The History Of Women In Aviation
Carl Rackman investigates the history of women in aviation, and the tribulations they've faced for equality in the field.
29 Sep 2017
Written by Carl Rackman
In my last company, about 6% of all pilots were women. It doesn’t sound like many, even for a company that has a good reputation as an employer of women pilots. It wasn’t until 2006, that I flew as part of a flight deck crew where I was the gender minority. My two colleagues flew the operating sector, whilst I was the “heavy” or third co-pilot.
I was struck by the novelty, and bothered by the fact that it shouldn’t be a novelty at all. Why should it be notable to see two women at the controls of a jet for a major airline more than a hundred years after the first flight?
Flying began with a relatively high participation by women, yet today’s female airline pilot workforce is barely 3% of the total; just 4,000 out of 130,000 airline pilots worldwide are women.
This year, I have listened to the protests of passengers when they hear a woman’s voice announcing the flight deck PA. I’ve heard people around me at airports when a woman walks past in a pilot’s uniform. And I’ve cringed at the sexism in the media that follows any error or accident involving women.
In a passenger survey conducted in 2012, 51% of respondents reported that they were less likely to trust a woman pilot, and 32% believed men would be ‘more skilled’ as pilots than women.
Women were once among the forerunners and pioneers of aviation. What happened?
The Wright brothers made history in 1903 by completing the first powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine, thereby becoming the pioneers of flying as we know it.
But there was a Wright sister. Katharine Wright was a highly capable woman, being the only sibling to graduate from college, and a school headteacher. In addition, she took on the role of household matriarch to her four male siblings from the age of fifteen following the death of their mother from tuberculosis.
She managed Orville and Wilbur’s business affairs and became an executive secretary in their company.
She organised a volunteer workforce of teachers to help with their flying experiments. And when Orville was injured in a crash, she gave up her day job to look after him.
More importantly, she was far better at interpersonal and networking skills, and essentially sold the Wrights’ “airplane” to the right kind of audience to ensure it gained the attention it needed.
In 1908, she accompanied her brothers to France, the early hotbed of aviation development. She entertained the royalty of Europe and was fêted by their impressed hosts as “The Third Wright Brother”, sharing in their award of the Légion d’Honneur.
As the aeroplane craze spread, it remained an egalitarian pursuit, as far as gender was concerned. Women eagerly embraced the opportunity to qualify as pilots. Flying was a new and exciting science, and many (mostly wealthy) women for once found themselves socially positioned to participate.
The first pilot’s licences were issued to women in France in 1910, with a dozen other countries also awarding them by the end of the First World War. Britain’s first licenced woman pilot, Hilda Hewlett, also opened the first practical flying school in the country.
Matilde Moisant, a Canadian-American, and the second woman in the USA to gain a pilot’s licence, set an absolute altitude record of 1,200ft in 1911.
But for some, women’s enthusiastic pursuit of aviation carried with it the whiff of Suffragism. The ascendance of society women to these new and untried waters of modernism jarred with a nervous male establishment. It is no coincidence that many of the foremost women’s aviation pioneers were also leading voices in the Suffragist movement on both sides of the Atlantic.
The perception of flying as an “equal access” pursuit was dented by the First World War. Many stunt pilots and enthusiasts, particularly in the United States, joined the Air Corps to fly and fight. This avenue was unthinkable for women.
The result was a postwar surplus of government-trained pilots. The burgeoning aviation industry that resulted from wartime production led to the world’s first airlines and long-distance mail services. The commercial exploitation of flying became a strictly male pursuit due to this imbalance.
Yet women continued to grab headlines as pilots. Women were among the premier air racers, long-distance pioneers and stunt pilots of the 1920s and 30s. Their exploits put paid to the earlier misgivings that women lacked the physical strength or mental ability to operate aircraft.
Many of them carved indelible marks in aviation history and are still household names:
- Long-distance pioneers Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson,
- Professional movie stunt-pilot Pancho Barnes,
- German test pilot and helicopter pioneer Hanna Reitsch.
However, the spectre of sexism was not far behind these developments. Amelia Earhart was pushing for air races to lift the ban on women competitors (“Too dangerous for women”, said the men of the organising committees). She was able to use her national celebrity status to establish a women’s National Air Race in 1929, which was called the National Women’s Air Derby.
The course was the same as the National Race (Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio) but was resisted by authorising bodies as being too challenging for women. Eventually cleared for competition, it was dubbed “The Powder Puff Derby” by sceptical press and people.
Nevertheless, it attracted twenty competitors in its first run and was won by the bravura aerobatic pilot and multiple record-breaker, Louise Thaden.
The same year, many of the leading women aviators formed a society called the Ninety-Nines. The organisation was designed to advance and mutually support the role of women in aviation, and continues to do so today.
In 1936 the prestigious Bendix Trophy, a transcontinental air race, was opened for male and female competitors to race head-to-head; the first major competition to do so.
In a sensational outcome, Louise Thaden won the trophy, with Laura Ingalls close behind in second place and Amelia Earhart coming fifth. It was a brilliant riposte to those who disparaged the abilities of women to compete in aviation at the highest levels.
What should have been an open door to equal opportunity did not materialise. The first woman to be hired as an airline pilot was stunt pilot and air racer Helen Richey. She began flying routes for Central Airlines in December 1934.
In a pattern which would prove depressingly familiar in the future, she quickly found that she was valued more as a PR prop than a pilot. The airline restricted her to specific routes, and the Civil Aeronautics Authority (forerunner of the FAA) helpfully proposed that women only be permitted to fly by day and fine weather.
A final blow to her career development plan was the deliberate decision by the pilots’ union not to accept women in its ranks. Disillusioned after just ten months, she left the airline and returned to private aerobatics and racing.
WASPs And ATA
When war broke out a second time, it was a different story for women. Strong lobbying by future World Speed Record holder Jacqueline Cochran in America and Pauline Gower in Britain led to the establishment of dedicated women’s flying formations; the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in the USA, and the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in Britain.
Whilst the ATA was not exclusively for women, it did pay its male and female pilots the same – a first. Hundreds of women were recruited to fly ferry and other non-combat missions throughout World War 2.
Allied ferry pilots became extremely experienced. Helen Richey enlisted for the British Air Transport Auxiliary in 1942, before transferring to the WASPs the following year. By the war’s end, she had accumulated 500 flying hours in 27 different aircraft types in addition to her fifteen years of professional flying. But as the war began winding up to its conclusion, the women constituted a surplus in the ferrying service.
Their male counterparts were civilian instructors and peacetime airline pilots (as recounted by Ernest K. Gann in his excellent book Fate is the Hunter) and according to one historian, they feared losing their jobs to women. Women releasing men to national service was deemed acceptable, but replacing men was not.
The WASP programme was hastily shut down in December 1944 by General of the Army Air Forces, Hap Arnold. Ironically, it was Arnold himself who said to a WASP graduation class, “Now, in 1944, it is on the record that women can fly as well as men.”
The industry had one more chance to open itself to the full participation of women after World War 2. Among the thousands of returning pilots were a smaller but equally qualified number of women who were eager to fly professionally.
Once again the ranks closed. Women would find it a fruitless and frustrating battle to progress in the airline world. Richey herself would become so disillusioned by the parlous state of women’s opportunities, that she would take her own life in 1947.
To rub salt into the wound, the WASPs were not accorded veteran status, and their role was airbrushed from history for 30 years. Not until the US Air Force admitted women as pilots for the first time in 1977 was this injustice rectified. By the time the US Government approved the award of a WASP service medal in 2010, fewer than 300 of the original 1,100 WASP pilots were still alive.
The role of women in aviation was increasingly being steered towards the flight attendant role, previously an exclusively male preserve. The first ‘stewardesses’ were recruited by pilot and nurse Ellen Church in 1930.
Tired of being passed over for pilot jobs, she eventually tried a new tack and suggested that aircraft carry nurses to alleviate passenger fears. The airline immediately warmed to the PR value of ‘flying nurses’ and applied strict recruitment guidelines; applicants had to be under 25, single, no taller than 5’ 4” and weigh less than 115 pounds.
The requirements seemed at odds with the original job description which included strenuous activity such as baggage loading, performing inflight maintenance on cabin fixtures, and pushing the aircraft into the hangar at journey’s end!
Many women returning from wartime flying could only accept ‘stewardess’ jobs, whilst less-qualified men became co-pilots. While jobs in general aviation, flight instruction and the nascent air traffic control industry were easier to enter, opportunities in airline and military flying (the staples of career aviation) were non-existent.
As the Cold War ground on, military budgets increased and successive generations of military pilots received a wealth of training on jet aircraft. Military transport and tanker aircraft like the KC-135 were almost identical to the leading commercial jet, the Boeing 707, making the transition from a military to a civilian career simpler.
Ex-military pilots became the preferred choice for the large civil airlines due to their extensive jet experience. The heady days of the pioneers were forgotten as the prohibitive costs of modern jet operation meant that civilian pilots could not dream of accumulating the relevant experience to be acceptable to the big airlines.
From 1947, an entire generation of women were denied entry to airline flying, though they continued to work professionally in the general aviation world. In the meantime, the idea of the woman jet pilot persisted only in the entertainment world as a male fantasy figure: Wonder Woman, Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore, or the Angel fighter pilots from TV’s Captain Scarlet. They were glamorous and otherworldly, far from the macho stereotype of the male pilot.
The first woman to become an airline pilot in a generation was Norway’s Turi Widerøe, who joined Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) in 1967. She had flown for her family-owned regional airline and passed the SAS entry test and training, finishing 3rd in her class of 50.
When Widerøe graduated the training programme in 1969, it precipitated a PR storm similar to Helen Richey’s a generation before. She was flown to America and appeared on the leading talk shows of the day (including the CBS version of “What’s My Line?”), and was interviewed for various magazines and newspapers.
An SAS spokesperson claimed, “At least during this week, Ms Widerøe is the most famous woman in New York. Maybe with the exception of Ms Jackie Kennedy.”
As the Seventies began, the door was finally forced open. In 1973, Bonnie Tiburzi became the first woman to fly for a major US airline, joining American on the Boeing 727. Her background was remarkably similar to Widerøe; Tiburzi’s father was an ex-pilot for the SAS and TWA, and owned his own flight training school and charter airline where she had worked as an instructor and pilot.
Equality legislation passed throughout the Western world in the early 70s placed an unwelcome spotlight on airline hiring practices. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought a suit against a major airline alleging a breach of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was also in this decade, that military forces began to accept women into higher ranks and specialised training roles such as transport pilots and engineers.
As these social factors began to take root, women began to trickle into the world’s airlines. However, having hurdled the major barrier of outright exclusion, they met an even more formidable one; airline seniority.
The date you join an airline can have an effect on your future career. Joining a week apart can translate to months or even years in the time it takes to promotion to captain and other seniority-based advancements.
It meant that the first woman to be promoted to captain didn’t occur until the 80s, a decade later. By the mid-80s, women were represented across most airlines in the West, and the first women were taking control of Boeing 747s for long-range flights as captains. In the airline boom of the late 80s and early 90s, airlines implemented open recruitment policies for new cadet pilots for the first time.
Today, women represent about 5% of the worldwide pilot workforce. This may not sound like much, but it means there are thousands of women flying airliners, cargo jets, military transports, fighters and bombers, business jets, helicopters, and every other kind of commercial or military aircraft.
There are women flying frontline fighter jets in countries like Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. When the commanders of the space shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station shook hands after docking on 25 October 2007, it was the first time in history that both were women.
Though the glass ceiling has been broken, women have been admitted very late to the party. Due to the ravages of seniority and the lost generation of the postwar years, fewer than 500 airline captains were women by 2012, leading to a massive shortage of role models and mentors for women entering the profession.
In recent surveys by British Airways, 650 children aged 6-12 were polled on their career aspirations. “Airline pilot” came in second place for the boys but was not even considered by the girls, who opted instead for jobs in healthcare, popular culture and education.
Commentators have blamed the cultural portrayals of pilots as consistently masculine, leading to a perception that it is not even a viable career choice for women.
Jobs are available and are open to men and women, but culture can be pervasive, as evidenced by the behaviour I have witnessed (and still do) when the novelty of a woman pilot is noticed. Nevertheless, even in my own 21st Century flying career, I’ve seen positive changes within the profession. Baseline attitudes towards women in the flight deck have drastically improved.
When I began professional flying, I heard colleagues refer to certain women pilots in training, especially younger ones, as “difficult” or “argumentative”. I felt their perceptions were simply reactions to the assertiveness of the newly-minted First Officer who has undergone effective CRM training.
My perception was that the established male “old guard” struggled to assimilate this behaviour coming from young women. As a male First Officer with a similarly confident approach, I was labelled “cocky”; as young women, they were labelled “uncooperative” and “competitive” (I read the post-flight reports).
The current widespread acceptance of women as colleagues without prejudice has been a long road. But the signs are strong that it is a viable and attractive career for women to pursue, even if not perfect by any means.
With the application of drive, ambition and determination, the jobs are there, the door is open and the lost generation has been restored.
Women Aviators: 26 Stories of Pioneer Flights, Daring Missions and Record-Setting Journeys by Karen Bush Gibson. Chicago Review Press, 2013
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