If they’re old enough your kids can probably tell you that the Wright Brothers were the first men to fly an aeroplane. But would they know who was the first woman? Would you? I certainly didn’t, so I thought -- to coincide with Women of Aviation Week -- I’d educate myself by putting together this list of pioneering women of flight. I hope your kids find the information as fascinating as I did.
Women played an under-celebrated role in the development of powered flight, making daring journeys and setting new records, but also campaigning for equality in the skies and encouraging more women to follow engineering careers. Some designed planes and ran aircraft companies at a time when such achievements were almost entirely reserved for men. Here we celebrate just a small selection. Discover more by setting your flight compass to the nearest aviation museum this summer.
Raymonde de Laroche (1882-1919)
What did she do? In 1909, she became the first woman to fly a plane (Thérèse Peltier is also sometimes cited -- she became the first female aeroplane passenger in 1908 and may have had a hand on the controls).
What else did she accomplish? As well as making the first ever verified solo flight by a woman, de Laroche was also the first in the world to gain a pilot’s licence (in 1910) -- French licence number 36. In 1919, she also set the height (4,800 m) and distance (323 km) records for a woman.
Legacy: De Laroche, like so many early aviators, died tragically young in a plane crash, while training to become the first female test pilot. Her statue stands in Paris–Le Bourget Airport in France. Her most lasting legacy is probably Women of Aviation Worldwide Week, which always coincides with 8 March, the date when de Laroche gained that first pilot’s licence.
Harriet Quimby (1875-1912)
What did she do? The first woman to gain a pilot’s licence in the US (1911), and the first to fly over the English Channel (1912).
What else did she accomplish? This multi-talented American also penned seven screenplays for early silent movies. Sadly, her pioneering crossing of the English Channel was overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic the day before.
Legacy: Quimby died two months later after falling from her pitching plane over Massachusetts, aged just 37. As the first US female pilot, Quimby is regarded as one of the most influential women in aviation. Two memorials stand in Michigan, marking her birthplace and home.
Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)
What did she do? In 1921, she became the first African-American to earn a pilot’s licence and the first black person to hold an international pilot’s licence.
What else did she accomplish? We could equally say that Coleman was the first Native American pilot; she was from a Cherokee family on her father’s side and African-American on her mother’s. She wanted to fly from a young age but couldn’t train in the US, where flight schools admitted neither women nor black people. She gained her licence in France, then took up a career as a stunt flyer back in the States, using the ‘stage’ name of Queen Bess. She used her fame to campaign against racism and promote aviation among Aftican-Americans.
Legacy: Coleman’s goal of setting up an aviation school for African-Americans was never realised, owing to her untimely death in a flight accident, aged just 34. However, her early example spurred on many other black women and men. Coleman was also an inspiration for Mae Johnson, who would become the first African-American astronaut in 1992. An exhibition of Coleman’s career is part of the displays at the Regional History Museum in Atlanta, Texas.
Amelia Earhart (1897-1937)
What did she do? One of the most famous names in aviation, male or female, Amelia Earhart is best remembered as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, in 1932 (having previously been the first female passenger to cross the Atlantic by plane).
What else did she accomplish: Earhart was also a successful writer, authoring several best-selling books about aviation and serving as an associate editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. She was also a tireless advocate of women’s education and equality. After notching up a string of aviation records, her final mission was to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by plane.
Legacy: Earhart disappeared along with her navigator Fred Noonan in 1937 during one of the final legs of her attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Her plane was never found and her fate remains a plaything of conspiracy theorists. Thanks to her enormous fame, Earhart probably inspired more women to go into aviation than any other individual. Planes and artifacts from her life can be seen at various museums, including the Smithsonian. And her onetime home in Kansas is now the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum.
Amy Johnson (1903-1941)
What did she do? Arguably Britain’s best-known pilot (of any gender) Johnson set many aviation records. She is most noted for becoming the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, in 1930. It was a journey of 18,000km.
What else did she accomplish? Among her many other aviation achievements, she became (along with co-pilot Jack Humphreys) the first person to travel from London to Moscow in one day and, in the same expedition, the fastest person to travel from Britain to Japan. Johnson was also an accomplished engineer, and was the first woman in Britain to gain a particular grade of ground engineer’s licence. She also served as President of the Women’s Engineering Society from 1934, and in the Air Transport Auxiliary in the Second World War.
Legacy: Like the four other aviators we’ve already met, Johnson tragically died in her 30s after an air accident. Her military plane crashed in the Thames Estuary after either running out of fuel or being shot down as a suspected enemy plane (the circumstances are disputed). Several memorials to Johnson can be found around Britain. Two statues stand in her hometown of Hull, and another at Herne Bay close to where she was last seen alive. London’s Science Museum is home to her most famous plane, Jason, in which she flew to Australia. You can also visit a display about Johnson at Sewerby Hall near Bridlington, while the Croydon Airport museum holds her travel bag, which washed up on shore after her fatal plane crash.
Valentina Tereshkova (1937-)
What did she do? Tereshkova became the first woman to travel in space. Her Soviet rocket launched on 16 June 1963, two years after Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space. Almost 60 years later, she remains the only woman to have flown solo in space, as well as the youngest woman to have done so (aged 26).
What else did she accomplish? Her solo flight lasted almost three days, which meant she had accumulated more hours in space than all US astronauts put together, at that point. Tereshkova would not fly in space again, though she later earned a doctorate in aeronautical engineering and worked as a cosmonaut trainer. She has served in many notable political roles, including as a member of the World Peace Council, and as an elected member of Russia’s State Duma (in which she still serves).
Legacy: As the first woman in space, Tereshkova’s name will live on through the centuries like few others. She has craters and asteroids named after her and various monuments in Russia. Sadly, her pioneering mission did not immediately open the door for other female astronauts and cosmonauts. It would be almost 20 years before a second woman flew in space (another Russian, Svetlana Savitskaya. At the time of writing, only 65 women have left the Earth.
First Woman On The Moon?
We’re on the cusp of celebrating another name that will live for eternity. As things stand, the first woman to set foot on the Moon is set to do so in 2024 as part of the US Artemis programme (though many commentators think this will be delayed by at least a year or two). No one yet knows who that woman will be, though she is likely to be one of the nine women who are part of the current lunar training group. A few years from now one of the following names may be immortalised alongside those above: Kayla Barron, Christina Koch, Nicole Mann, Anne McClain, Jessica Meir, Jasmin Moghbeli, Kathleen Rubins, Jessica Watkins, and Stephanie Wilson. And then, one day, maybe Mars? It could be you.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.