History of American Women’s Aviation Feats – The Early Years

by Bonnie L. Johnson

This article will be the first of four articles to introduce the reader to the women’s aviation feats. This first article will be about their early years. The follow-on articles will be about the 1929 The Powder Puff, the role of women in World War II, the Mercury 13, and the Air Race Classic.

When discussing women in American aviation, two names quickly come to mind – Amelia Earhart and Jackie Cochran. However, there are more American women in aviation than these two very famous women. This series of articles will introduce more women aviators (aviatrixes), through their love of flying.

With the successful flights of Wilbur and Orville Wright on December 17, 1903 the world of aviation opened. Within seven years the first woman to fly an airplane was Blanche Stuart Scott on September 2, 1910. She flew the Curtiss “Pusher” airplane after several hours of flight instruction from Glenn Curtiss by removing the throttle block that Curtiss had installed on his Curtiss “Pusher”. She was the only woman to receive flight instruction from Curtiss because he did not believe women should fly. He did not want Scott to fly on her own (solo), but she was determined to fly solo. Scott became known as a daredevil pilot. By defying Curtiss and taking his airplane up, she felt she was proving women could do anything men could do. As part of Curtiss’s flying team, Scott became the first woman to fly in front of the general public at a demonstration in Fort Wayne, Indiana on October 23, 1910. Little did Curtiss realize that Scott was hooked on flying and would continue with it as her career.

Mineola Field, located on Long Island, New York, was the site for many women to earn their wings in aviation. Harriet Quimby became the first American licensed woman pilot on August 1, 1911 only because Scott, who had listened to Curtiss’s opinion about licensing, had not applied for her license. In those early years many men did not apply for an aviation license, they simply flew their airplanes. The thrill and love of flying captured Quimby, as it did the early women of aviation, who had the same motivations as the men.

In the beginning of powered aviation, fame came easily by setting firsts. Scott was the first woman to make a flight in public. Quimby was the first woman to make a night flight and to fly solo across the English Channel. Another Mineola graduate, Matilde Moisant was the first woman to make an altitude record of 2500 feet. Julia Clark had the unfortunate distinction of being the first woman pilot to die, while piloting an airplane on June 17, 1912. She was the third woman to receive her pilot’s license on May 19, 1912 and less than a month later her flight ended in tragedy.

The Stinson sisters, Katherine and Marjorie, were pioneering entrepreneur women of aviation. Katherine has been credited with the following quote, “Fear, as I understand it, is simply due to lack of confidence or lack of knowledge – which is the same thing.” This was probably the most common feature of early pilots, lack of fear. The Stinson sisters not only learned to fly, but they also created their own airplane company, The Stinson Aviation Company, in 1913.

Ruth Law, another aviation entrepreneur with license dated November 12, 1912, started Ruth Law Flying Circus, and soon would be the first woman to perform a loop and other stunts before the paying public.

Bess Coleman had two barriers to overcome to be an aviator, being a woman and being an African-American. Coleman triumphed over both barriers by going to France to receive flight instruction, because no one in her Chicago area would instruct her. She wanted the world to know that being a black person did not limit one’s capabilities and wanted the world to see a black woman could fly as easily as any of her white counterparts. On June 15, 1921 Coleman became the first African-American to receive an international pilot’s license. After receiving her license, Coleman supported herself by giving aerial demonstrations. Unfortunately, because of her race, “colored” only spectators viewed most of her performances. It was during one of these performances on April 30, 1926 that Coleman died as a result of an aviation accident, but Coleman’s influence on young African-American pilots is still visible today, with aviation clubs in America named after her.

These early women pioneers of aviation overcame many obstacles to experience flight. An experience that many grew to love and to become as accomplished as their male counterparts.