Pioneering Women in Aerospace
By Jon Welte
Each year more than ten thousand children visit the Hiller Aviation Museum as part of a school visit or other educational outing. Most visits begin beneath the Museum’s full scale Wright Flyer replica hanging at the entrance to the main Atrium. Many students have heard of the Wright Brothers, but few know of Katharine Wright, the only Wright sister to survive to adulthood. Unlike Wilbur and Orville’s two older brothers, Katharine took an active interest in and provided material support to Wilbur and Orville in their aerial pursuits. Katharine corresponded extensively with both brothers during their field work, supporting them and becoming immersed in their ideas for the future of flight. In 1908 Orville was seriously injured in a crash that took the life of his passenger. Lt. Thomas Selfridge. Katharine left her high school teaching job to aid Orville through his long convalescence, then took a position in the operation of the Wright Aircraft Company. During the brothers’ subsequent European tour she was the public face of the company, and became an officer of the organization shortly after Wilbur’s death in 1912.
Katharine Wright never sought to become a pilot herself, but as the excitement of aviation overtook the nation women fought for a place in the vanguard of aerial pioneers. Driving enthusiast Blanche Stuart Scott took flight in a Curtiss Pusher in 1910, becoming the first woman to solo an airplane. In 1911 Harriett Quimby became the first American woman to secure a pilot certificate, and by 1920 women had established a place in American aviation despite reservations and resistance from male aviators unconvinced that a woman’s place could be in the air.
In the mid-1920s the ranks of female aviators were bolstered by Louise McPhetridge, who would go on to become one of the most decorated aviators of her time. McPhetridge was hired by Walter Beech as a sale representative for the Travel Air aircraft company, and by 1928 had earned her pilot certificate. In 1929 she married Herbert von Thaden. Thaden, a San Francisco-based pilot and aircraft builder, constructed the all-metal Thaden T-1 Argonaut now displayed at the Hiller Aviation Museum. Flying under her married name, Louise Thaden quickly became one of the nation’s pre-eminent female aviators, earning the equivalent of an Airline Transport Pilot certificate and going on to set records for maximum altitude and flight endurance.
Despite these advances aviation remained a field partially closed to women. During the interwar years air racing evolved as a high profile means of developing both planes and pilots to their maximum potential, and well into 1930s women were conspicuously barred from participating. In 1929, Thaden joined a select group of 20 women competing in the first Women’s Air Derby, a near-transcontinental race from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio. The race, also known (derisively at first) as the Powder Puff Derby, featured nearly all of the skilled female pilots in the country, plus competitors from Germany and Australia. Thaden won the competition, besting a decorated field that included such notable pilots as Amelia Earhart and Pancho Barnes. By 1936 the ban on female aviators participating in the National Air Races was lifted, and that year male and female aviators competed directly against each other for the first time. Louise Thaden and her copilot, Blanche Noyes, won resoundingly.
Following close on Thaden’s heels was Jacqueline (“Jackie”) Cochran. Cochran had learned to fly in the early 1930s, and in 1938 repeated Thaden’s feat of winning the coveted Bendix Trophy. Cochran excelled in piloting high speed, high performance racing planes and was an outspoken advocate encouraging women to enter the field of aviation. During World War II Cochran lobbied US Army Air Force General Hap Arnold to create a women’s flying corps, and in 1943 became director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), which allowed female pilots to fly military aircraft in auxiliary roles such as ferry flights and training missions.
With the creation of an independent United States Air Force following the war, Cochran joined the Air Force Reserve and ultimately achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Cochran’s ongoing association with high performance aircraft led her to become the first female pilot to achieve supersonic flight in 1952, and to become an advocate for the inclusion of women in the astronaut program at the beginning of the Space Age.
NASA did not select its first female astronaut until the late 1970s, but thanks to the trailblazing efforts of aviators like Thaden and Cochran the way to space would gradually open to talented female aviators and others. These pioneering women in aviation have served not only as exceptional aviators, but as ambassadors highlighting opportunities for women in aviation and aerospace, disciplines deeply underlain by science, technology, engineering and mathematics—often abbreviated as STEM.
Today, scientists like Emily Lakdawalla continue this important work, inspiring the public in general and young people in particular with the allure and majesty of spaceflight. Lakdawalla, a former middle school science teacher turned planetary geologist, completed her master’s degree researching radar imagery collected from Venus, and has investigated Martian volcanoes using data obtained from spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet. Lakdawalla currently works with The Planetary Society, the world’s largest public-supported space advocacy group, disseminating information gathered from across the solar system and promoting ongoing public involvement in space exploration.
This fall, the Hiller Aviation Museum will welcome Emily Lakdawalla as its featured speaker at the 2014 Benefit Gala, “Unlimited Horizons”, to be held on October 18th. The Gala’s theme this year celebrates women in STEM and aviation fields and supports the Museum’s outreach and education programs.
The Hiller Aviation Museum actively promotes STEM education as a core mission, using aviation and aerospace to encourage all people, and youth in particular, to see science and math as a stairway to the skies. The Museum also preserves part of the history of past pathfinders, exhibiting the 1929 Travel Air flown by Louise Thaden on her record-setting endurance flight.
Throughout its collection, the Hiller Aviation Museum highlights the contributions of a range of remarkable women to the advancement of flight. Come see exhibits commemorating many of these women, or attend the Museum’s fall Gala to lend your support to its ongoing mission.
http://www.historynet.com/americas-first-women-aviators.htm, Downloaded 5 Aug 2014
http://www.planetary.org/about/staff/emily-lakdawalla-extended-bio.html , Downloaded 5 Aug 2014
The Sky’s the Limit. Wendy Boase, 1979
United States Women in Aviation 1919-1929. Kathleen Brooks-Pazmany, 1991.
United States Women in Aviation 1929-1939. Claudia M. Oakes, 1991.