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FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Women made their marks on aviation history (Part 3 – the 1930s-1940s)

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 multi-part 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 aviation exploits. 

Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2.

Ellen Church poses in the doorway of a United Airlines airplane. (Photo: Iowa Aviation Museum)
Ellen Church poses in the doorway of a United Airlines airplane. (Photo: Iowa Aviation Museum)

Ellen Church 

Ellen Church, a registered nurse and a pilot, served as the first female airline stewardess in the U.S. Although Church wanted to pilot commercial aircraft, those jobs were not open to women. Because she still wanted to fly, Church convinced Boeing Air Transport (BAT) that using nurses as stewardesses would increase safety and help convince passengers that flying was safe. 

BAT hired Church as its head stewardess in 1930, and she recruited seven others for a three-month trial period. Church made her first flight as a stewardess on May 15, 1930. She was aboard a Boeing 80A that left Oakland/San Francisco for a 20-hour flight to Chicago with 13 stops and 14 passengers.

After hiring Church, BAT’s stewardesses were required to be registered nurses, “single, younger than 25 years old; weigh less than 115 pounds; and stand less than 5 feet, 4 inches tall.” In addition to the duties related to attending to the passengers, the first stewardesses helped haul luggage, fuel the aircraft and assist the pilots to push the aircraft into hangars.

Church’s innovation was very successful – other fledgling airlines followed BAT’s example over the next few years. However, an injury due to an automobile accident ended Church’s career after only 18 months. Church resumed her nursing career and then became a captain in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II. She earned the Air Medal for her work during numerous evacuation missions.

Katherine Cheung 

Born in China, Katherine Cheung, accompanied by her father, came to the United States at the age of 17 to study piano at the University of Southern California. However, she quit school and married her father’s business partner. By 1931, she had two daughters, but was determined to learn to fly. At that time, Chinese flying schools did not allow women to learn to fly. In the U.S. only 1% of licensed pilots were women.

However, Cheung persevered. She received one of the first private pilot’s licenses issued to a Chinese woman and she was the first Chinese woman to obtain an international flying license. 

After earning her license, Cheung continued lessons and learned aerobatics, aircraft structures, international routing, navigation and other skills to improve her skills and versatility as a pilot. She then participated in air shows throughout California, performing barrel rolls, inverted flying, loops and other aerobatic tricks.

Katherine Cheung. 
Katherine Cheung.

Her performances thrilled the Chinese American community. She also participated in several races, like the 1935 Los Angeles Women’s Championship and the 1936 Chatterton Air Race. In 1935 Cheung joined the Ninety-Nines club for women pilots, and also obtained her international flight license, which allowed her to participate in commercial flying. In 1936, Cheung became a United States citizen, but still harbored dreams of returning to China to teach aviation skills in her home country. 

However, because of the Japanese invasion of China, and then the growing global war, Cheung was unable to return to China. During World War II, she became a flight instructor and when the war ended, she bought a flower shop, which she operated until her retirement in 1970.

On March 4, 2001, the Chinese Consul General of Los Angeles presented Cheung with a medal on behalf of the Chinese government for her contributions as an aviation pioneer. The ceremony was held in conjunction with her induction into the International Women in Aviation’s Pioneer Hall of Fame.

Ruth Nichols 

As a high school graduation present in 1919, Ruth Nichols’ father arranged an airplane ride for her. During the flight the pilot did a loop-to-loop, which terrified her. However, she resolved to conquer her fear, and this led her into aviation. She learned to fly, and after graduating from college in 1924 she became the second woman pilot licensed by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Ruth Nichols. 
Ruth Nichols.

Also in 1924, Nichols became the first licensed woman seaplane pilot in the U.S. Moreover, over the course of her life she learned to fly every type of aircraft developed and was rated in the dirigible, glider, autogyro, landplane, seaplane, amphibian, monoplanes, biplanes, triplanes, twin- and four-engine transports and supersonic jets.

In 1928, Nichols and her flight instructor became the first to fly non-stop from New York to Miami. She also helped to organize the Long Island Aviation Country Club. She then undertook a 12,000-mile tour to promote other aviation clubs, and in 1929 became the first female pilot to land in all 48 states. The same year Nichols became one of the original members of the Ninety-Nines.

In November 1930 Nichols set a women’s transcontinental record of 16 hours, 59 minutes and 30 seconds, making four stops en route. On her return trip she set a Los Angeles to New York City speed record of 13 hours, 22 minutes.

To test her airplane at high altitude, Nichols flew it high over New York. With the weather at 50 degrees below zero, and Nichols on life-sustaining oxygen, the airplane’s altimeter registered 28,743 feet – higher than any woman had ever flown before. The following month, National Aeronautic Association officials clocked Nichols on a three-kilometer speed course. In four passes, she set a new women’s record of 210.6 miles per hour, which was 25 mph faster than the previous record.

In 1931 Nichols sought to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, a feat later accomplished by Amelia Earhart. However, Nichols did break the world distance record, flying from California to Kentucky. The same year, Nichols became the first woman to hold three international records simultaneously – altitude, speed and long distance.

Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols and Louise Thaden. (Photo: Pioneers of Flight/Smithsonian Institution)
Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols and Louise Thaden. (Photo: Pioneers of Flight/Smithsonian Institution)

After Earhart crossed the Atlantic Ocean, Nichols became the first female director of a major aviation company, the Fairchild Airplane Manufacturing Corporation. 

Later in life Nichols organized Relief Wings, a flying ambulance for mercy missions. Then in 1958, she flew over 1,000 mph – faster than any woman in the world – as the co-pilot in an Air Force Supersonic TF-102A Delta Dagger.

She was quoted, “It takes special kinds of pilots to break frontiers, and in spite of the loss of everything, you can’t clip the wings of their hearts.” 

Olive Ann Beech 

In 1924, at the age of 21, Olive Ann Mellor began working as a secretary and bookkeeper for the new Travel Air Manufacturing Company in Wichita, Kansas. She was promoted to office manager and secretary to Walter Beech, one of the company’s founders. Travel Air merged with the Curtiss-Wright Corporation in August 1929, and Beech became the president of Curtiss-Wright and moved to New York City. Beech and Mellor were married on February 24, 1930, and she relocated to New York.

In 1932, Olive and Walter Beech founded Beech Aircraft in Wichita “with the goal to build the finest airplanes in the world.” Olive Ann focused on the company’s finances and played an important role in major corporate decisions. 

The company’s first airplane was a biplane with negatively staggered wings that became known as the Model 17 Staggerwing. Olive Ann suggested that to help increase sales of the aircraft the company should sponsor a woman pilot flying the Staggerwing in the 1936 transcontinental Bendix Trophy Race. Beech-sponsored pilot Louise Thaden, along with Blanche Noyes as co-pilot, won the race against some of the nation’s best male pilots.

Olive Ann Beech leans against the lower wing of a biplane built for the U.S. Army Air Corps. (Photo:
Olive Ann Beech leans against the lower wing of a biplane built for the U.S. Army Air Corps. (Photo:

Beech Aircraft introduced the Twin Beech in 1937, which was used by the U.S. Army Air Corps and was also sold all over the world. World War II in Europe began in the fall of 1939. The next year, Walter contracted encephalitis and Olive Ann assumed the company’s leadership as it was retooling for military production of both the Staggerwing and the Twin Beech. She arranged for loans totaling $83 million to expand production of both aircraft. During World War II Beech Aircraft produced more than 7,400 aircraft that were used to train navigators and bombardiers. 

Although continuing with military production, Olive Ann also began planning for civilian production after the war. In 1946, the first aircraft to be authorized for civilian production by the war production authorities was the Twin Beech. Production also began on the Beechcraft Bonanza for the civilian market. Other aircraft introduced after the war included the T-34 Mentor (a military training airplane that was a variant of the Bonanza) and the Beechcraft Twin Bonanza that was planned to serve both civilian and military markets.

Walter Beech died in November 1950. Olive Ann became the company’s president and chair of the board; she was the first woman to head a major aircraft company. Military aircraft production continued during the Korean War, and production was diversified with missile targets for the military.

Under Beech’s leadership, the Beechcraft Travel Air was introduced in 1956, as well as a method for private owners to finance purchases through the newly formed Beechcraft Acceptance Corporation. During the late 1950s, Beech Aircraft supported U.S. space exploration efforts with the development of cryogenic systems for NASA. In the 1960s Beech Aircraft-built cabin pressurization equipment that was used in the Gemini spacecraft. Beech Aircraft also introduced the Beechcraft Queen Air series, the Beechcraft Debonair, Beechcraft Baron and the Beechcraft King Air. 

Olive Ann Beech. (Photo:
Olive Ann Beech. (Photo:

Asked by a Forbes reporter when Beechcraft would produce a jet, Beech replied “We will, when it is compatible with our other activities.” Although Beechcraft’s piston aircraft sales hit record highs during the 1960s, her policy would affect the company’s late entry into the jet market.

Olive Ann Beech earned more awards, honorary appointments and special citations than any other woman in aviation history and was often referred to as the “First Lady of Aviation.”

Helen Richey 

Helen Richey was another pioneering female aviator and the first woman to be hired as a pilot by a commercial airline in the United States.

In December 1933 Richey partnered with Frances Marsalis to set an endurance record. Using midair fueling, they  stayed airborne for nearly 10 days over Miami. The refueling was accomplished by opening the airplane’s central hatch, grabbing a dangling hose from another airplane and shoving the hose into the gas tank. Richey compared it to “wrestling with a cobra in a hurricane.” 

In 1934 Richey won the first National Air Meet for women in Dayton, Ohio. Central Airlines, a Greensburg, Pennsylvania-based carrier that eventually became part of United Airlines, hired Richey as a pilot in 1934. She made her first regular flight for the airline on December 31,1934, piloting a Ford Trimotor from Washington to Detroit. Unfortunately, Richey was forced to leave the cockpit due to pressure from the all-male pilots union.

Helen Richey poses on the wing of a biplane soon after earning her pilot’s license in 1930. (Photo: McKeesport Heritage Center)
Helen Richey poses on the wing of a biplane soon after earning her pilot’s license in 1930. (Photo: McKeesport Heritage Center)

After leaving Central Airlines, Richey performed at air shows. She teamed with Amelia Earhart in the 1936 Bendix Trophy Race, a transcontinental air race. Richey and Earhart placed fifth, beating several all-male teams. During World War II, Richey flew with the British Air Transport Auxiliary.

In addition to being the first female commercial airline pilot, Richey also was the first woman sworn in to pilot air mail and one of the first female flight instructors.

Blanche Noyes. (Photo:
Blanche Noyes. (Photo:

Blanche Noyes 

Although she had a promising theater and movie career, Blanche Noyes left it behind to marry an airmail pilot who taught her to fly. On February 15, 1929 she soloed for the first time and earned her license just a few months later. She became the first woman pilot in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. Although she had only been flying a short time, Noyes entered the Women’s Air Derby from Santa Monica to Cleveland and placed fourth.

In 1931 Noyes became a demonstration pilot for Standard Oil and flew for various corporations until 1935. Her husband died in a 1935 crash; Noyes then joined the Air Marking Group of the Bureau of Air Commerce in the summer of 1936, becoming the first female pilot hired by a federal agency. Later, Noyes became a member of the Women’s Advisory Committee on Aeronautics. She was the only woman pilot allowed to fly a government aircraft for many years.

Jacqueline Cochran 

After a friend offered her a ride in an airplane, Cochran began taking flying lessons at Roosevelt Airfield on Long Island in the early 1930s; she learned to fly in only three weeks. She then soloed and within two years obtained her commercial pilot’s license.

She was one of three women to compete in the MacRobertson Air Race in 1934, the only woman to compete in the Bendix race in 1937 and worked with Amelia Earhart to open the race to women. Also in 1937 she set a new women’s world speed record; by 1938, she was considered the best female pilot in the United States. She won the Bendix race, and also set new transcontinental speed records and altitude records.

Although Cochran was not a founding member of the Ninety-Nines, she was one of the organization’s most influential members. She was president of the Ninety-Nines from 1941-1943, and helped to ensure that women pilots were able to participate in the new Civil Air Patrol (CAP) as well as the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). In monthly editorials for the Ninety-Nines Newsletter, Cochran urged members to join the CAP or the WASP, and to contribute to help the war effort.

Before the United States entered World War II, Cochran was part of “Wings for Britain,” an organization that ferried American-built aircraft to Britain. She became the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic. In England, Cochran volunteered for the Royal Air Force. She worked for several months for the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA); she recruited qualified women pilots in the U.S. and flew them to England where they joined the ATA. Cochran earned the rank of Flight Captain (equivalent to a Squadron Leader in the RAF or a Major in the U.S. Air Force) in the ATA.

Cochran wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in September 1939 proposing the establishment of a women’s flying division in the Army Air Forces. Her premise was that qualified women pilots could perform domestic, non-combat aviation jobs, thereby freeing more male pilots for combat. She also wrote to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Olds, who was organizing the Air Corps Ferrying Command. (Ferrying Command was originally a courier/aircraft delivery service, but evolved into the air transport branch of the United States Army Air Forces as the Air Transport Command). Cochran recommended that women pilots be employed to fly non-combat missions for the new command. 

In spite of pilot shortages, Lieutenant General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold needed to be convinced that women pilots were the solution to his staffing issues. Arnold was the commanding general of the Army Air Forces upon its creation in June 1941. He knew of the British ATA’s success; Arnold suggested that Cochran take a group of qualified female pilots to review the ATA’s activities.

Cochran asked 76 of the most qualified female pilots to come fly for the ATA. Qualifications for these women pilots were high; although a minimum of 300 hours of flying time was required, most had over 1,000 hours. Of those who made it to Canada (where training was conducted), 25 women passed the tests and in March 1942 they went to Britain with Cochran to join the ATA.

Cochran (center) and members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPS. (Photo:
Cochran (center) and members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPS.

In September 1942, Arnold authorized the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). The female pilots ferried military aircraft. After learning of the WAFS, Cochran immediately returned to the U.S. Her ATA experience convinced her that women pilots could be trained to do much more than just ferry aircraft. Lobbying Arnold for expanded flying duties for female pilots, he authorized the creation of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) and named Cochran to head it. In August 1943, the WAFS and the WFTD were merged, creating the WASP with Cochran as director.

Cochran supervised the training of hundreds of women pilots from August 1943 to December 1944. For her wartime service, she received the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) in 1945. Her award was announced in a War Department press release dated March 1, 1945, which stated that Cochran was the first woman civilian in World War II to receive the DSM, which was then the highest non-combat award presented by the United States government. 

A USPS stamp issued honoring Jacqueline Cochran. (Image:
A USPS stamp issued honoring Jacqueline Cochran. (Image:

Near the end of World War II, Cochran was hired to report on global postwar events. In this role, she witnessed the Japanese surrender in the Philippines, was the first non-Japanese woman to enter Japan after the war and she also attended the Nuremberg trials in Germany.

On September 9, 1948, Cochran joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve as a lieutenant colonel. She was promoted to colonel in 1969 and retired in 1970. It is quite likely that Cochran was the first woman pilot in the United States Air Force. During her career in the Air Force Reserve, she received the Distinguished Flying Cross three times for achievements from 1947 to 1964.

After the war, Cochran began flying new jet airplanes, setting numerous records. In 1952, Cochran, at age 47, challenged the world speed record for women. On May 18, 1953, Cochran set a new speed record of 652.5 mph, and became the first woman pilot to “go supersonic,” breaking the sound barrier. On June 3, she set a new closed circuit record of 670 mph. 

Jacqueline Cochran and Chuck Yeager. (Photo:
Jacqueline Cochran and Col. Chuck Yeager. (Photo:

From August to October 1961 she served as a consultant to Northrop Corporation. Cochran set a series of speed, distance and altitude records while flying a Northrop T-38 Talon supersonic trainer. On the final day of the record series, she set two Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world records by taking the T-38 to altitudes of 55,252.625 feet in horizontal flight and reaching a peak altitude of 56,072.835 feet.

Among her many other “firsts,” Cochran was also the first woman to land and take off from an aircraft carrier, to fly a jet aircraft on a transatlantic flight, to make a blind (instrument) landing, the only woman ever to be president of the FAI (1958-1961), the first woman to fly a fixed-wing, jet aircraft across the Atlantic, the first pilot to fly above 20,000 feet with an oxygen mask, etc. She still holds more distance and speed records than any pilot living or dead, male or female.

Willa Brown 

Willa Beatrice Brown was born on January 22, 1906, in Glasgow, Kentucky. She graduated from Indiana State Teachers College in 1927. Ten years later she earned an MBA from Northwestern University.

Brown taught in Gary, Indiana, from 1927 to 1932. She then moved to Chicago, and in 1934, she met John C. Robinson, who introduced her to the Challenger Air Pilots Association, a group of African American pilots.

That year Brown began studying at Chicago’s racially segregated Harlem Field. She was one of few women who attended Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University, where she studied aircraft maintenance and earned an aircraft mechanic’s license in 1935. She then earned a private pilot’s license in 1938 and a commercial pilot’s license in 1939, becoming the first African American woman to earn either type of license in the United States.

Willa Brown. (Photo:
Willa Brown. (Photo:

(In a recent FreightWaves Classics article, it was explained that Bessie Coleman was the first African American, male or female, to earn an international pilot’s license. Brown was the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license in the U.S.)

With Cornelius Coffey and Enoch P. Waters, Brown formed the National Negro Airmen Association of America, later renamed the National Airmen’s Association of America, which was incorporated in 1939. Its primary mission was to “attract more interest in aviation, help develop a better understanding in the field of aeronautics, and increase African American participation in both fields.” Brown served as the organization’s national secretary and president of its Chicago branch. She also flew to colleges and spoke on the radio to generate more interest by African Americans in flying. She and Coffey also founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Chicago to train black pilots and teach aviation mechanics.

Willa Brown. (Photo: Tuskegee Airmen Inc.)
Willa Brown. (Photo: Tuskegee Airmen Inc.)

She lobbied the government, advocating for the integration of Black pilots into the then-segregated Army Air Corps and federal Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). She also lobbied for the award of CPTP contracts to train African American pilots. She was appointed coordinator of the Chicago units of the CPTP in 1940, and the Coffey School was selected by the U.S. Army Air Corps as a feeder school to provide Blacks to its pilot training program. Nearly 200 students from the school went on to join the Tuskegee Airmen. In 1942, she was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in Civil Air Patrol Squadron 613-6, becoming the first African American officer in the organization. Later she was appointed war-training service coordinator for the Civil Aeronautics Authority.

Among the honors Brown received, Women in Aviation International named Brown one of the 100 most influential women in aviation and space in 2002. A decade after she died, Willa Beatrice Brown was inducted into the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame in 2003.

Dorothy Layne McIntyre 

In 1939 Dorothy Layne McIntyre was a student at West Virginia State College, when she became one of a very few women accepted into a cadet flying program. The next year she received her pilot’s license from the Civil Aeronautics Authority. She was one of the first Black women to earn the certification.

Dorothy Layne McIntyre poses next to an airplane. (Photo:
Dorothy Layne McIntyre poses next to an airplane. (Photo:

During World War II, she taught aircraft mechanics at the War Production Training School in Baltimore. Although she applied to become a WASP, she was turned down because of her race.

McIntyre was recognized by the International Women’s Air and Space Museum at Burke Lakefront Airport, and was also featured in the book “Distinguished African-Americans in Aviation and Space.”

Rose Rolls Cousins

Growing up in Fairmont, West Virginia, Rolls (later Cousins) and her father paid a dollar to take a ride in an airplane when she was six years old. The experience sparked her lifelong love of flying.

Rolls graduated from high school at 16 and began attending West Virginia State College, majoring in business administration. The college began a Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) in 1939. The college was one of only six historically Black institutions in the nation to establish one of the programs, which were federally funded. Rolls was the only woman to join.

Rose Rolls Cousins. (Photo:
Rose Rolls Cousins. (Photo:

In the beginning, the program’s director sought to deny her entry into the CPTP due to her gender. However, Rolls was permitted to join, provided she could pass the same mental and physical exams as her male counterparts. Reportedly she told the instructor, “I’ll just put my hair up and you can pretend I’m a man.”

During her CPTP training, Rolls learned to fly an airplane, as well as to put it into a spin, land with the engine off, and fly upside down. A CPTP requirement to earn a pilot’s license was to complete a solo cross-country flight using only compass and sights as guides. Up to the task, Rolls successfully flew from Fairmont to Parkersburg, West Virginia in strong winds.

She received her pilot’s license upon graduating in 1941, becoming the first African American woman licensed under the CPTP. In 1941, the 11 graduates from the college’s CPTP pilot training program tried out for the U.S. Army’s training program for African American combat pilots in Tuskegee, Alabama. 

However, Rolls was denied entry into the Tuskegee Airmen because of her gender. Like McIntyre (above) she then tried to join the WASPs, but was rejected due to her race.

Cousins returned to West Virginia State College and became an instructor in the CPTP program. She became an honorary member of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. prior to her death in 2006.

Ann Shaw Carter 

A photo of Ann Shaw at the controls of a helicopter was featured on the front page of THE 99 NEWS. (Photo: The Ninety-Nines)
A photo of Ann Shaw at the controls of a helicopter was featured on the front page of THE 99 NEWS. (Photo: The Ninety-Nines)

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Shaw’s family moved to Fairfield, Connecticut, when she was a child. During World War II, she studied aircraft building and was hired at Chance-Vought as a factory riveter, assembling F4U Corsair aircraft. 

She used part of her wages to finance flying lessons, and then joined the WASPs in 1944. She was trained in Texas, and was a member of the last graduating class before the program was discontinued.

After the war ended, Shaw was the first American woman to learn to pilot a helicopter. (Germany’s Hannah Reitsch demonstrated a helicopter in February 1938.) Shaw earned her commercial helicopter license on June 12, 1947. She became a pilot with the Metropolitan Aviation Corporation, piloting New York City sightseeing trips and charter flights.

Therefore, Shaw was the world’s first female commercial helicopter pilot. She flew Bell helicopters, including a Bell 47B. She was one of the six founding members of the Whirly-Girls in 1955. She was then one of several Whirly-Girls who met President John F. Kennedy in a visit to the White House in 1961. 

President Kennedy and members of the Whirly-Girls. Ann Shaw Carter is at the far right. (Photo:
President Kennedy and members of the Whirly-Girls. Ann Shaw Carter is at the far right. (Photo:

Unfortunately, her aviation career was cut short when she contracted polio in the late 1950s. However, one of the helicopters that Carter flew was preserved by the American Helicopter Museum in West Chester, Pennsylvania.