleman went on to become a famous air show stunt pilot nicknamed “Queen Bess”.
Lived: 1897 - 1939 (declared dead in absentia).
Remembered as: First female to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, among other achievements.
Arguably the most famous female pilot and aviation role model of all time, Earhart saw a plane for the first time aged 11 at the Iowa State Fair – one of the Wright Brothers’ early models. She worked hard over the years to pay for flight classes and her own plane. Once licensed, she set a new altitude record for a female pilot of 14,000 feet. In 1928, Earhart navigated an historic flight across the Atlantic. Later, she made the journey as pilot but was forced to land in Northern Ireland due to technical difficulties and bad weather. A number of accolades followed and she became the first woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Still not satisfied with her accomplishments, she determined to be the first woman to fly around the world. In 1937 the adventure ended badly when Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, vanished while crossing the Pacific Ocean on their way to Howland Island. Despite concerted efforts by the U.S. government, they were never found and Earhart was eventually declared dead in absentia. Her attempt was later completed by Geraldine Mock, who successfully flew around the world in 1964.
Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie
Lived: 1902 - 1975
Remembered as: First female aviation mechanic, and more
American aviation pioneer Omlie fell in love with flying when a small airshow took place in her Iowa hometown to mark a visit by President Woodrow Wilson. She persuaded an airport manager to allow her to fly with one of his pilots, who carried out several stunts in an attempt to make her ill and put her off. Instead, Omlie began performing aerial stunts herself, taking up wing-walking and parachuting before setting the record for the highest parachute jump by a female when she jumped from her plane at 15,200 feet.
In 1927, Omlie became the first woman to receive an airplane mechanic's license and was also the first licensed female transport pilot. She was later appointed by President Roosevelt as the Special Adviser for Air Intelligence to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, making her the first woman appointed to a federal aviation position. During World War II, she established 66 flight schools in 46 states in order to meet the growing need for pilots. Making use of female flight instructors, she famously said, “If women can teach men to walk, they can teach them to fly.”
Lived: 1903 - 1941
Remembered as: First female to fly from Britain to Australia
English aviator Amy Johnson initially flew planes as a hobby. After gaining a degree in economics, she achieved her pilot’s licence in 1929 under the tutelage of Captain Valentine Baker and became the first woman to obtain a ground engineer's "C" licence.
In 1930 she determined to set a new record by flying from England to Australia. Departing Croydon on May 5, 1930 in a two-seat touring and training aircraft, Johnson arrived in Darwin on May 24 having covered a distance of 11,000 miles. She also set the record from England to Cape Town and competed in an England-to-Australia air race with her husband in 1934, flying non-stop to India in record time. During World War II, Johnson joined the Air Transport Auxiliary and rose to the rank of First Officer before her plane crashed into the Thames Estuary in 1941.
Lived: 1906 - 1980
Remembered as: First woman to break the sound barrier
American racing pilot Cochran set a number of flight records during her auspicious career and won the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race in 1938. She recruited women for the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) – a World War I civilian organization that transported new, repaired and damaged military aircraft between factories, transatlantic delivery points, maintenance units, scrap yards and active service squadrons and airfields. It flew personnel on urgent duty and carried out air ambulance work.
Cochran also led the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), becoming the first director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots when the WFTD and Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron merged. In 1941 she was the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic and in May 1953, she became the first female to break the sound barrier while flying an F-86 Saberjet.
Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock
Lived: 1925 - 2014
Remembered as: First woman to fly solo around the world
A tomboy throughout her childhood, Ohio-born Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock developed an interest in flying after traveling in the cockpit of a Ford Trimotor aircraft aged seven. She later took a high school engineering course and, in 1964, became the first woman to fly around the world – a feat she achieved in a single-engine Cessna 180 named the Spirit of Columbus.
Mock’s groundbreaking round-the-world flight took 29 days to complete and covered almost 22,860 miles as she traveled over countries including Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. She was also the first woman to fly the Atlantic and Pacific; cross the Pacific in both directions; and cross the Pacific in a single-engine airplane.
Yvonne Pope Sintes
Lived: 1930 - present
Remembered for: First female air traffic controller at Gatwick Airport and Britain’s first commercial airline pilot.
South African-born British aviator Yvonne Pope Sintes’ career spans several disciplines: air stewardess, RAF Volunteer Reserve member, flight instructor, air traffic controller, pilot and author. She co-founded the British Women Pilots’ Association in 1955 and worked at Gatwick Airport as the first female air traffic controller in the early 1960s.
Sintes applied to work for British European Airways (which later became British Airways) in 1967, but was turned down in a letter that stated it wasn’t “…present BEA policy to employ women co-pilots”. She persevered, however, and became the first British commercial airline pilot in 1972, flying for Morton Air Services.
Lived: 1937 - present
Remembered for: First woman in space
Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova trained in skydiving at an early age, making her first jump in her early twenties. In 1962 she was accepted onto a female cosmonaut program and the following year she famously traveled into space aboard Vostok 6, after being selected from over 400 applicants to pilot the spacecraft. At the launch into space, she was recorded as saying: “Hey, sky, take off your hat. I’m on my way!”
Tereshkova orbited the earth 48 times in just under three days (more times than any man in space before her). Upon her return, she attended the Zhukovsky Military Air Academy and graduated with distinction in 1969. Retiring from military and political service with the rank of Major General of the Soviet Air Force, she joked with Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2007 that she would still like to travel to Mars.
Emily Howell Warner
Lived: 1939 - present
Remembered for:First female captain of a scheduled U.S. airline.
American airline pilot Emily Howell Warner developed a childhood interest in planes and decided to become a pilot at the age of 17 after traveling on one for the first time. Juggling flying classes with a full-time office job, she gained her private pilot’s license within a year and secured a job as a flying traffic reporter.
In 1973, Frontier Airlines made Warner the first female commercial airline pilot, opening the door for over 300 other women to take on similar roles within the next five years. Warner became the first female U.S. airline captain in 1976, flying a Twin Otter, and was also the first woman to become a member of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA).
The 588th regiment, a.k.a “Night Witches”
Remembered as: The only World War II regiment of all-female fighter pilots
The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was a Soviet all-female World War II air force regiment formed in 1941. The pilots – volunteers in their late teens and early twenties – took part in night missions, earning the regiment the nickname “Nachthexen” or “Night Witches” among Nazi officers. They flew precision and harassment bombing missions until the end of the war, taking part in 24,000 missions and dropping 23,000 tons of explosives.
Equipped with antiquated and slow-moving wood-and-canvas Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes originally designed for dusting crops, the 588th pilots made daring use of their planes’ maneuverability, dodging the far more advanced Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s used by the Germans. The Night Witches were experienced and highly decorated; by the end of the war each surviving pilot had flown over 800 missions. Thirty members died in combat and 23 were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title.
Lived: 1956 - present
Remembered as: First woman to pilot a space shuttle.
New York-born Collins expressed an early interest in aviation. One of just four women chosen to undergo pilot training at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma, she began her career as a military instructor and test pilot before becoming the second female pilot to attend the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School.
Collins was chosen to be an astronaut in 1990 and was the first female space shuttle pilot and the first woman to command a U.S. space shuttle. During a space mission in 1999, she also became the first astronaut to complete a 360-degree pitch maneuver in a space shuttle. Collins retired as a NASA astronaut and U.S. Air Force colonel, having received several medals for her service to aviation and aerospace.
Lived:1952 - present
Remembered as: “First Lady of Aerobatics” and extreme flying.
American aviator Patty Wagstaff has aviation in her blood; her father was a Japan Airlines pilot and her sister flies for United Airlines. She took flying lessons after moving to Alaska in the late 1970s and first qualified for the U.S. National Aerobatic Team in 1985. In 1991, she became the first woman to win the U.S. National Acrobatic Championship, a feat she has achieved three times over the course of her career.
Wagstaff was named the Betty Skelton First Lady of Aerobatics for six consecutive years from 1988 to 1994 and has been inducted into several aviation halls of fame, including the International Women's Aviation Hall of Fame and National Aviation Hall of Fame. Today she is based in Florida, where she runs a pilot training school alongside her work as an airshow pilot, film stunt pilot and flight instructor.
Lived: 1982 - present
Remembered as: First female pilot to compete in a Red Bull air race
Born to a French mother and British father, Astles grew up in the south of France and dreamed of becoming a pilot after attending an air show when she was six years old. She left school at 18 and worked at a gas station to save for flying lessons, beginning her training aged 21 and earning her private pilot’s licence four years later.
Astles’ big break came when an essay about her love of flying won her a place at an aerobatics training camp. She went on to become a five-time French Aerobatic Champion and made history by competing in the 2016 Red Bull Challenger Cup. Astles is ranked the fifth-best female aerobatic pilot in the world and is on the ministerial list of high-level French athletes.