Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?


FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Women made their marks on aviation history (Part 4 – the 1950s and 1960s)

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, Part 2 and Part 3.

Jean Ross Howard at the controls of a helicopter. (Photo:
Jean Ross Howard at the controls of a helicopter. (Photo:

Jean Ross Howard 

Jean Ross Howard Phelan (1916-2004) was the founder of the Whirly Girls and the 13th woman in the world to earn her helicopter accreditation.

Howard attended Connecticut College and then transferred to George Washington University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1939. In 1955, she earned a master’s degree in history from American University; her thesis was “Selected Economic Problems in the Operation of Common Carrier Helicopters.”

Howard entered the Civilian Pilot Program and subsequently earned her pilot’s license in 1941. After working briefly as a reservation clerk at Eastern Air Lines and with the National Aeronautic Association, she became a pilot-secretary for the Washington, D.C., office of Piper Aircraft, Taylorcraft Aircraft and Aeronca Aircraft in 1942. She flew the companies’ light aircraft to demonstrate their military utility. Howard attended a speech by Jacqueline Cochran (follow this link to Part 3 of this series), who was recruiting pilots for the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), and Howard signed up. She began her WASP training in January 1943 in Houston as part of the third WASP class, which transferred in May to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Howard failed out of the program, but Cochran hired her to assist with training, and she stayed with the program until her class graduated. 

Howard then joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) and worked for the American Red Cross as a program director on the Italian island of Capri from 1943 to 1945. After returning to the United States she served as an officer in the CAP’s National Capital Wing and rose to the rank of major.

In 1945 her long career with the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), which was then known as the Aircraft Industries Association, when she was hired as staff assistant for the AIA’s Personal Aircraft Council. She became a staff assistant to the public relations director in 1950, and competed in the Transcontinental Air Races in 1951 and 1952.

Howard met Larry Bell of Bell Aircraft at an industry dinner in 1954 and convinced him to allow her to get her helicopter certification at Bell’s Helicopter School in Fort Worth, Texas. She had been seeking the opportunity to learn how to fly a helicopter since 1947, when AIA sent her to help organize a helicopter air show, which was likely the first of its kind. After 18 days of training, she became the eighth American woman (and the thirteenth woman in the world), to receive her helicopter accreditation. 

The Whirly-Girls logo. (Image:
The Whirly-Girls logo. (Image:

She then identified and sought out the women who had preceded her in 1955, and helped establish the Whirly-Girls, an international organization for female helicopter pilots. Each of the members was assigned a number based on when they earned their accreditation; Howard was number 13. She was the Whirly-Girls’ only officer for more than a decade, handled the organization’s media relations and helped keep the young organization alive and growing. Other offices were created within the organization in 1969, and Howard became its first president. She stepped down as president in 1975 after advocating the establishment of heliports for emergency medical services, promoting the Whirly-Girls and the helicopter industry as she traveled across the country. 

Among her other activities Howard chaired the American Helicopter Society’s annual forum in 1958 and 1959 (the first woman to do so). She was president of the American News Women’s Club from 1966 to 1968, published a book (“All About Helicopters”) in 1969, served as secretary and vice president of the Ninety-Nines, the international organization of women pilots, and as secretary of the American Helicopter Society. In addition, she was a member of the Federal Aviation Agency’s Women Advisory Council, the Army Aviation Association, the Helicopter Association of America, the Aero Club of Washington, and the Aviation/Space Writers Association. In 1952 she was named an Arthur Godfrey Air Fellow, was awarded the Washington Air Derby Association Trophy in 1963, received the Lady Hay Drummond Award from the Women’s International Association of Aeronautics in 1969, was honored at the 1994 Charles A. Lindbergh Memorial Lecture, inducted into the Women in Aviation International’s Hall of Fame in 1995 and was named one of the “100 Women Who Made A Difference” by Women in Aviation International in 2003.

Mabel MacFerran Rockwell 

In 1958 President Dwight D. Eisenhower named Mabel MacFerran Rockwell the Woman Engineer of the Year for her contributions to national defense. 

Mabel MacFerren Rockwell. 
Mabel MacFerren Rockwell.

She grew up in Philadelphia and enrolled at Bryn Mawr College. However, she transferred to MIT and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in science, teaching and mathematics. She was ranked first in the 1925 class, and she then attended Stanford University; she earned a degree in electrical engineering in 1926.

During her career, Rockwell published professional papers and became an associate member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1928. She was employed by Southern California Edison as a technical assistant and later worked for the Metropolitan Water District and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. During World War II, she worked for the U.S. military, conducting research in underwater propulsion systems and submarine guidance. 

She also helped design the power system for the Colorado River Aqueduct and was the only woman involved in designing and installing the power-generating machinery for Hoover Dam. 

One of the first female aeronautical engineers in the United States, Rockwell demonstrated the greater effectiveness and efficiency of spot welding over riveting. She designed the guidance systems for the Polaris missile and the Atlas guided missile launcher.

Dana Ulery 

After earning her bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College in 1959 (a double major in English Literature and Mathematics) Dana Ulery earned her Master’s degree and PhD in Computer Science from the University of Delaware, in 1972 and 1975 respectively.

In 1961 Ulery was hired as the first woman engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She designed and developed algorithms to model NASA’s Deep Space Network capabilities and automated the real-time tracking systems for the Ranger and Mariner space missions. She accomplished these feats using a 40-bit computer. 

Dana Ulrey. (Photo:
Dana Ulrey. (Photo:

During her career, Ulery held positions as an applied science and technology researcher and manager in industry, academia and government. When she retired in 2007, she was the Chief Scientist of the Computational and Information Sciences Directorate at the United States Army Research Laboratory, where she had also served as Chair of the US Army Materiel Command Knowledge Management Council.

After teaching at two universities in Cairo, Egypt, Ulery joined the Engineering Services Division of the DuPont Company, where she was a computer scientist and technical manager. In the early 1980s, Ulery led initiatives to develop and deploy enterprise application systems at company sites. She was awarded the DuPont Engineering Award for Leadership of Corporate Quality Computer Systems. Ulery also had an active role in the establishment of international electronic data interchange (EDI) standards (standards for electronically exchanging technical information used by business and government). 

In the 1990s, she chaired two United Nations working groups that led the early international efforts to develop standards for electronic commerce.

Geraldine Mock 

In 1964 Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock became the first woman to fly around the world.

Born in Newark, Ohio in 1925, during her childhood Mock’s interest in flying was sparked at the age of seven when she and her father had the opportunity to fly in the cockpit of a Ford Trimotor airplane. When Mock was 11 Amelia Earhart launched her attempt to fly around the world. Each day after school, Mock listened to radio reports of her idol’s progress, and then to the news of the efforts to find her. 

In high school, Mock took an engineering course; she was the only girl in the class and decided flying was her passion. She attended Ohio State University; however, she did not graduate, leaving school to wed Russell Mock in 1945.

On March 19, 1964, Mock, a 38-year-old mother of three, left Columbus, Ohio, in a single-engine Cessna. Nearly a month later, Mock accomplished what Earhart had hoped to do – be the first woman to fly around the world.

Jerri Mock stands next to the "Spirit of Columbus" before taking off on her around-the-world journey. 
(Photo: National Air and Space Museum/Smithsonian Institution)
Jerri Mock stands next to the “Spirit of Columbus” before taking off on her around-the-world journey.
(Photo: National Air and Space Museum/Smithsonian Institution)

He Cessna 180 was christened the “Spirit of Columbus” and nicknamed “Charlie.” The trip ended on April 17, where it began – in Columbus, Ohio. It took Mock 29 days, 21 stopovers and almost 22,860 miles to circumnavigate the globe. 

On May 4, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Mock with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Gold Medal for Exceptional Service. Despite her self-described status as “the flying housewife,” Mock had “thoroughly prepared for the flight and accomplished it in a professional manner, trouble-shooting as necessary and handling bureaucracy and diplomacy with firmness and grace.”

In 1965 Mock was awarded the Louis Blériot medal from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. In 1970 she published the story of her round-the-world flight in the book Three-Eight Charlie.

Among her official world aviation records during the period 1964-69 (all of which were sanctioned and accepted by the National Aeronautic Association and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) are:


  • Speed around the world, Class C1-c
  • Speed around the world, Feminine


  • Speed over a closed course of 500  km, Class C1-b


  • Distance in a straight line, Feminine


  • Distance in a closed course, Class C1-c
  • Distance in a closed course, Feminine
  • Speed over a recognized course


  • Speed over a recognized course

Mock was also the first woman to:

  • Fly solo around the world
  • Fly around the world in a single-engine plane
  • Fly U.S. – Africa via North Atlantic
  • Fly the Pacific Ocean in a single-engine
  • Fly the Pacific Ocean west to east
  • Fly both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans
  • Fly the Pacific Ocean in both directions

Among Mock’s awards and honors:

  • Ohio Governor’s Award
  • Louis Bleriot Silver Medal(World-Wide award of Fédération Aéronautique Internationale)
  • American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Distinguished Service Award
  • Experimental Aircraft Association Special Award
  • Ohio Aviation Trades Association Sparky Award
  • Amelia Earhart Memorial Award, 1964
  • Aero Classic Aviation Progress Award, 1965
  • National Aviation Trades Association Pilot-of-the-Year Award, 1964
  • Glenn Hammond Curtiss Silver Medal, Pittsburgh OX-5 Club
  • Milestones in Manned Flight Trophy, Trans World Airlines
  • Columbus Transportation Club Special Award
  • Sportswoman of the Year, Columbus Citizen-Journal, 1969
Gale Ann Gordon. (Photo: eBay)
Gale Ann Gordon. (Photo: eBay)

Gale Ann Gordon 

In 1966 U.S. Navy Ensign Gale Ann Gordon became the first female Navy pilot to solo in a Navy training plane. She had been assigned to the Pensacola Naval Air Station as a member of the Medical Service Corps. She began flight training as the only woman in a squadron of 999 men, and then became the first woman pilot in the U.S. Navy to fly solo in a propeller-driven T-34 trainer.

Ida Van Smith 

Ida Van Smith was an African American pilot and flight instructor born in Lumberton, North Carolina in 1917.

The youngest of three children, Smith’s interest in aviation began when barnstorming pilots and wing-walking exhibitions took place in and around Lumberton.

Her high school class valedictorian, Smith studied at Barber Scotia Junior College in Concord, North Carolina and then attended Shaw University in Raleigh. She graduated with a degree in social studies and a minor in mathematics. Smith earned a scholarship to the City College of New York where she earned a Master of Science degree in 1964. 

Ida Van Smith. (Photo:
Ida Van Smith.

Smith was a teacher in North Carolina for two years. She married and moved to New York, where she taught in the New York City public schools for many years.

At the age of 50 Smith began flying lessons at LaGuardia Airport. She then studied at an airport in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Smith became a licensed pilot – instrument rated, which means that she was licensed to fly during inclement weather, and also was qualified to be a ground instructor.

She then founded the Ida Van Smith Flight Clubs to introduce children to careers in aviation and aerospace. Adults were permitted into the program only by special request. She began by teaching her students on a stationary airplane instrument panel in her living room. Her program grew; it expanded into public schools and an introductory aviation course for adults at York College. 

Volunteers from different areas in aviation gave her classes tours of airplanes and airports, took her students flying and gave lectures and demonstrations appropriate to each age group. Children in the program and their parents were allowed to fly in small airplanes, seaplanes and helicopters. They also visited aerospace museums and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) installations. Program students learned about the controls, functions of the instruments, and what makes an airplane fly by sitting in the cockpit of Smith’s own Cessna 172. 

Ida Van Smith. (Photo:
Ida Van Smith. (Photo:

Students also met “airline pilots, flight attendants, air traffic controllers, meteorologists, aircraft mechanics and others whose jobs pertain to the aviation industry.” She began her efforts by  using personal funds to establish the flight clubs, but Smith received funding from corporate and private donations as well as volunteer efforts. Smith headed 11 flight clubs in New York, Texas and St. Lucia, but eventually there were more than 20 clubs across the United States.

Smith designed an aviation-oriented coloring book for children. She produced/hosted a show on aviation that was aired on cable television. She also produced/published five booklets on the history of her flight clubs. She spoke about aviation at schools, churches and museums.

Because of her educational efforts, Smith was a member of Tuskegee Airman’s Black Wings, Negro Airman International and the Ninety-Nines. Photographs and story lines about Smith were exhibited in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in the Pentagon and in the International Women’s Air and Space Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

Eleanor Williams 

Eleanor Williams (December 21, 1936 – April 22, 2011) was the first African American woman to be certified as a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic controller.

Born Eleanor Joyce Toliver in College Station, Texas. She was her high school valedictorian in 1955 and married Tollie Williams, Jr. following graduation. She earned a four-year academic scholarship to Prairie View A&M University but only attended one semester because (according to her) she was having “kids too fast.” She and her husband had seven children and fostered another.

Eleanor Williams poses next to an FAA sign. (Photo: Federal Aviation Administration)
Eleanor Williams poses next to an FAA sign.
(Photo: Federal Aviation Administration)

In 1963, Toliver-Williams and her family moved to Anchorage, Alaska to be closer to her sister. She worked for the FAA as part of its cleaning crew. In 1965 she became a GS-4 clerk stenographer. She was certified as an air traffic controller at the Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) in 1971.

She became the first African American woman to “head up a major en-route facility” at the Cleveland ARTCC, the second-busiest en-route air traffic control facility in the United States.