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FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Women made their marks on aviation history (Part 1 – 1880-1920)

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 by FreightWaves Classics is that they accomplished many other things beyond their exploits in aviation. 

Mary Myers. (Image: JSTOR.org)
Mary Myers.
(Image: JSTOR.org)

Mary Myers

The first U.S. woman to pilot her own aircraft was Mary Myers, who was better known as “Carlotta, the Lady Aeronaut.” A professional balloonist and aeronautical inventor, she was the first American woman to fly her own lighter-than-air passenger balloon solo and set several records for balloon flights. On July 4, 1880, Myers made her first solo flight in a lighter-than-air balloon at Little Falls, New York. Over the next 11 years this aviation pioneer set many records for balloon ascents and thrilled crowds at numerous country fairs and town shows.

With her husband Carl (another pioneer in the field of balloon aviation), they had a business selling passenger airships and high-altitude weather balloons, which they manufactured at their own “balloon farm” in Frankfort, New York. The term “balloon farm” came about because their half-inflated balloons looked like giant mushrooms. The couple were also awarded several patents on aerial navigation devices and balloons.

In 1886, Mary Meyers set a new world altitude record of four miles in a balloon filled with natural gas instead of hydrogen. Moreover, she ascended to that height without the benefit of oxygen equipment.

Emma Lillian Todd 

A self-taught inventor who grew up with a love for mechanical devices, E. Lillian Todd is credited as the first woman to design and build an aircraft (according to the November 28, 1909 edition of The New York Times). 

E. Lillian Todd in her airplane in 1909. (Photo: Library of Congress)
E. Lillian Todd in her airplane in 1909. (Photo: Library of Congress)

In 1896, Todd was issued a patent for a typewriter copy-holder. Then in 1903, Todd turned her attention to “mechanical and aeronautic toys.” She was inspired after “seeing airships in London and at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.” In 1906 Todd attracted national attention when she exhibited her first airplane design at an “aero show” in Madison Square Garden. 

Understanding the importance of aviation, Todd founded the first Junior Aero Club in 1908 to foster the education of future aviators. Also in 1908 construction on Todd’s first full-sized biplane began on Staten Island. The framework was made using straight-grained spruce, the upper coverings of the wings were muslin and the lower covering was army duck cloth. Piano wire was used to hold the wings together. Todd’s airplane was 36 feet in length, had two seats, and was powered by a modified Rinek motor.

On November 7, 1910, a Todd-designed bi-plane made a powered “flight” of 20 feet at the Garden City aviation field with Didier Masson at the controls, but was unable to sustain flight. (For more information on Masson, see this earlier FreightWaves Classics article.)

Todd is also credited with inventing and patenting a “cabinet with a folding table, a cannon that could be triggered by solar power, a sundial, and an aeolian harp device that could be attached to a tree.”

Sarah Van Deman. (Photo: National Air and Space Museum Archives)
Sarah Van Deman. (Photo: National Air and Space Museum Archives)

Sarah Van Deman

On October 27, 1909, Wilbur Wright took Sarah Van Deman, the wife of a U.S. Army officer, for a four-minute flight. She became the first woman to fly in an aeroplane in the United States. The flight took place at the United States Army Signal Corps aviation field at College Park, Maryland, where the Wright brothers were testing airplanes for the U.S. Army, which had purchased airplanes from the Wrights.

Blanche Stuart Scott 

Blanche Stuart Scott became the second woman (after Alice Huyler Ramsey), to drive an automobile across the United States. She was the first woman to drive westward from New York City to San Francisco. Scott’s trip was sponsored by the Willys-Overland Company and the car was named the “Lady Overland.” Scott and her passenger, reporter Gertrude Buffington Phillips, left New York on May 16, 1910, and reached San Francisco on July 23, 1910.

The publicity for the automobile journey brought Scott to the attention of Jerome Fanciulli and Glenn Curtiss, who agreed to give her flying lessons in Hammondsport, New York. She was the only woman to receive instruction directly from Curtiss. He placed a limiter on the throttle of Scott’s airplane to prevent it from going fast enough to become airborne while she practiced solo taxiing. However, on September 6, 1910, either the limiter failed or a gust of wind lifted the biplane off the ground; Scott flew to an altitude of 40 feet before she executed a gentle landing. Although her flight was short (and possibly unintentional), Scott is credited by the Early Birds of Aviation as the first woman to pilot and solo in an airplane in the U.S. 

Scott's stamp. (Image: National Postal Museum/Smithsonian Institution)
Scott’s stamp. (Image: National Postal Museum/Smithsonian Institution)

Scott then became a professional pilot. On October 24, 1910, she made her debut as one of the members of the Curtiss exhibition team at an air meet in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Therefore, she also was the first woman to fly at a public event in the nation. Scott’s exhibition flying earned her the nickname “Tomboy of the Air.” She became a very capable stunt pilot known for flying upside down and performing “death dives” (diving from an altitude of 4,000 feet and pulling up suddenly only 200 feet from the ground). She also became the first woman in America to fly long distance when she flew 60 miles non-stop from Mineola, New York in 1911. The following year, Scott signed a contract to be Glenn Martin’s first female test pilot. She flew Martin prototypes before final blueprints for the aircraft had been created. Scott then joined the Ward exhibition team in 1913, but she retired from flying in 1916 because she was bothered by the lack of opportunity in the aviation industry for women to become mechanics or engineers.

Bessica Raiche 

In 1910, Bessica Raiche became the second woman in the U.S. to fly solo in an airplane. Although she was eclipsed by Scott’s flight 11 days earlier, Raiche’s accomplishment is impressive because she received no flight instruction nor had any experience prior to her flight. 

Bessica Raiche, M.D. in 1910. (Photo: Unattributed/thisdayinaviation.com)
Bessica Raiche, M.D. in 1910.
(Photo: Unattributed/thisdayinaviation.com)

Raiche and her husband built a Wright-type biplane in the living room of their Hempstead Plains, New York home and then assembled it in their yard. The airplane was constructed from bamboo and silk (instead of the heavier canvas covering used by the Wright brothers). According to the Aeronautical Society of America, on September 16, 1910, Raiche made the second solo airplane flight by a woman in the United States.  

Raiche said: “Blanche [Stuart Scott] deserved the recognition, but I got more attention because of my lifestyle. I drove an automobile, was active in sports like shooting and swimming, and I even wore riding pants and knickers. People who did not know me or understand me looked down on this behavior. I was an accomplished musician, painter and linguist, I enjoyed life, and just wanted to be myself.”

Raiche and her husband built two more airplanes as part of the French-American Aeroplane Company. They were innovators in the use of lightweight materials in aircraft construction, including the use of piano wire to replace heavier iron wire.

Raiche was also a medical doctor; she was one of the first women specialists in obstetrics and gynecology in the nation. In 1923 she served as president of the Orange County (California) Medical Association.

Harriet Quimby

Harriet Quimby was a pioneering American aviator, journalist and film screenwriter. 

Quimby became interested in aviation when she attended the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament in Elmont, New York, in 1910. She met John Moisant, a well-known aviator and operator of a flight school, and Matilde, his sister.

Harriet Quimby in 1911. (Photo: Theodore Marceau/Wikipedia)
Harriet Quimby in 1911. (Photo: Theodore Marceau/Wikipedia)

On August 1, 1911, she took her pilot’s test and became the first U.S. woman to earn an Aero Club of America (ACA) aviator’s certificate. Matilde Moisant became the second woman to earn an aviator’s certificate shortly thereafter.

Quimby had begun writing for the San Francisco Dramatic Review in 1902 and also contributed to the Sunday editions of the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Call. She moved to New York City in 1903 to work as a theater critic for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly; more than 250 of her articles were published over a nine-year period.

After earning her pilot’s license, Quimby, who was nicknamed the “Dresden China Aviatrix” or “China Doll” by newspaper reporters (because she was petite and had fair skin), sought to capitalize on her new fame. Pilots could earn as much as $1,000 per performance (over $29,000 today), and prize money for a race could go as high as $10,000 or more (nearly $300,000 today). Quimby joined the Moisant International Aviators, an exhibition team. She made her professional debut in a night flight over Staten Island before a crowd of almost 20,000 spectators, earning $1,500.

As one of the few female pilots in the United States, Quimby capitalized on her femininity by wearing pants “tucked into high laced boots accentuated by a plum-colored satin blouse, necklace and antique bracelet.” Exhibition flying was very popular; she drew crowds whenever she competed in cross-country meets and races. She showcased her talents around the nation as part of the exhibition team. She even traveled to Mexico City near the end of 1911 to take part in aviation activities held at the inauguration of President Francisco Madero.

Quimby continued to write for Leslie’s while touring, recounting her adventures at airshows in a series of articles. Committed to her passion for flying, the journalist and aviator promoted the economic potential of commercial aviation and flying as an ideal sport for women.

In addition to her other activities, Quimby authored seven screenplays or scenarios that were made into silent film shorts by D.W. Griffith at Biograph Studios in 1911. Quimby even had a small role in one movie.

Harriet Quimby pulling her propeller to start the airplane. (Photo: International Women's Air & Space Museum)
Harriet Quimby pulling her propeller to start the airplane. (Photo: International Women’s Air & Space Museum)

She became the first woman to fly across the English Channel on April 16, 1912. She took off from Dover, England, en route to Calais, France; her flight lasted 59 minutes, and Quimby landed about 25 miles from Calais on a beach in Équihen-Plage, Pas-de-Calais. However, Quimby’s accomplishment received little media attention; the sinking of the Titanic occurred the day before, and that dominated the attention of the media.

Less than two months later (July 1, 1912), Quimby flew in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet. Although she had her ACA certificate to participate in ACA events, the Boston meet was  unsanctioned. Quimby flew her airplane out to Boston Light in Boston Harbor at about 3,000 feet and then returned and circled the airfield.

William A. P. Willard was the organizer of the event and father of aviator Charles F. Willard. He was a passenger in her brand-new two-seat Blériot monoplane. When Quimby and Willard were flying at an altitude of 1,000 feet the aircraft unexpectedly pitched forward. Both Willard and Quimby were ejected from their seats and fell to their deaths; the airplane “glided down and lodged itself in the mud.”

Although only 37 when she died, Quimby influenced the role of women in aviation. In 2004 she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame and the Long Island Air and Space Hall of Fame in 2012.

Bernetta Miller

A pioneering woman aviator who was the fifth licensed woman pilot in the United States, Bernetta Miller led a very colorful life.

She became interested in aviation, and in 1912 she took flying lessons from the Moisant aviation school in Mineola, Long Island (the same place where Harriet Quimby learned to fly). Miller received her license on September 16, 1912. During her moonlight flight tests, The New York Times reported “Critics here regard her licensing flight as remarkable. The trial called for an altitude of only 150 feet, and she rose to 600. In the landing test, she was expected to touch the ground within 164 feet of a designated object, and she made the spot within 20 feet.”

Bernetta Miller. 
(Photo: ctie.monash.edu)
Bernetta Miller.
(Photo: ctie.monash.edu)

Moisant’s company employed Miller as a demonstration pilot for the Blériot monoplanes that were being built under license. She was selected as the pilot to demonstrate the Moisant-Blériot monoplane to the United States Army at College Park, Maryland on October 7, 1912. Much later, she wrote, “Of course, I had no illusions as to why I was sent to College Park to demonstrate the monoplane to the U.S. government officials who were exclusively devoted to the idea of the biplane. Moisant apparently calculated that I could overcome some of the fears others might have of the monoplane. I suppose that this was on the basis of the idea that if a mere woman could learn to fly one, so surely could a man.”

This was the first demonstration of a monoplane for the U.S. government. In a special edition, The New York Times reported on Miller’s insistence on flying despite the recent death of two military aviators. On September 29, 2012, the newspaper quoted her as saying, “I am not here to do fancy flying, but simply to show the people of Washington that the monoplane is a better machine than the biplane. I will not fly until after the funeral of the two men who were killed. I think it would be disrespectful. My ambition is to become a great cross-country flier. I am not flying to achieve fame as a fancy flier or an exhibition flier, but to show women that the aeroplane is practical when it is asked to do only what it is physically possible to do.”

On January 20, 1913 at Garden City, New York, Miller attempted a women’s altitude record, but was forced to abandon the attempt when an oil gauge broke and oil obscured her vision. Because of financial difficulties and increasing disapproval of women flying after the death of Harriet Quimby, Miller stopped flying soon thereafter.

However, that was not the end of Miller’s exploits. She served at or near the front in World War I as a volunteer for the YMCA. She delivered food to troops of the 326th Infantry of the 82nd Division as a canteen worker, and was frequently under fire. Wounded at least once, Miller remained at the front throughout the Argonne offensive and until the end of the war. In 1919 she was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government. Her commendation read, “Assigned to Tours at the beginning of 1918 and then sent to the Toul sector in June 1918, she rendered the biggest services before and during the offensive of Saint-Mihiel, serving and helping the injured in the advanced aid stations. She was in the sector of the Argonne during this last offensive.”

Bernetta Miller being decorated with France's Croix de Guerre. (Photo: Underwood and Underwood/Library of Congress)
Bernetta Miller being decorated with France’s Croix de Guerre.
(Photo: Underwood and Underwood/Library of Congress)

The command of the 82nd Division sent a letter of commendation on January 13, 1919. It stated in part, “While operating her canteen near the front line, at Noviant, France, on the night of August 4, 1918, Miss Miller was under heavy enemy fire, where she served hot chocolate and other supplies to the men, when it was impossible for these supplies to be obtained elsewhere. On October 17, 1918, during an attack near St. Juvin, France, under enemy fire, she visited the front lines, carrying a supply of cigarettes and other comforts to the men. By her devotion to duty, disregard of personal danger and untiring energy she did much to maintain a cheerful spirit among the soldiers during a critical time.”

In addition to other positions she held, from 1941 to 1948 Miller worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. She was one of the people responsible for keeping visitors from disturbing Albert Einstein. Miller referred to him as “the dear” and in a 1963 interview said of him, “Of all the men there he was one of the kindest. He loved everybody. He was the nicest, most outgoing man. There was nothing petty about him. We all protected him and tried to screen his calls and visitors.” When she was fired, Einstein wrote a letter of reference for her.

Georgia Broadwick 

The last of seven daughters, Georgia was nicknamed “Tiny” due to her small size (3 pounds at birth and only 85 pounds and 4 feet 8 inches tall when grown). At the age of 12, Tiny Broadwick was married and, at 13, had a daughter. 

At the age of 15 Tiny was an abandoned mother working in a cotton mill. She saw Charles Broadwick’s “World Famous Aeronauts” parachute from a hot air balloon and joined the traveling troupe, leaving her daughter in the care of her parents. 

Billed as “the doll girl,” she began performing aerial skydives and stunts while wearing a “life preserver” (a parachute) designed for her by Broadwick, her adopted father. She made her first jump from a hot air balloon on December 28, 1908. The skydiving troupe traveled around, performing at fairs, carnivals and parks. 

Tiny Broadwick shown seated in a sling hanging from the side of Glenn Martin's airplane, probably over Chicago in 1913. (Photo: National Air and Space Museum/Smithsonian Institution)
Tiny Broadwick shown seated in a sling hanging from the side of Glenn Martin’s airplane, probably over Chicago in 1913. (Photo: National Air and Space Museum/Smithsonian Institution)

Among her many achievements, Broadwick was the first woman to parachute from an airplane. There is some disagreement about whether that occurred over Los Angeles on June 21, 1913, with aviator Glenn L. Martin as the pilot or earlier. She previously made at least two jumps from Martin’s airplane during an exhibition over Chicago’s Grant Park during the week of September 16, 1912. 

These early jumps included a jump from 1,000 feet on January 9, 1914, from an airplane built and piloted by Martin, that took place over Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. Broadwick also demonstrated parachutes for the U.S. Army in 1914 (which at the time had a small – and dangerous fleet of aircraft). The Army had been reluctant to adopt parachutes. Army representatives watched as Broadwick dropped from the sky several times. On her fourth demonstration jump, her parachute’s static line tangled in the airplane’s tail assembly. On her next jump she cut the static line short and did not attach it to the plane. She deployed her chute manually by pulling the shortened, unattached line while in free-fall. This was likely the first planned free-fall jump from an airplane, which also demonstrated that pilots could safely escape their aircraft by using what was later called a ripcord.

Broadwick also jumped into Lake Michigan in 1914, becoming the first woman to parachute into a body of water.

She left parachuting for several years, but returned to jumping again in 1920 for two more years. She stopped jumping for good in 1922 due to ankle problems. By then it was estimated that she had made over 1,100 jumps. 

Georgia “Tiny” Broadwick was the first woman in the world to make a parachute jump from an airplane, as well as the first person to jump from a seaplane. A pioneering parachutist and the inventor of the ripcord, she was one of the few female members of the Early Birds of Aviation (even though she was not a pilot).

Katherine Stinson 

Katherine Stinson was the first female aerobatic pilot, but she accomplished so much more. She  took her first trip in a hot air balloon in Kansas City in 1911 and decided she wanted a life in the air. In 1912 at the age of 19, she became one of the first women in the nation to receive a pilot’s license. 

Stinson established a flying business with her mother in San Antonio, Texas in 1913. She and her sister Marjorie ran the flying school, teaching their younger brothers and locals how to fly. The school was later run by the entire family; it became one of the nation’s most well-known flying schools, and gave lessons to people across the area.

Katherine Stinson. (Photo: news.unm.edu)
Katherine Stinson. (Photo: news.unm.edu)

Katherine Stinson participated in a series of exhibition flights across the United States, rising to national prominence. She became the first woman to perform a loop and executed a snap roll at the top of the loop in 1915. She quickly became known as a daredevil, often leading men in stunts and out-flying them with her own maneuvers.

She also pioneered as a skywriter; she attached flares to her plane and wrote “CAL” across the California sky in 1915. Stinson was nicknamed “The Flying Schoolgirl,” and she flew from San Diego to San Francisco, setting new records for flight distance and duration. 

She went on to travel internationally to promote aviation and her stunt flying. For example, in 1917 she organized a six-month tour of China and Japan to demonstrate flying. She set a record that same year when she flew nonstop from San Diego to San Francisco (a 9-hour 10-minute flight). 

The Postmaster General of the United States approved Stinson’s appointment to become the first woman Air Mail pilot in 1918. That year she set another duration record attempting a mail flight from Chicago to New York. However, she was forced to ground her Curtiss airplane after it ran out of fuel.

Katherine Stinson delivering U.S. Mail. (Photo: FAA)
Katherine Stinson delivering U.S. Mail. (Photo: FAA)

In World War I the Stinson sisters petitioned the government to join the Air Service as combat pilots; their request was declined. Therefore, Marjorie worked at the Navy’s department of aeronautical design. Katherine made fundraising flights for the Red Cross and Liberty Loan bond drives that established her in aerial public relations. A multi-stop fundraising flight from Rochester, New York, to Washington, D.C. raised $2 million. (In addition, she became the only pilot ever to knit for the Red Cross while flying solo in an open cockpit airplane.)

After being turned down again in her attempt to join the military, Katherine went to France,  serving as a volunteer ambulance driver for the Red Cross. After the war she was ill with influenza and tuberculosis. In 1920 she retired from active flying and settled in New Mexico. 

Katherine Stinson, an “aviator, patriot and aviation pioneer” was later inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.