Five American Women Aviators (Who Weren’t Amelia Earhart)
Harriet Quimby (1875-1912): Harriet Quimby was a journalist, screenwriter, and theater critic before a visit to the 1910 Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament on Long Island stirred her interest in flying. Aged 35, Quimby began to take lessons, and on August 1, 1911, she passed her pilot’s examination, becoming the first woman in America to hold a pilot’s license. On April 16, 1912, Quimby became the first woman to fly across the English Channel.
Tragically, she was only able to enjoy the limelight for a few months. During the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet in July 1912, Quimby lost control of her plane 1,500 feet above the ground. She and her co-pilot were pitched from their seats and fell to their deaths. It was a premature end to an adventurous life.
Bessica Raiche (1875 – 1932): Wisconsinite Bessica Raiche lived her life to the full at a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote. She was a painter, musician, and dentist whose favorite pastimes included swimming and shooting. After seeing a demonstration of the Wright Flyer during a stay in Paris, she turned her considerable energies towards aviation.
She and her husband Francois built their own version of a Wright flyer in their living room. On September 16, 1910, they took their flyer to Hempstead Plains, New York, where Bessica flew the craft for the first time. Her flight was recognized by the American Aeronautical Society as the first solo flight by an American woman.
Raiche and her husband continued to fly for many years, and managed to build a company that manufactured their silk, bamboo, and wire flyers in both France and the U.S. When her health finally precluded her from flying, Bessica Raiche turned her attention towards medicine, and became a practicing obstetrician.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh (1906 – 2001): Flying lessons were how Charles Lindbergh courted Anne Morrow, daughter of a U.S. Ambassador, prior to their marriage in 1929. In addition to being the wife of the aviation hero, Anne Morrow Lindbergh was an author and an accomplished pilot in her own right.
She and Charles spent much of the 1930s exploring and charting new flight paths for private and postal aircraft. In 1934, she was awarded a Hubbard Medal by the National Geographic Society in recognition of the 40,000 miles of exploratory flying she and Charles had completed, much of it over Alaska and Asia. They were also the first to fly from Africa to South America.
Willa Brown (1906 – 1992): Willa Brown, a former high school teacher, was the first African-American female pilot to hold a commercial license. Aviation, and specifically the advancing of opportunities for black aviators, became her lifetime crusade. She used her teaching background to found an aviation school, where she helped to train more than 200 pilots who would go on to the Tuskegee Institute and the Army Air Corps. She was also a co-founder of the National Airmen’s Association of America, which had as one of its goals increasing racial equality in aviation.
She pressed lawmakers for the integration of black aviators into the U.S. Military and successfully lobbied for the inclusion of black aviators in the Civilian Air Patrol. She flew for the CAP herself, becoming its first female officer. Later in life, she would campaign for Congress as a Republican.
Jacqueline Cochrane (1906 – 1980): Former beautician Jackie Cochrane was one of the most naturally talented racing pilots the world has ever seen. She began to fly in 1932, quickly establishing herself as a tough-as-nails competitor, racing against men in the prestigious Bendix cup series. With her friend Amelia Earhart, Cochran successfully lobbied to open the race to women.
She put her skills to the test when she served in both the British and American women’s auxiliary services during WWII, eventually becoming head of the US’s Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). As head of the WASPs, Jackie trained and coordinated women pilots to perform non-combat service and transport flights to free up male pilots for the front. Her efforts won her the Distinguished Service Medal at the war’s end.
However, the end of the war was just the beginning for Jackie. As an Air Force Reservist, she rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and began to fly jets. Encouraged by her friend Chuck Yeager, she became the first woman to go supersonic on May 18, 1953, and then in 1964 went faster than twice the speed of sound. She would continue to play a role in aviation throughout the remainder of her life, participating in the training of female astronauts and continuing to test her mettle in the air. By the time of her death, she held more than 200 records for speed, distance, and altitude—an achievement unmatched by any other pilot, male or female, living or dead.