Competition in a man’s sport: top six women in early US flight

“There is no reason why the aeroplane should not open up a fruitful occupation for women. I see no reason they cannot realize handsome incomes by carrying passengers between adjacent towns, from parcel delivery, taking photographs or conducting schools of flying. Any of these things it is now possible to do.”

–Harriet Quimby, 1912

The challenge of this article is to identify the six most significant women and their contributions to the art of flying as a sport and as a science in the early years. These women pilots were built of courage, conviction, passion and vision.

Women not only contributed to aviation, but changed the style of dress to fit the physical demands of flying. Victorian style dresses, cut just above the ankle, were transformed into pants, jumpsuits and manly attire, unheard of in the early 1900s. These were women test pilots of the rarest kind in the early years as they would break altitude and distance records on every flight. With this desire and passion they continued to set records until the present day.

Aviation License Test (1910)

The tests required for obtaining a pilot’s license are as follows: The applicant for a license must be at least 18 years of age and must pass three tests, namely, two distance tests, consisting of covering without touching the ground a close circuit not less than 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) in length, the course to be indicated by two posts not more than 500 meters (about 1640 feet) from each other, and the aviator to change his/her direction at each post, so as to make an uninterrupted series of figure eights. An applicant is required to make an altitude flight to a minimum of 50 meters (about 164 feet) above the starting point. She/He is also required, as a further test in landing, to stop his motor not later than the time when the machine touches the ground and to stop his aeroplane at a distance of 165 feet from the start point designated before the flight.

Blanche Stuart Scott – The Tomboy of the Air

Blanche Stuart Scott

Blanche Stuart Scott set records driving cars and flying airplanes.

Blanche Stuart Scott was raised in an upper-income family in Rochester, New York, and made headlines as the first auto saleswoman. At 24 she was contracted by a major automaker (Willys-Overland Motor Company) to drive across America in a publicity stunt. Accompanied by a female reporter, Scott drove 5,393 miles from New York to California (of which only 220 miles were on paved roads), making 177 stops all along the way at Willys-Overland dealerships. The trip was a great success. Blanche collected $5,000 (about $123,000 in 2014 dollars) plus an additional $1,000 for extending the drive from San Francisco to Tijuana, Mexico.

On September 2, 1910, Scott–without permission or knowledge of Glenn Curtiss, the airplane’s owner and builder–removed a small wood wedge and was able to get the airplane airborne (without any flying lessons), thus becoming the first American woman to pilot an airplane solo. Billed as the “Tomboy of the Air,” she was earning $5,000 a week. On October 23, 1910, Scott became the first woman to make a solo, public airplane flight, reaching an altitude of 12 feet at a park in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She never applied for a pilot’s license, nor did she apply for a driver’s license.

She flew with Chuck Yeager in 1948 and became the first woman to fly in a jet (TF-80). Later, Blanche went on to become special consultant to the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, raising funds and awareness. She died in 1970 at a Rochester hospital at the age of 79.

Harriet Quimby

Harriet Quimby

Harriet Quimby was the first woman to fly across the English Channel.

When Harriet Quimby moved from Michigan to San Francisco, California, in the early 1900s, she became a journalist. She moved to New York City in 1903 to work as a theater critic for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly and more than 250 of her articles were published over a nine-year period. She was a truly modern woman of the times.

Just after the first running of the Indianapolis 500 (won at 74.59 mph!) on August 1, 1911, Quimby took her pilot’s test and became the first U.S. woman to earn an Aero Club of America aviator’s certificate. On April 16, 1912, Quimby took off from Dover, England, to become the first woman to pilot an aircraft across the English Channel. Her accomplishment received little press attention, however, as the sinking of the RMS Titanic the day before consumed the interest of the public and filled newspapers.

On July 1, 1912, Quimby flew in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet for the fee of $100,000 US dollars (over $2.4 million today). William Willard, the organizer of the event, was a passenger in her brand-new two-seat Bleriot monoplane. At an altitude of 1,500 feet, the aircraft unexpectedly pitched forward for reasons still unknown. Both Willard and Quimby were killed.

Matilde Moisant

Matilde Moisant

Matilde Moisant gave up flying after a serious crash in 1912.

Matilde Moisant learned to fly at the Moisant School of Aviation on Long Island, New York, and became the second woman pilot certified by the Aero Club of America. Her total flight time was 32 minutes between July 13 and August 13, 1911, setting a world record for her license. She then pursued a career in exhibition flying with Ms. Quimby with the Moisant International Aviators, touring the US, Mexico, El Salvador and Cuba. She was the first woman to fly in Mexico and also set a woman’s altitude record over Mexico City in early 1912.

In September 1911, she flew in the air show at Nassau Boulevard airfield in Garden City, New York, and, while competing against Hélène Dutrieu, Moisant broke the women’s altitude world record and won the Rodman-Wanamaker trophy by flying to 1,200 feet.

Moisant’s last flight was on April 14, 1912, (the same day that the Titanic sank) in Wichita Falls, Texas. Avoiding the crowd of spectators on the field, she nosed the airplane over before her propeller splinted on impact and ignited the gas tank in flames. She survived the crash, but never flew again. That made five months of travel with three serious accidents. Her aviation career lasted less than a year. Matilde was reported to earn $5,000 for 30 minutes of flying at her peak earnings.

Katherine Stinson – The Flying Schoolgirl

Katherine Stinson

Katherine Stinson was the first woman to perform a loop.

Katherine Stinson was the fourth woman in the United States to obtain a pilot’s certificate, which she earned on July 24, 1912, at the age of 21 while residing in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Initially, she planned to get her certificate and use money she earned from exhibition flying to pay for her music lessons in Europe. However, she found she liked flying so much that she gave up her piano career and decided to become an aviatrix.

After she received her certificate, Stinson and her family moved to San Antonio, Texas, an area with an ideal climate for flying. She was a stunt flier, and the loop-the-loop stunt was considered particularly dangerous. In a plane she had built herself, she became the first woman and fourth pilot in the United States to master it, on July 18, 1915, at Cicero Field in Chicago. She went on to perform this feat some 500 times without a single accident.

Stinson also became the first woman to fly in the Orient. Fan clubs developed all over Japan to honor the “Air Queen.” In 1917 she set a long-distance record of 610 miles by flying alone from San Diego to San Francisco, over the mountains of Southern California. She broke her own flying record while carrying air mail with a 783-mile flight from Chicago to New York.

After the war, Katherine went back to flying air mail, but she came down with tuberculosis in 1920. After a long recovery, she married a former World War I pilot.

Ruth Law

Ruth Law

Ruth Law may have been the first female professional pilot.

Ruth Law, born on May 21, 1887, was a very competitive individual, likely to try anything just because someone told her she couldn’t do it. Just such a dare was responsible for her being the second woman to perform a loop in 1915.

Law enrolled in the Burgess Flying School in June 1912, made her first flight on July 5, and soloed on August 12. She was possibly the first woman to make her living in the profession of pilot. Ruth was reported to have earned annually $50,000, a tremendous sum at the time. After the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Law campaigned unsuccessfully for women to be allowed to fly military aircraft. Stung by her rejection, she wrote an article entitled “Let Women Fly!” where she argued that success in aviation should prove a woman’s fitness for work in that field.

During World War I, she wore a regulation army aviation uniform and was billed as “Uncle Sam’s only woman aviator ” as she promoted the war effort by dropping Liberty Loan “bombs” from her plane. By early 1918, the Army Aviation Service had more volunteers than its training equipment could handle.

Marjorie Stinson

Marjorie Stinson

Marjorie Stinson learned to fly, like her sister.

On August 12, 1914, Marjorie Stinson became the ninth American woman licensed to fly, following her sister Katherine, the fourth to gain her license. With her mother’s permission, at the age of 18 she enrolled in the Wright School at Dayton, soloing on August 4. Flying was the life blood of the whole family. The Stinsons moved to San Antonio, Texas, and opened a flying school with their brother as chief mechanic and mother as business manager.

Marjorie’s strict teaching style earned her the nickname “The Flying Schoolmarm.” In 1915, she became the only woman in the U.S. Aviation Reserve Corps, and the only woman to whom a pilot’s license had been granted by the Army and Navy Committee of Aeronautics. In 1918, the US Postmaster General approved the appointment of Marjorie Stinson as the first female air mail pilot.

Each of these women blazed a trail for future aviators, most of them overcoming long odds. And remember: women couldn’t vote until 1920.

9 Comments

  1. Lawrence says:

    Fascinating article. Perhaps you can follow this up with an article about female astronauts and military pilots such as Sally Ride and Jackie Parker.
    Then too there are possible stories about female Russian pilots in WW2.

    • Walt Wick says:

      Thank you for reading – I have a good friend that is writing on the Russian pilots of WW2 currently. My are is pre WW1 and I am focusing on very early pilots.
      Thank you again Walt Wick

  2. William "Pete" Hodges says:

    Very good article. Is the Stinson family the same people that built the Stinson acrobatic biplane? I see the whole family was involved.

    • Anonymous says:

      Yes, Eddie Stinson was a younger brother to Katherine and Marjorie.

    • Walt Wick says:

      Pete – The most dedicated family of early aviation – started in Texas and he finished in Detroit (Northville, MI) where his plant started.
      Great History.
      Thanks for reading
      Walt Wick

  3. Frank casucci says:

    Great article! I like the idea of continuing the article to include women in all fields of aviation to include jet flight military and space flight

    • Walt Wick says:

      Thanks for reading and supporting my writing – my next article takes in most of the women prior to WW1. Very few women were allowed to fly during WW1 except for the mail routes.
      Keep on reading and enjoying aviation History.
      Walt Wick

  4. John Tenny says:

    These wonderful women were all American. Were there not women in other countries that flew early on?

    My sister learned to fly a plane before she learned to drive a car – in 1943. She served 14 years in the Navy. By the end of WWII women were allowed to transport planes from one place to another, but not in a combat zone. She never got to fly a military plane, only private. She passed away in 2013 at age 90.

    • Walt Wick says:

      John yes there were. Mostly in Europe, my next article includes them as well as the US Women Pilots. Keep reading and enjoy the aviation history of early flight.
      Thanks Walt Wick

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