I wrote these articles a while ago on my then blog, and since I enjoy discovering history through biographies, here’s the first part of a series. Known, unknown, famous and less famous, it will depend on where you live and what interests you.
“Flying is everything, living is nothing.”
Amelie Beese (1886-1925)
Born in Dresden from a wealthy middle-class family, at first she studied art and architecture with the goal of becoming a sculptor. An aviation enthusiast, after seeing the exploits of her coevals she decided to change her studies. On her parents’ insistence, she switched to courses on design and flight mechanics. Despite many men being open hostile and wanting to sabotage her, Beese obtained a pilot license on her birthday in 1911: she was the first woman of German origin to obtain it. She wanted to fly, and was able to beat some records, including Helen Dutrieu’s for altitude.
Later, Beese opened a flight school with her husband, Charles Boutard, also a pilot. Unfortunately, funds for the construction of airplanes in war time were allocated to larger companies; moreover, the German law regarded the Boutards as French citizens so, as foreigners, they weren’t eligible to receive funds from the government. Her working and private life began to worsen: little is known about Beese’s last years, until suicide, in 1925.
Amy Johnson (1903-1941)
Born and raised in Hull, after a short while in Sheffield she decided to move to London: she was soon fascinated by the first aircrafts, so much to spend a lot of time on the aerodrome. Having obtained her pilot license in 1929, she began to plan a trip to Australia. The following year Johnson departed from Croydon to Darwin, with very basic information on weather and maps. She was the first woman to fly alone from Great Britain to Australia. She then set record times from London to Tokyo, Moscow, Cape Town and the United States.
In the 1940s Johnson focused on other activities, including fashion, working with designer Elsa Schiaparelli. After joining a RAF support organization, she lost her life during a mission, although it’s not clear how.
You can see a replica of the Gipsy Moth, the biplane with which Johnson traveled to Australia, at the Yorkshire Air Museum.
Helen Richey (1909–1947)
Passionate about aviation and determined to become a pilot, she began to take flight lessons in 1929 and got a license one year later. At first Richey worked in exhibitions but she soon decided to make her passion a job, so she obtained the license to fly commercial aircrafts. In spite of this, she continued to work in shows and to compete.
Richey applied for a co-pilot position at Central Airlines (then United Airlines) and became the first woman to be hired by a commercial airline. She managed to make frequent flights, but soon met men’s hostility and some opposition from the Department of Commerce, which allowed her to fly only a few times per month.
During the war, she served as flight instructor, as well as as a pilot for the English Air Transport Auxiliary.
Unfortunately, at the end of the war, jobs were entrusted to men and Richey, probably frustrated and depressed, withdrew and commited suicide in 1947.
Sophie Blanchard (1778-1819)
It is said she was shy and reserved, was easily frightened by loud noises and carriages: nevertheless, she fell in love with flying at the first experience.
Her husband, an inventor and fan of hot-air balloons, convinced Blanchard to try few ascensions together, hoping that the presence of a woman could attract investors. After some ascensions with him, Blanchard made one alone in 1805, becoming the first woman to pilot a balloon.
Blanchard continued to work after the death of her husband, drawing Napoleon’s attention first and Louis XVIII’s then, who both set up offices for her in their government. Meanwhile, she made several trips in Europe.
During her last flight, just after lighting some fireworks, the balloon got fire and then hit the roof of a house, kicking her into the street.
Raymonde de Laroche (1882-1919)
A multi-faceted artist, she began to fly after meeting Charles Voisin: after a year she got the license, the first time ever for a woman. Soon de Laroche started to participate in numerous air shows in Europe and Africa and was given the title of Baroness by the press, an idea reinforced by Tsar Nicola II, who addresses her with this title. At the outbreak of war, she planned to fly planes in battle, but was not allowed, though she was still able to do her part on the ground. Blanchard decided to become a test pilot, setting several altitude records, but, during a test with a new plane, she was killed after a malfunction.
If you go to Le Bourget airport in Paris, you can see her statue.
“Don’t you think that it would be good psychology to have women up in the air? How is a man going to say he is afraid to fly when a woman is working on the plane?”
Blanche Scott (1884-1970)
She showed a keen interest in automobiles as a child, and was able to drive one at a very young age. Thanks to this passion, she set some records after driving coast to coast from New York to San Francisco in 1910: her intent was to demonstrate the ability of a woman to drive for many kilometers and cope, alone, with any mechanical problems.
Thanks to this venture she caught the attention of Jerome Fanciulli and was able to take flying lessons from pioneer Glenn Curtiss: in training, despite Curtiss had placed blocks to some commands, she managed to take off and fly at an altitude of forty feet – the dynamics of how are not clear. The real debut took place in Chicago, again in 1910, as part of Curtiss’ team, for which she performed for several years. Nonetheless, Scott considered the public’s interest in the risk of crashing annoying, as much as the lack of opportunities for women in the industry, and decided to stop flying in 1916.
She made a career in radio and as a screenwriter, and she was a collaborator with museums. In 1948 she became the first American woman to fly as a passenger on a jet, piloted by Chuck Yeager.
Božena Laglerová (1888-1941)
The youngest of seven children, she initially took singing lessons at the Prague Conservatory, but her career was cut short by problems with her vocal chords. Thanks to the support of her brother-in-law, she became passionate about aviation, deciding to become the first Czech female pilot. In 1911 she began to train with Hans Grade, becoming, in the autumn of the same year, the second woman to obtain a pilot’s license in Germany (and later the first in Austria). Frequently using the name Miss Lagler, she took on successful flights in Germany, but also in the United States, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, until nostalgia for Prague won.
At the outbreak of World War I she tried to enlist in the air force, but was rejected. After the war, while continuing to promote Czech aviation, she decided to abandon her flights and made a career as a journalist, politician and singing teacher.
Nancy Harkness Love (1914-1976)
She developed a great passion for aviation since childhood, obtaining her flight license when she was only sixteen; during her first year in college, she made extra money taking her classmates as passengers. After marriage, she and her husband created their own aviation company in Boston; she spent the years before the war participating in competitions and working as a test pilot.
After several attempts to get women involved in war, she managed, thanks to her skills and knowledge, to become the commander of the newly created Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, which, by 1943, commanded four different base squadrons in four different states. The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron soon became the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, again under the command of Love, whose guidance allowed them to achieve a long list of results, including several records and the possibility for women to pilot the latest aircrafts. Love and her colleagues struggled for years to have the importance of female pilots inside military bodies recognized: obstacles in particular concerned the selection methods, much more severe than men’s, such as age, education and total number of hours of flight.
Later, she continued to work in aviation and fought for women who served in the war to obtain war veteran status. She also received the Distinguished Service Medal, at the same time as her husband, for her successful operations during the time at the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots.
Ellen Church (1904-1965)
A nurse and a pilot, she had to find a way to get around the mentality of the 30s, which did not look favorably at a woman on board an airplane. She advocated to get nurses on board aircrafts, to be responsible for the welfare and safety of passengers, tasks that were previously carried out by co-pilots.
Boeing Air Transport, which later became United Airlines, decided to support the initiative, albeit initially for a trial period, by hiring Church and seven other women for the San Francisco-Cheyenne and Cheyenne-Chicago flights. Church became the first flight attendant to fly. The trial period was a great success and other companies decided to hire flight attendants, for a total of about three hundred places by the end of the decade.
With opportunities, selections became harsher, as many managers began to think that an affable personality, graceful movements and good looks played a fundamental role, as much as experience and training.
Following an accident just a little over a year after her first flight, Church had to abandon her career as a flight attendant: she decided to devote herself to the nursing, and served during the war.
Cresco Airport, Iowa, her hometown, was named Ellen Church Field in her honor.
Geraldine Mock (1925-2014)
After making her first flight as a child, she made aviation her passion: after university and marriage, she decided to take flying lessons and obtained a pilot’s license in 1958. The more she flew and the more she wanted to go and see the world: the National Aeronautic Association approved her journey around the world, and Mock was able to leave in 1964 before another pilot, Merriam Smith, whose goal was to fly on the same route as Amelia Earhart.
Her husband, also a pilot, and his partner helped her with enthusiasm, equipping her Cessna 180 with the best equipment for such a long journey; she lost no time and immersed herself in the study of maps, trying to understand the situation of terrain and the position of radio stations, and took care of the visas and permits necessary in the different countries.
The journey was not without problems. During the first route to Bermuda she realized that the radio was not working; in Morocco she discovered that the new brakes had not been fitted; in Algeria her clothing was questioned, considered inadequate; in Egypt she initially missed the runway due to meteorological problems. From Cairo on, the situation was quieter. After a forced stop for maintenance in Manila, the rest of the journey and the arrival in Oakland went smooth: on April 17, 1964 Mock became the first woman to fly around the world.
Mock was thus able to conquer several records: distance, type of routes and speed. In 1970 she published the story of her trip in the book “Three-Eight Charlie”. The Cessna 180, called “The Spirit of Columbus”, is visible at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum in Virginia.
Cover photo: National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Mrs. Nancy Harkness Love, 28, director of the U.S. Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron, adjusts her helmet in the cockpit of an Army plane before taking off from an eastern United States base. The women under her command will ferry planes from factories to coastal airports, from which they will be flown to overseas battle fronts.