Honoring the women who paved their own path in aviation.
The achievements and progress made by women throughout history shouldn’t just be relegated to Women’s History Month. While there is still so much room for female inclusion in the aviation industry (roughly, only 8% of pilots in the United States are women), there have been some incredible women who have stood out across decades with their accomplishments in the field.
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In 1921, Bessie Coleman became the first Black and Indigenous (Cherokee) woman to be licensed as a pilot. Finding an instructor who would teach a Black woman how to fly proved nearly impossible. Instead of giving up, she learned French and sailed across the ocean to France, where she received her international pilot’s license at a prestigious aviation school, the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation.
Not only was Jacqueline Cochran the first woman to break the sound barrier, but she was also one of the top racing pilots during her time. In 1935, she was the first woman to enter the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race, and a few years later she took home the Bendix trophy. She broke multiple speed records throughout her life, and also became the first female president of Féderátion Aéronautique Internationale.
Hazel Ying Lee
As the first Chinese American woman to fly for the United States military, Lee secured her aviation license in 1932 and became a commercial pilot. In 1943, she joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) upon the request of Jacqueline Cochran. She was one of two Chinese American WASPs pilots. In the service, they were paid less than their male counterparts and were also denied military benefits. It wasn’t until 1977 that Lee and her fellow female pilots were granted retroactive military status.
Eula Pearl Carter Scott
Scott was from the Chickasaw Nation, and she became the youngest pilot to receive a flying license in 1929. She learned how to fly at the early age of 12 and earned her license by the time she was 13. She worked as a stunt pilot for years before moving on to start a family and work as a health representative for the Chickasaw Nation.
While Bessie Coleman was the first internationally licensed Black female pilot, Willa Brown was the first Black female pilot to be licensed in the United States in 1937. She earned her license at the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University in Chicago, the only accredited flight school in the Midwest where Black students were accepted. She then went on to become the first Black officer for the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) and was honored for her contributions to the industry in 1972 when she was appointed to the Federal Aviation Administration Women’s Advisory Board.
Mary Riddle became one of the first Indigenous women—she was from the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington and the Clatsop Tribe in Oregon—to earn her pilot’s license in 1930. Having seen another female pilot crash and die, Riddle was determined to prove that women could and would be successful pilots. She later became a parachutist and was recruited by the government to be an aircraft maintenance advisor during WWII.
Katherine Sui Fun Cheung
Cheung was a Chinese immigrant and, in 1932, became the first Chinese American woman to earn a pilot’s license. She earned her international license in 1935. She quickly learned to fly, taking her first solo flight after a mere 12 and a half hours of training. She became an expert stunt flier and performed across California. The Chinese American community cherished her, and they were said to have raised $2,000 to purchase a plane for her so she could compete in an air race.
One of the most well-known names of aviation history, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932. She began breaking gender norms as a child and continued as she became the first woman to achieve many of her accomplishments. She was also the first person to fly from Hawaii to the U.S. mainlands. She later disappeared while on an around-the-world flight.
Janet Harmon Bragg
As the first Black woman to hold a commercial pilot license in the United States, Bragg was a pioneer who faced wave after wave of discrimination. During WWII, Bragg was denied entry to the WASP because she was Black, and later she was denied her commercial pilot’s license even after passing her flight test at the Tuskegee Black pilot training school. She retook the test in Chicago and was finally given her commercial license.
In 1934, Leah Hing became the first U.S.-born Chinese American woman to earn a pilot license. Hing originally learned how to fly at John Gilbert Rankin’s flying school where Mary Riddle also earned her license. Hing hoped to teach other Chinese women how to fly but was ultimately unable to fulfill that dream. Instead, she assisted the West Coast Civil Air Patrol in WWII and then retired from flying in 1941, spending the rest of her time investing in the Chinese community of Portland.