With National Aviation Day taking place this weekend (on 19 August), we commemorate Amelia Earhart – perhaps the most renowned female pilot of all time – and some of the other iconic women in aviation history.
Earhart actually has her own commemorative day each year: her birthday – 24 July – is now known as Amelia Earhart Day. The first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, Earhart experienced many accomplishments in her flying career and is to this day an inspiration to many women in the industry. She mysteriously disappeared in 1937 and was sadly declared dead in absentia in 1939.
In celebration of these incredible careers, this illustrative series looks at 12 iconic women in aviation:
Lilian Bland was the first ever woman to design, build and pilot her own plane. Bland was in many ways an ‘unconventional’ woman of her time, partaking in habits such as wearing trousers and practising martial arts.
Bland was inspired to get into aviation following a postcard sent by her uncle of the Blériot monoplane. Bland’s first production was a flyable model biplane, from which she then progressed to build a full-scale glider.
Raymonde de Laroche
Raymonde De Laroche started her career as an actress, but was inspired by Wilbur Wright’s 1908 demonstrations of powered flight in Paris and decided to take up flying herself. In 1909 she turned to her friend Charles Voisin, an aviator and aeroplane builder, to provide her with flying lessons. In 1910 she became the first ever woman to receive a pilot licence, being awarded licence #36 of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale by the Aero-Club of France.
Bessie Coleman developed an interest in flying at a young age, but there were no opportunities for African Americans in the US to attend flight school. Undefeated, she saved money and travelled to France where she studied to become a pilot. In 1921 she become the first person of African America descent to earn a pilot’s licence. She went on to become a successful air show pilot in the US and intended to set up the first school for African-American pilots, but sadly died in 1926.
Her list of accolades runs long. In addition to the her solo trip across the Atlantic and the several books she wrote of the account, Amelia Earhart’s experiences as a pilot and played a key role in setting up the female pilots’ organisation The Ninety-Nines. Additionally, she was a member of the National Woman’s Party and a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Earhart’s disappearance is shrouded in mystery and remains a source of fascination to this day. She and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean while attempting to circumnavigate the globe in 1937.
Amy Johnson was the first ever woman to qualify as an aircraft engineer, and she was also the first female to fly solo between Britain and Australia. Johnson set many long-distance records in her time and was also part of the Air Transport Auxiliary in WWII.
Johnson first began flying as a hobby but went on to gain an aviator’s certificate and pilot licence in 1929, under the tutelage of Valentine Baker. That same year she became the first woman to obtain a ground engineer’s licence.
Jacqueline Cochran was one of the most prominent racing pilots of her generation, a pioneer in American aviation and a key player in the Women Air Force Service Pilots. Cochran began taking flight lessons in the 1930s and was able to fly an aircraft within just three weeks. Cochran petitioned the government to start a women’s flying division on the Armed Air Forces, and she successfully became the first Director of the Women Air Force Service.
Elinor Smith was the youngest ever pilot to receive an FAI licence, making her the youngest licensed pilot in the world at the age of 16. Smith took her first ever plane ride aged just six, and fell in love with flying. At the age of 10 she began receiving flying lessons and soloed for the first time aged 16.
Geraldine Mock, also known as Jerrie Mock, was the first woman to fly around the world – a feat she achieved in 1964. Her trip lasted just under one month, which is documented in her book. Mock displayed an interest in flying from a very young age, having the chance to fly in a cockpit with her father at the age of 7. Mock set many records in her flying career and was the first woman to achieve many other feats including flying from the Pacific West to East and flying both the Atlantic and the Pacific. She also achieved multiple awards and recognitions during her career.
Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to visit space. She was selected from more than 400 applicants to pilot the Vostok 6 ship in June 1963. She was also the first ever civilian to travel to space.
To this day Tereshkova remains the only woman to have ever been on a solo mission to space, and she has stated she would travel on a one-way trip to Mars if the opportunity arises. Prior to her space mission, Tereshkova first got involved in flying through an interest in parachuting and skydiving. After her flight, she achieved a degree in cosmonaut engineering and in 1977 she earned a doctorate in engineering.
Emily Howell Warner was the first ever female commercial pilot, and she was also the first woman to become a US airline captain. Over her career she has flown over 21,000 flight hours. Howell Warner first started as a flight attendant, but progressed on to piloting at the age of 17. She was encouraged to begin flying lessons after sitting in the cockpit of a flight and obtained her pilot licence within a year.
Julie Wang is a currently active airline pilot and flight instructor, and was the first ever Asian woman to circumnavigate the Earth in an aeroplane. Additionally, Wang is the first ever Chinese woman to fly around the world, and one of nine women ever to do so in the world.
Although, Wang’s career began in journalism and communications, she only began flying in 2011. By 2012 she had already become a multi-engine, instrument-rated commercial pilot. In 2013 she earned her flight instructor qualification and in 2016 she took on her solo circumnavigation mission.
Maria Pettersson is a Swedish Ryanair pilot who shares stories of her tales around the world on her dedicated blog and Instagram, and has become a key influencer in the aviation industry with over 400,000 followers. She first gained her commercial pilot’s licence in 2011 and has since become an icon in the modern-day aviation industry. Currently women only account for 3% of pilots globally, and Pettersson set up her blog to share her story of being a female in what remains to be a male-dominated environment.
She along with all the others serve as an inspiration for many other women to follow their dreams in aviation, and any other male-dominated industries.
Illustrations courtesy of CheapHotels4UK.