LADY AVIATORS: In History and Popular Fiction
A presentation to the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, Hunt Valley, MD, 9-24-11
|When men began to fly, first in balloons and then with powered aircraft, their feminine counterparts were in the air with them. Often they were neither expected nor welcomed, but the ladies persevered and earned their place in the sky. And their airborne conquests were replicated in American popular culture by fictional heroines in hardback series and comic books.|
The French can claim much of the early successes of women in flight. Elizabeth Thible of Lyons, France was the first woman in the sky, as a passenger in a balloon a mile high in June 1784. Two other French women were the first to solo in balloons, Jeanne Labrosse in 1798 and Marie Madeleine Blanchard in 1805. The latter tragically became the first women to die of an airborne accident,falling from her balloon in 1819 during a fireworks display.
With the Wright Brothers' triumphant flight at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903, the world’s air enthusiasts’ attention turned to America. But women in Europe continued to maintain their foothold in the sky. In 1910 Baroness Raymonde de Laroche of France became the first woman to obtain a pilot’s license.
The year before that, in 1909, Bobbs-Merrill published one of the first fiction books with a female pilot. This book, Virginia of the Air Lanes was written by Iowa science-fiction author (John) Herbert Quick (1861-1925) and it told of the exploits of "Virginia Suarez" who piloted both a dirigible as well as a helicopter. Quick and Suarez were ahead of their time since the helicopter was not practical (i.e. able to stay aloft for more than 5 minutes) until the 1920s.
The first two aviation book series featuring girls debuted in 1911. One was written by Margaret Burnham (possibly a pseudonym) and entitled Girl Aviators; published by Hurst and Company, it would eventually total four volumes, ending in 1912. The two female pilots, good friends Peggy and Jess, had to share the action, and their airplane, “The Golden Butterfly” with their brothers, Roy and Jimsy (respectively).
But these fictional heroines faced almost none of the dangers that their airborne sisters confronted in the real world (much of it generated by resentful men) including prejudice, discrimination, and even deadly sabotage. [The reasoning was simple. The male pilots made their living giving thrills to crowds of onlookers. How difficult could it be if women could do it too!]
But the women aviators would not be denied their place in the wild blue yonder and they persevered, sometimes with deserved publicity, but more often ignored. Both the newspapers and flight magazines were controlled by males, few of whom were willing to give any credit to the gals. The Aircraft Year Book of 1919 did not mention even one woman flier. By doing so, this publication disregarded the dozens of licensed women pilots, several of whom had significant accomplishments.
One of the hundreds of spectators who saw their horrific deaths was Ruth Law, a student at Burgess Flying School. Undeterred, she went on to become a licensed pilot and broke several records, including a 1916 speed run from Chicago to NYC which eclipsed all prior speed records by men or women.
The Stinson sisters, Katherine and Marjorie, were not only pilots and barn-stormers, they ran their own flying school in San Antonio, TX with their family. Both of them were appointed by the U.S. Post Office as airmail pilots prior to 1919. Yet the Aircraft Year Book failed to mention Quimby, Law, the Stinson sisters, or any other female aviators.
Despite the tremendous progress of women in the field of aviation in the 1920s, almost no fictional books were published to inspire young girls’ flight dreams in that decade.
*PARACHUTE: Although designs go back to the Renaissance (one by DaVinci) the modern parachute began in the 1700s in France (“para” (to defend) “chute” (fall) But parachutes were neither reliable nor widespread until the 1920s after the invention of the ripcord. Although personnel parachuting in large scale military operations had good safety records, emergency bailouts by pilots of distressed planes fared badly. In studies of 2,500 such incidents from 1943-45, it was determined that 58 % resulted in serious injury or death. *
Hollywood’s first woman stunt pilot, Florence "Pancho" Barnes did many of the exciting scenes in 1929’s classic film, Hell's Angels. That same year, the organization of women pilots, the Ninety-Nines, was formed with Earhart as president. They took their name from the fact that 99 of the 126 American female pilots were charter members of the group.
But women were not even safe from harassment and sabotage in the highly publicized 1929 Women’s Air Derby, dubbed "the Powder Puff Derby" by Will Rogers. In this race, Marvel Crosson was killed when her engine died at an altitude too low for her parachute to open. Sabotage was suspected since two other contestants in that race were also affected. Thea Rasche found sand in her gas tank and a third competitor was forced out of the event after the brace wires of her aircraft had been corroded with acid.
But the air successes of women was noted by U.S. advertising firms and their photos began to appear in national periodicals, praising a host of products. Here’s a typical one of Amelia Earhart in 1928.
The year 1930 opened the floodgates of girls’ aviation books, both as series and individual volumes. Airplane Girl (four in the series) was first published in 1930 and was written by Edith Janice Craine, under the masculine pseudonym of Harrison Bardwell. Mildred Wirt, the ghost writer for the early Nancy Drews, authored a five book series of a girl flyer, Ruth Darrow, from 1930 to 1931.
But women continued to match the flight accomplishments of men. In 1930 Amy Johnson became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. That same year, Anne Morrow Lindbergh earned a glider pilot's license, the first woman to do so. Then in 1932 Earhart replicated Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic.
Commercial airlines refused to hire women as pilots and viewed them only as potential stewardesses. Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s foremost ace in World War I, strenuously opposed employing women in any flight capacity, including "air hostesses."
Perhaps this animosity toward women in cockpits spilled over into girls' juvenile fiction where two gradual changes took place. One, the fictional heroines were demoted from pilots to stewardesses. Secondly, based upon the success of Nancy Drew and her sister sleuths, it was not enough for the flying gal to have a great adventure, she also had to solve a mystery. Even Vicki Barr, who debuted after World War II, had to start her first volume as a stewardess although as the series progressed she became a licensed pilot, flying a variety of aircraft.
However no mystery in this fiction could approach the great mystery (still unsolved) of Amelia Earhart’s July 1937 disappearance while trying to find a speck of land called Howland Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean during the last leg of her around-the-world flight.
While the lady aviators got their fair share in the field of adventure series books, they were short-changed by the comic book industry, which of course was market driven by their clientele: teenaged boys. So amidst the hundreds of different comic book and newspaper strips, less than five featured a woman at the aircraft controls.
The next woman in the comics to fly a plane was hardly your standard pilot since she flew a totally invisible air plane.
As the 30s turned into the 40s, the opposition to women pilots by the establishment, both civilian and military, did not diminish. The adventure novel, Peggy Wayne, Sky Girl, written by Betty Baxter Anderson and published in 1941 accurately reflected the attitude of the aircraft industry in that era. Peggy graduates from nursing school and is hired as a flight "hostess" by a fictional airline, "Skylines, Inc." By the middle of the book, she has completed pilot training, logged sufficient hours, and obtained her pilot's license. When she asks to be upgraded to a pilot’s job with the firm, her supervisor indicates he’ll forward her "outlandish request." In the last chapter of this book, the airline agrees to grant her pilot status, but she will only fly cargo planes, not passenger aircraft.
Not even the tremendous need for military pilots in World War II could speed up the advancement of lady aviators. While women did eventually get to fly military planes, it was only under the most convoluted arrangement which kept them permanently in a "second-class" status.
On 9-5-42 the Air Transport Command of the Army Air Force, still lacking sufficient pilots for its ferry operations, sent telegrams to 83 women pilots inviting them to join a new organization called the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Division. Qualifications: HS grads, age 21-35, 500 hours of flight time.
Sidebar: At that time male pilots only had to have 3 years of high school and 200 hours of flight time. The lady applicants were directed to report at their own expense to New Castle Airport, Wilmington, DE where an experienced aviator, Nancy Love, was the Division Leader. (The first ten recruits also had to stay in a hotel at their own expense as there were no women’s barracks at that base.) Two weeks later, newsreel photographers arrived and took movie film of the new aviators. Life Magazine promptly named Nancy Love as one of the six American women with the most beautiful legs.
I've only found one book of fiction about these women ferry pilots and it had little to do with historical reality. Spark Ames and Mary Mason of the Ferry Command written by Roy Snell and published by Whitman Company in 1943. Snell was apparently given a short paragraph about the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and told to write a 248-page novel about it.
The author pairs Mary with a male pilot, Sparky Ames, and they fly around the world, over South America, across the Atlantic, Africa, and finally deliver their cargo to our allies in China. They are beset by spies and saboteurs on their worldwide flight, and at one point, in a borrowed Flying Tiger are in an air battle with three Japanese Zeroes over Burma, and, of course, they win.
This all-female organization, renamed the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) which was grudgingly created by the War Department, was unceremoniously disbanded in 1944, and then its official files sealed for 35 years. During its brief but glorious period, 1,074 women in WASP ferried planes around North America, towed targets for gunnery practice, served as flight instructors, and performed a myriad of U.S. Army Air Force non-combat duties. But all of them were classified “civilians” so they had to pay for their own training, as well as their room and board at military bases, and they were unjustly denied any military veteran’s benefits until 1977, long after many of them were deceased.
Not even the WASP organization was completely devoid of prejudice in hiring women flyers. While its officials were willing to hire a few Asian women (including a Chinese-American, Hazel Ying Lee) all African Americans were refused employment, including "a Negro aviatrix" Janet Harmon. Cockran later justified that not accepting Harmon was based upon the reality that ferry pilots could not always find overnight accommodations on bases and few hotels or rooming houses would take in African-American lodgers in that era.
One WASP was apparently killed by a male pilot’s vanity. Seven WASPs were flying BT-13’s from Long Beach to Dallas and at a refueling stop in Texas, a male flyer began flirting with Cornelia Fort. When her group took off, he followed in his AT-6, and began buzzing her plane. He dove too close and one of his wheels tore off her wing tip, sending Cornelia’s plane into a fatal spin. She was too low to parachute and died in the crash. (Fort was actually the first WASP to die.)
Whatever the cause, the lady "civilians" had a government death benefit of only $200 so their sister pilots had to take up a collection each time one was killed so the body could be returned to her family. If a WASP could be spared, one would accompany the body back to her hometown. Not until 2002 were members of the WASP finally awarded the right to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Today their courage and dedication is commemorated in the National WASP World War II Museum, located in Sweetwater, Texas near Avenger Field, where most of them underwent their training. As of this date, there are approximately 200 WASP still alive.
You can read more about them at their web site: waspmuseum.org
FOOTNOTE: Women warriors are still in the sky. As recently as the 10th anniversary of 9-11 tragedy, it was revealed that two pilots, one man and one woman, had taken off in F-16 fighters that fateful day under orders to bring down the remaining hijacked plane, United Flight # 93. Lt. Heather Penney and Col. Mark Sasseyville were the first two planes instructed to intercept and bring down that civilian plane, even though neither F-16 had live ammunition or missiles. In the air, they agreed Sasseyville would hit the cockpit and Penney would smash the tail.
"Essentially, we would be Kamikaze pilots," Penney said ten years later. But the two USAF flyers did not die because a group of passengers (including women) took matters into their own hands over the skies of Pennsylvania, and ended the hijackers’ attempt to crash in the Nation’s capital.
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