Thursday, February 14, 2013

The First Female Pioneers of Aviation

by Diana Jackson

Everyone has heard of Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart, pioneers in aviation in the 1930’s, but during my research I have discovered many women whose endeavours matched those male counterparts of their era as far back as 1910. Their daring to venture in what was seen as a man’s world accomplished much more than their achievements in flying alone, although these were certainly remarkable. They also designed clothes, opened factories, begun flying schools and fought prejudice at many levels. They were not, as I had imagined, all rich young ladies with plenty of time on their hands, but women who dared to be different.

Harriet Quimby 1875 – 1912 ‘The Green Eyed Beauty’

Background and inspiration to fly ~ Harriet Quimby came from a poor American family, but by working herself up from journalism and theatrical writing she became a competent and successful screenwriter for the silent movies of her time. It was after attending the Belmont Park Air Tournament on Long Island that she decided she must learn to fly.

Aviation achievements ~ In 1911 she gained her pilots licence and became the first female American to gain an Aero Club of America Certificate. As many pilots of her day, Harriet gained experience and a way to fund her ambitions by participating in several air shows, but her main achievement was in April 1912 to be the first woman pilot to fly across the English Channel.
Death ~ Unfortunately she met her early death as a passenger in a two-seater Bleriot, only three months later in July 1912.
Notable difference ~ Harriet was also noted for her beauty and her dignified manner, but her other notable legacy was that she designed a suitable style of dress for women pilots of her day. She was known for her purple satin one piece flight suit which converted into pants (trousers) when flying but to a skirt when out of the aeroplane so that she did not offend the dress expectations of her era.

Katherine Stinson 1891 – 1997 ‘The Flying Schoolgirl’

Background and inspiration to fly ~ Katherine Stinson originally took up flying to save up to travel to Europe to study music, but she was a naturally gifted flier and soon became quite famous for her daring feats. She gained her pilots licence in 1912 and a year later participated at exhibition flights.

Aviation achievements ~ It is claimed by some that Katherine was the first woman to perform a loop and to fly solo at night, but she was certainly the first woman to be authorised to carry mail and to do pre flight inspections on her aeroplane.
Noteable difference ~ Her other claim to fame was that she invented night skywriting, amazing her audiences worldwide. Not being allowed to participate as a pilot in WW1 Katherine, as many of her counterparts, raised money for the Red Cross through exhibiting her daring feats.

Death ~ Unlike many of her fellow female fliers Katherine defied an early death and lived to an amazing age of 106!

Ruth Bancroft Law 1887 – 1970 ‘Ruth Law’s Flying Circus’

Background and inspiration to fly ~ A student at a private academy in New Haven CT, Ruth Law saw her first plane in the sky and fell in love with the idea of flying.

Aviation achievements ~ She gained her pilots licence in 1912 and set the non-stop cross country record from Chicago to New York. It is also claimed that she was the first woman to do a loop the loop and to fly at night.

During WW1 she formed ‘Ruth Law’s Flying Circus’ to raise money for the Red Cross where cars raced aeroplanes and she flew through fireworks.

Noteable difference ~ Due to her determination to contribute in a more substantial way to the war effort she was dismayed at the army’s rejection of her application to fly for them, but finally they allowed her to wear an NCO uniform whilst raising money for their cause. The first lady ever to do so.

The New York Governor chose Law to illuminate the Statue of Liberty which she circled three times with flares on the tips of her wings and a banner with the word ‘liberty’ on the fuselage.

It is strangely her husband who decided enough was enough, and put a stop to Law’s flying antics, by writing her notice of retirement in the newspaper in 1922!

Death ~Ruth Law died at the good age of 83 years.

Hilda Beatrice Hewlett 1864 – 1943

Background and inspiration to fly ~ Born into a wealthy but large family, she was educated at Kensington Art School in wood carving, metalwork and sewing, all skills she used later in life. She married Maurice Hewlett, a successful novelist and poet, and through him Hilda became interested in motorcars, becoming a passenger and mechanic to a female racing driver, Miss Hind.

In 1909 she became a friend of an engineer Gustave Blondeau, through whom she gained an interested in aviation and began to save up to buy an aeroplane. She travelled to France where she worked alongside the men building her aeroplane, where she called herself Mrs Grace Bird.

Aviation achievements ~ They returned with the aeroplane, called The Blue Bird, and set up a flying school at Brooklands where Hilda learned to fly. At 47 years old Hilda is the first English woman to gain a pilot’s licence in 1911. Alongside their flying school, where incidentally Tommy Sopwith also learnt to fly, they began making aeroplanes.

Noteable difference ~ In 1912 she moved to Leagrave in Bedfordshire where she set up her own aeroplane factory where women were trained to build planes for The Great War. By 1918 they employed 300 men and 300 women. (Even her sewing skills came into use here in sewing the fabric on the wings of the planes.) Later, she was the first woman passenger to make the 11 day through flight from England and New Zealand and she was also involved in an airline.

Death ~ Hilda Hewlett died at 79yrs.

Bessie Coleman 1892 – 1926 ‘Queen Bess’

Background and inspiration to fly ~ One of a family of thirteen children of a sharecropper Bessie had to walk four miles to school each day, where she excelled in mathematics. In 1915 she worked at a barber’s shop as a manicurist which is where she heard stories of pilots arriving home from WW1.

Aviation achievements ~ She dreamed of learning to fly but even black US airmen wouldn’t train her so, undeterred, she learnt French and headed to Paris. In 1921 she became the first African American to obtain her international aviation licence. Still unable to make a living flying in the USA, or to find anyone willing to train her as a stunt pilot, she returned to France gaining instruction there and in Germany too, by a pilot at the Fokker Corporation.

On returning to the US she appeared in air displays and became known as “The world’s greatest woman flier.”

“I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly,” Bessie was noted saying.

Death ~ Unfortunately she did not live long enough to fulfil this dream because in 1926 a plane she flew in with William Will crashed and both died.

Noteable difference ~ It was after her death that she made the impact she’d hoped for in life, when Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs sprang up throughout America.

Diana Jackson writes historical fiction and has brought out two books in the Riduna series, ‘Riduna’ and ‘Ancasta Guide me Swiftly Home’ based mainly in the Channel Islands, including Alderney and Guernse,y and back on the mainland in Southampton, between 1865 and 1920. The second sees early flight, especially of flying boats, through the eyes of the characters living in Woolston, but no women pilots unfortunately. Diana hopes to redress this balance in the third book in the series.

This is the first in Diana Jackson’s Weekend Blog Tour
You can find details and more of her ‘Muse, Reviews and News’ on her blog.


  1. Glad you mentioned Bessie Coleman. I did am article about her once, for a children's magazine. She inspired a lot of women, plus her nephew. Er - I heard that her death was due to falling out of the plane?

  2. Cripes, a real super article. Thank yew,Diana.

  3. Really interesting, Diana, especially for someone who's most exciting day yet was a flying lesson in a Tiger Moth - I loved that plane... tweeting now.

  4. Oh, that must have been fantastic Margaretskea. Thanks for all your supportive comments! I really enjoyed researching the post.

  5. Fascinating post! I enjoyed it tremendously.

  6. That was great! I loved reading these little snippets and I'll have to check out the stories.


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