Reaching to New Heights: Aviation’s Female Pioneers

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…National Aviation Month! November is known as National Aviation Month and celebrates contributions and achievements in aviation. Most people know the history of aviation and its founding in our home state of North Carolina. Most people also know the names of famous aviators such as the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and Noel Wien. However, little attention is given to aviation’s female pilots. Read below to learn more about two women pioneers who helped “pave” the way in the sky.

Amelia Earhart

Probably one of the most well-known female aviators, Earhart began her flying career at the young age of 23. After serving as a Red Cross nurse in Canada during World War I, her interest in flying started with a plane ride in California with World War I pilot Frank Hawks. In January 1921, she took her first flying lesson while also working as a filing clerk at the Los Angeles Telephone Company. Soon Earhart purchased her first airplane, a yellow plane she called “The Canary.” In December of that same year, she received her National Aeronautics Association license and participated in her first flight exhibition at the Sierra Airdrome in California.

Earhart’s passion for flying grew throughout her life and led to her setting multiple aviation records, unheard of for a woman during that time. Just a year after getting her flying license, she became the first woman to fly solo above 14,000 feet in 1922. Then, 10 years later, she became the first woman (and second person ever) to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. After returning from this successful flight, Earhart was the first woman to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by Congress. In addition, that same year, she pioneered another path for women pilots and was the first to make a solo, nonstop flight across the United States. While she paved the way for women up in the skies, Earhart was committed to promoting opportunities for women in aviation on the ground. In 1929, she helped found and serve as the first president of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for female pilots from 44 different countries. Fun fact: that organization still exists today.

Sadly, Earhart’s successful aviation career was shorter than expected. On June 1, 1937, she, along with navigator Fred Noonan, left Oakland, California on a mission to become the first pilot ever to fly around the world. On the 29th of June, the two had accomplished 22,000 miles of their 29,000 mile journey and had stopped in Lae, New Guinea to refuel. The pair departed on July 2, for their next stop at Howland Island. Unfortunately, this was the last time Earhart and Noonan were ever seen. They lost radio contact with the US Coast Guard and disappeared. President Franklin D. Roosevelt led a two week search and on July 19, they were declared lost at sea. To this day, many theories have surfaced regarding the end of their journey; however, the US government states Earhart and Noonan crashed in the Pacific Ocean.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was born in 1892 to a family of sharecroppers. After attending Langston University for one semester, she became interested in flying. In 1921, Coleman (who was mixed race) made history by becoming the first African-American, as well as the first African-American woman, and Native American to earn a pilot’s license – an international pilot’s license, in fact. She was denied acceptance into the flying schools in the United States, so instead, she learned French and move to France to attend school. After receiving her license, Coleman became proficient in stunt flying and parachuting. She also spent two months in Europe taking lessons from a French ace pilot. During September 1921, she flew from Paris to New York, making her a media sensation. A year later, Coleman crossed the Atlantic Ocean again and took advanced courses in aviation. Her training was conducted in France, the Netherlands, and Germany.

In addition, Coleman was a well-known performer of aerial tricks during a live barnstorming, which is known as a flying circus with pilots completing tricks in the sky. Her show was the first time the public had seen a flight by an African-American woman in America. Soon, she became known as “Queen Bess” and for the next five years was in the aerial show circuit. To add to her accomplishments, Coleman had the goal of starting a school for African-American pilots. This dream fell in line with her childhood vow of “one day amounting to something.”

Tragically, Coleman died at the age of 34 in 1926 when she was killed in an accident during rehearsal for an aerial show. During her short life, she broke down many barriers in race and gender. The Chicago Defender newspaper once referred to her as “the world’s greatest woman flier.”