International Women’s Day, a global celebration of the economic, political and social achievements of women, began on March 8, 1911. Women’s History Month is a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture and society and has been observed annually in March in the United States since 1987.
To help celebrate Women’s History Month, FreightWaves Classics will continue to profile a number of women who made contributions to transportation during the month of March.
Women have made history across all transportation modes. In this article, short vignettes of women who helped advance aviation are featured. What is remarkable about most of the women profiled in this series of FreightWaves Classics articles is that they accomplished many other things beyond their aviation exploits.
One of the first female aviation acrobats, Lillian Boyer performed numerous aerial stunts that included wing walking, automobile-to-airplane transfers, and parachute jumps between 1921 and 1929.
Working as a waitress but eager to fly in an airplane, Boyer was invited by two restaurant customers to take an airplane ride in 1921. During her second flight, she climbed out on the wing of a moving plane and began her career as an aerial performer.
In December 1921, she began five months of training with Billy Brock, a former World War I pilot and barnstormer. From 1921-1928 she was a professional wing-walker, performing at fairs across the country. Walking out on the top wing of a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane, some of her tricks included hanging by her ankles, toes or teeth; balancing on her head; and jumping from airplane to airplane in midair.
Boyer performed many daring stunts and achieved great public acclaim until 1929. Federal regulations went into effect at that time, impacting “low-flying and unsafe planes.” The new regulations forced her and many other barnstormers into retirement.
Among Boyer’s performances, she took part in 352 shows in 41 U.S. states and Canada (wing-walking in most of them), completed 143 automobile-to-airplane changes and made 37 parachute jumps (13 of them into Lake Erie).
In 1927 at the age of 16, Elinor Smith became the youngest licensed pilot to date in the U.S. Then in 1930, she became the youngest pilot (male or female) granted a transport license by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Smith began flying in 1917, at the age of six. She was a passenger in a biplane, and from that moment onward she was hooked on aviation. Smith grew up on Long Island during the earliest days of powered flight, giving her access to some of the best flying fields in the nation, as well as many of the most famous aviators. At 15 Smith flew her first solo flight, a year before she received her license to fly.
During her flying career, Smith set multiple solo endurance, speed and altitude records, and was named by fellow fliers the 1930 female pilot of the year. Amelia Earhart was in the news, but pilots considered Smith a better flier. She was celebrated as “the flying flapper” and was the first woman featured on a Wheaties cereal box.
Smith retired from flying at 29 to focus on her family. However, she resumed flying after her husband died in 1956. In 2000, at the age of 88, she became the oldest pilot to complete a simulated space shuttle landing.
She said, “…becoming a professional pilot was for me the most desirable goal in the world, and I was not going to allow age or sex bar me from it.”
Among her accomplishments were:
- In 1928, one of Smith’s earliest and most famous stunts was flying under all four East River suspension bridges – a feat never accomplished by another pilot (male or female).
- The same year, Smith set a light plane altitude record of 11,889 feet, the first of many records she set during her career.
- In 1929 she set four world records, including the woman’s world speed record of 190.8 miles per hour in a Curtiss Falcon over Motor Parkway on Long Island. The same year, Smith toured the U.S. air show circuit. She piloted a Bellanca Pacemaker for a group of parachutists promoting the Irvin Parachute Company.
- In 1930, Smith set the women’s solo endurance record after spending 13 hours, 16 minutes flying an open-cockpit Brunner Winkle Bird on a very cold January night over Roosevelt Field.
- With co-pilot Bobbie Trout, she set the first women’s refueling record of 42 hours over Los Angeles.
- As noted above, Smith received one of the greatest honors in her life when she was voted the best woman pilot in the United States in 1930.
- She was the first female test pilot for Fairchild Aviation Corporation and Bellanca Corporation.
- From 1930 to 1935, Smith worked as a commentator on aviation events for the NBC radio network.
- After retiring from flying, she worked to preserve the history of aviation on Long Island. Smith was a founding member of the Long Island Early Fliers and promoted the creation of an aviation museum on Long Island.
When recalling her first flight years later, Smith said, “I remember so vividly my first time aloft that I can still hear the wind singing in the wires as we glided down. By the time the pilot touched the wheels gently to earth, I knew my future in airplanes and flying was inevitable as the freckles on my nose. I knew from age six that I wanted to fly. Flying was the very breath of life to me and I was successful because I loved it so much.”
Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie
In 1927 Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie was the first woman to obtain both a Transport Pilot’s License and Airplane Mechanic’s License from the federal government.
In 1920, the native of Des Moines, Iowa, bought a Curtiss JN-4D airplane and began learning how to fly as well as how to perform stunts with pilot Vernon Omlie, her future husband. She danced the Charleston on the top wing of the “Jenny,” hung by her teeth below the airplane, and performed parachute jumps in the Phoebe Fairgrave Flying Circus. At that time, aviation was unregulated and open to those daring enough to take it on, male or female.
After she and Omlie landed in Memphis in 1922 – stranded and broke – they married and together established the first airport in the mid-South and one of the nation’s first flying schools.
During her career Omlie set a number of speed, endurance and altitude records. As an air racer, she won several high-profile races, including the first National Women’s Air Derby in 1929 and the Transcontinental Handicap Sweepstakes in 1931.
At that time she was one of the most famous women in America. Her words and photographs were found on the front pages of newspapers across the nation. The press labeled her “second only to Amelia Earhart among America’s women pilots.” At the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt, Omlie logged over 20,000 miles on behalf of the presidential campaign of Franklin Roosevelt.
After the election, President Roosevelt made her Special Assistant for Air Intelligence of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (a predecessor agency of the Federal Aviation Administration). Therefore, Omlie was the first woman to hold an executive position in federal aeronautics. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt also named her among the “11 women whose achievements make it safe to say that the world is progressing.”
Until she left government service in 1952, Omlie was a “central participant in the efforts to regularize and bureaucratize civil aviation, to make it safer and more affordable for the average citizen.” Additionally, she leveraged her access to government and media to promote the active involvement of women in aviation.
In 1928 Louise Thaden became the first pilot to simultaneously hold the women’s altitude, endurance and speed records in light planes. In December of that year she also set the women’s altitude record – 20,260 feet.
Just two years earlier and still single, Louise McPhetridge was working for a coal company. One of the company’s major customers was the Travel Air Corporation of Wichita, Kansas, which was owned by Walter Beech. Beech offered McPhetridge a job as a sales representative for his company in San Francisco, which she accepted. Her job included free pilot’s lessons, and she earned her certificate in 1928.
Not long after moving to California, McPhetridge met Herbert von Thaden, a U.S. Army Signal Corps pilot and engineer who was developing the Thaden T-2, the first all-metal aircraft in the U.S. They were married in San Francisco on June 19, 1928.
In March 1929, Thaden set the women’s endurance record with a flight that lasted 22 hours, 3 minutes, 12 seconds. The same year she became only the fourth woman to hold a transport pilot rating.
Thaden was a friend and rival of fellow female pioneer aviators Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, Opal Kunz and Blanche Noyes. Thaden defeated each of them in the first Women’s Air Derby in 1929. The Air Derby was a transcontinental race from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio, which was where the National Air Races were held that year. The race took place from August 13-20. Twenty women entered the race. Unfortunately, Marvel Crosson was killed during the race. Earhart damaged her aircraft in Yuma, Arizona; Barnes became lost and flew into Mexico, and damaged her airplane attempting to get back on course; and Noyes suffered an in-flight fire over Texas.
In later years the All-Women’s Air Derby was renamed the Powder Puff Derby. Thaden had rapidly become a key figure in the aviation world after setting a number of world performance records and winning multiple flying events. However, due to sexism, women were barred from air racing from 1930 to 1935.
Following the ban, Thaden became the public relations director of Pittsburgh Aviation Industries (which had recently purchased her husband’s Thaden Metal Aircraft Company). She also became the director of the Women’s Division of the Penn School of Aeronautics.
Also in 1930, Thaden and Earhart were among the founders of an international organization for women pilots called the Ninety-Nines. Of the 117 licensed women pilots of the day, 99 became charter members of the organization and its name came from their number. Thaden was asked to be the organization’s first president, but turned it down. However, she did serve as the vice president and treasurer. The Ninety-Nines still exist. In 1935, Phoebe Omlie asked Thaden to become a field representative for the National Air Marking Program.
Thaden won the Bendix Trophy Race in 1936, the first year women were allowed to compete against men. She set a new world record of 14 hours, 55 minutes from New York City to Los Angeles. She flew a Beech C17R Staggerwing biplane and defeated twin-engine airplanes specifically designed for racing. Laura Ingalls, another aviator, finished second, trailing Thaden by 45 minutes. Thaden’s first prize included $4,500; she also won the $2,500 prize for a woman finishing. TIME magazine’s September 14, 1936 issue stated, “To pilots Thaden and Noyes the $7,000 prize money was far less gratifying than the pleasure of beating the men. Among the first 10 U.S. women to earn transport licenses, they have for years been front-line fighters in aviation’s ‘battle of the sexes.’ A fuzzy-haired blonde of 30, Mrs. Thaden has been flying since 1927, has held the women’s speed, altitude and endurance records, and is the mother of a 6-year-old son. She and Noyes both work regularly as air-marking pilots for the U.S. Department of Commerce. Short, brunette Mrs. Noyes is better known as the only pilot ever to fly John D. Rockefeller Sr. In the National Air Races, male contestants have always patronized women, in 1934 they ousted them altogether.”
Thaden also won aviation’s highest honor given to women, the Harmon Trophy, for her achievements.
Thaden and Frances Marsalis set another endurance record by flying a Curtiss Thrush high-wing monoplane over Long Island for 196 hours. They made 78 air-to-air refueling maneuvers, while food and water were lowered to them by a rope from another aircraft. The event gained national attention and Thaden and Marsalis made a series of live radio broadcasts from the aircraft.
Thaden became the National Secretary of the National Aeronautics Association in 1937. Just prior to her retirement, she returned to Beech Aircraft Corporation as a factory representative and demonstration pilot.
After retiring from competition in 1938, Thaden worked with the Bureau of Air Commerce to promote the creation of airfields. She also wrote her memoirs “High, Wide and Frightened” soon after her retirement. In addition, Thaden wrote numerous newspaper and magazine articles dealing with aviation issues. Thaden said women were “innately better pilots than men.”
Likely the most famous female aviator of the 20th century, Amelia Earhart disappeared on July 2, 1937, during an attempt to be the first woman to complete a circumnavigational flight around the world. She and Fred Noonan, her navigator, disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean near Howland Island. The two were last seen in Lae, New Guinea, on July 2, 1937, on the last land stop before Howland Island and one of their final legs of the flight. She and Noonan are presumed to have died in the Pacific, and were declared dead about 18 months later. What actually happened to Earhart and Noonan is one of the enduring mysteries of aviation.
However, Earhart accomplished a great deal prior to her final flight. An aviation pioneer, she was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and set many other aviation records. Earhart was also one of the first aviators to promote commercial air travel, wrote best-selling books about her flying experiences, and was instrumental in the formation of The Ninety-Nines, serving as the organization’s first president.
In 1928, accompanying pilot Wilmer Stultz, Earhart became the first female passenger to cross the Atlantic by airplane. She set the woman’s autogyro altitude record of 18,415 feet in 1931. Then in 1932, Earhart made a nonstop solo transatlantic flight – becoming the first woman to achieve this feat. She was the recipient of the United States Distinguished Flying Cross for this accomplishment.
One of the most inspiring figures in aviation during her career, Earhart’s legacy is often compared to the early career of pioneer aviator Charles Lindbergh, as well as to figures like First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for their close friendship and lasting impact on the issue of women’s causes from that period.
In 1929, Evelyn “Bobbi” Trout became the first woman to perform an in-flight aerial refueling.
At the age of 12 she saw her first airplane flying overhead and it was love at first sight. On December 27, 1922, Trout experienced her first airplane ride in a Curtiss Jenny. On January 1, 1928, she began her flight training in Los Angeles. She soloed on April 30, 1928, and two weeks later finished her training and was issued a license by the U.S. Department of Commerce. She was the fifth American woman to obtain her transport license.
Trout was an endurance flying record holder. She was the second woman to break the non-refueling endurance record for women; she flew for 12 hours, 11 minutes in 1929. The record was previously held by Viola Gentry (only 8 hours).
However, her record was broken shortly thereafter; leading Trout to fly non-stop for more than 17 hours on February 10, 1929. That flight set the record for the first all-night flight by a woman as well as the new women’s solo endurance record. Also, on June 16, 1929, Trout flew a Golden Eagle Chief to an altitude of 15,200 feet, breaking the light class aircraft altitude record.
In an effort to generate more sponsorship money, Trout asked starlet Edna Mae Cooper to partner with her on another endurance run. Their first attempt (on January 1, 1931) ended due to technical problems, but on their second attempt they were successful in flying for 122 hours and 50 minutes. That effort ended due to fuel issues. Their record was recognized by King Carol II of Romania, whose representative gave Trout a Royal Decree with aviation cross for pilots who made record flights. It was an honor shared by only two other pilots – Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.
Florence “Pancho” Barnes
Florence Lowe Barnes spent four months in Mexico in the mid-1920s; she became involved with revolutionaries and to escape the attention of Mexican authorities she would disguise herself as a man and began to use the nickname “Pancho.”
After returning to California, she was driving her cousin to his flying lessons; Barnes decided to learn to fly. She soloed after only six hours of formal instruction.
She ran a barnstorming show and competed in air races, including the 1929 Women’s Air Derby (during which she crashed). She took part in the Derby again in 1930 and won the race – and also broke Amelia Earhart’s world women’s speed record.
Barnes then moved to Hollywood, becoming the first female stunt pilot in motion pictures. She flew in several air-adventure movies, including Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930). In 1931, she was a co-founder of the Associated Motion Picture Pilots, a union of film industry stunt fliers that promoted flying safety and standardized pay for aerial stunt work.
Fay Gillis Wells
In August 1929 Fay Gillis began flying. On September 1, 1929 she became the first woman pilot to parachute from a disabled airplane to save her life when the airplane she was piloting broke apart during an aerobatics exhibition over Long Island. This qualified her to be the first woman member of the Caterpillar Club, an informal association of those who successfully used a parachute to bail out of a disabled aircraft.
Not deterred by that event, Gillis became the first air saleswoman and demonstrator hired by the Curtiss Flying Service. Later that year she helped found the Ninety-Nines, and served as the organization’s first secretary.
She accompanied her father to the Soviet Union from 1930-34. While there, she served as a correspondent covering aviation activities for the New York Herald Tribune and as a special reporter for The New York Times and the Associated Press. While in the Soviet Union, Gillis was the first American woman to fly a Soviet civilian airplane and the first foreigner to own a Soviet glider. In addition, she handled the logistics in Russia for famed aviator Wiley Post’s solo round-the-world flight in 1933.
Gillis planned to accompany Post on his round-the-world flight in 1935 when she eloped with the distinguished foreign correspondent Linton Wells. Their honeymoon was spent covering the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and the Syrian riots for the New York Herald Tribune. Instead of Gillis, Wiley Post turned to Will Rogers to replace her on the flight. During their flight, both were killed when their airplane crashed in Alaska.
After covering Hollywood for the Herald Tribune in 1936, Wells and her husband pioneered overseas radio broadcasts from Latin America in 1938 for The Magic Key of RCA. Wells became a founding member of the Overseas Press Club and helped establish the Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarships.
During the 1930s and 1940s she and her husband carried out sensitive government missions, including being “sent by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a top-secret mission to Africa to look for possible postwar homelands for Jews,” according to The New York Times. After the outbreak of World War II, they headed the U.S. Commercial Company in West Africa buying strategic materials for the nation’s war effort.
In addition to the ventures outlined above, Wells actively promoted world friendship through flying for many years.