In May 1932 Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. This feat, along with her mysterious disappearance over the Pacific Ocean in 1937, made her one of the most famous names in aviation history. But there are other, less well known, pioneering female aviators who also led colourful, dangerous, and often short lives.
10) Sophie Blanchard
Nationality – French
Sophie and her husband, Jean-Pierre, were early pioneers of hot air ballooning in the days when it was still a novel enough pursuit to draw huge crowds. In 1809 their partnership ending in dramatic fashion when Jean-Pierre suffered a heart attack and plummeted from the balloon to his death.
Undeterred, Sophie continued to fly and even came to the attention of Napoleon who asked her to draft plans for a possible aerial invasion of England, an idea which she finally concluded to be unworkable.
Said to be a timid character with her feet on solid ground, Sophie became utterly fearless once in the air. She often slept in her balloon, and even used it to launch fireworks for the entertainment of the crowds below. Unfortunately, lighting fireworks whilst suspended in the air by a bag of highly combustible gas proved to be every bit as dangerous as it sounds. Sophie died aged forty-one when her balloon caught fire during a display.
9) Blanche Stuart Scott
Nationality – American
In August of 1910, Blanche Stuart Scott became the first woman to pilot an aircraft in the US, a feat which she quite possibly accomplished by accident. Her aircraft had been fitted with a limiter intended to enable her to practice taxiing without reaching the speed required for take-off. A gust of wind caught the craft and she soared to a height of forty feet before landing safely.
She went on to become a skilled pilot, famed for performing ‘death dives’ whereby she would hurtle towards the ground from high altitudes only to pull up at the last moment.
Despite her love of stunt flying she retired in 1916 citing her dislike of the public?s ghoulish fascination with the crashes which so often accompanied early air shows.
8) Aida de Acosta
Nationality – American
Nine months before the Wright brothers made history with their famous flight, Aida de Acosta was making history of her own. Aged just nineteen she became the first woman to pilot a dirigible, a type of lighter-than-air aircraft. The dirigible flew at around fifteen miles an hour and had seating only for the pilot. ?The owner of the craft, Santos-Dumont, cycled along beneath her shouting up instructions.
When asked how she had enjoyed her record breaking flight her response was that it had been ‘very nice.’ Her parents were appalled believing that no respectable young man would show a romantic interest in a woman who had done such an outrageous thing.
Aida seems not to have maintained an interest in flying, having lost the sight in one eye, and went on to help establish the Wilmer Ophthalmological Institute at John Hopkins University
7) Florence ‘Pancho’ Barnes
Nationality – American
Born into a life of relative privilege, Florence Barnes was possessed of an adventurous spirit that a life of domestic drudgery couldn?t satisfy. In 1927, shortly after inheriting a large sum of money following the death of her mother, Pancho left her husband and travelled to Mexico where she adopted the nickname ‘Pancho’ which she would use for the rest of her life.
On her return to America, Pancho turned her thoughts to the sky. She made her first solo flight after only six hours of instruction. In 1929 she took part in a transcontinental air race from Santa Monica to Cleveland. Her race ended in Texas where she collided with a truck on the runway, a result of the less than stringent safety procedures of the times.
Pancho went on to become a top stunt pilot and appeared in several Hollywood films. In 1935 she purchased a ranch in Southern California which she converted into a club for fliers named ‘The Happy Bottom Riding Club.’
6) Bessie Coleman
Nationality ? American
Unable to obtain a place in any American flight schools due to her African heritage, Bessie Coleman travelled to France where she earned her pilot?s license in 1922. In doing so she became the first qualified black female pilot anywhere in the world.
Returning to the United States she became a popular stunt flyer, even landing a part in a movie before walking away due to the stereotypical nature of the role. She was killed in April 1926 when she was thrown from an aircraft piloted by a mechanic whilst planning stunts for her next show. Around ten-thousand mourners turned out to pay their respects at Bessie?s funeral in Chicago.
5) Sabiha G?k?en
Nationality ? Turkish
An adopted child of Mustafa Kemal Atat?rk, Turkey?s first President, Sabiha is better known to history as the world?s first female combat pilot. She learnt to fly at Turk Kusu, a civilian aviation school, and continued her training in Russia. In 1936 she flew combat missions during the Dersim rebellion. She continued to take to the skies until 1964 by which time she had logged more than eight-thousand hours of flying time.
Her name is still remembered in Turkey where she has an international airport named after her.
4) Lidiya Vladimirovna Litvyak –The White Rose of Stalingrad
Nationality ? Russian
When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Lidiya Vladimirovna Litvyak was already an excellent pilot. Unlike other major combatants, the Soviet Union regularly used women in combat roles, and Lidiya volunteered to use her skills in defense of her nation, in spite of the fact that her father had been killed during Stalin?s purges of 1937.
Despite her ‘White Rose’ nickname, she actually flew with a white lily painted on the side of her aircraft. She first saw combat in the skies above Stalingrad and within a month she had shot down five Luftwaffe aircraft to become the first ever female fighter ace.
Lidya was just a few days shy of her twenty-third birthday when she failed to return from a mission. She was officially classified as ‘missing in action’ until her remains were discovered in 1979. With twelve recorded kills (although the true total may have been much higher), she remains the highest scoring female fighter ace in history.
3) Melitta Schiller
Nationality – German
Melitta was one of only thirty-nine women awarded the Iron Cross by Germany during the course of the Second World War, an achievement made all the more astonishing when we learn that Melitta was Jewish.
Not just a first rate pilot, Melitta also qualified as an engineer and it would be these skills which kept her, and her family, out of the concentration camps. Her work as a test pilot made her important to the Nazi war effort, and she assisted in the development of the infamous JU87 Stuka Dive Bomber.
We don?t know what Melitta may have thought about National Socialism, but given her background she is unlikely to have been an enthusiastic adherent. In 1944 she was arrested when her brother-in-law Claus Von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Her importance to the war effort saw her set free, only to be shot down by American P-51 Mustangs while piloting a trainer aircraft in April 1945. She died of her injuries a short time afterwards.
2) Hanna Reitsch
Nationality – German
Another German pilot who, had she not been tainted by an infatuation with National Socialism, may have gone down in history as one of the finest fliers of all time.
Like many of the great pilots of her time, Hanna started her career flying gliders. Over the course of her life she set more than forty records in both powered and unpowered craft, some of which still stand today.
Her exceptional abilities led to her recruitment in 1937 as a test pilot, a position which allowed her to fly numerous experimental aircraft. She was one of the few pilots with the requisite skill to fly the Focke-Achgelis Fa 61, the world?s first fully controllable helicopter. She also flew M262 jets, a V1 rocket adapted with a cockpit, and the ludicrously dangerous rocket powered Me-163 Komet.
With Germany losing the war, Hanna pitched the idea of creating suicide squadrons to slow the Allied advance. The plan failed to gain traction, possibly because Hitler didn?t believe it would be an efficient use of resources.
In 1945 Hanna piloted a light aircraft into the encircled city of Berlin and spent two days in the Fuhrerbunker where she begged to be allowed to end her life alongside Hitler. Hitler refused and ordered her to leave the city, which she managed to do under a hail of fire.
She survived the war and continued to fly until her death in 1979.
1) Jacqueline Cochran
Nationality – American
Born in 1910, Jacqueline lived the early years of her life in grinding poverty. As a child she toiled for up to twelve hours a day in a Georgia cotton mill. Aged eight years old, and with her paycheck in hand, she bought the first pair of shoes she had ever owned. In 1914 she landed a job in a beauty salon, the first step in a journey which would see her become a successful business woman owning her own cosmetics company.
In 1932 she became fascinated in aviation and enrolled in a flight school. She proved to be a natural behind the controls of an aircraft, but worried that her lack of education would count against her in the written test she persuaded the examiners to let her take it orally. Jackie earned her pilot’s license in just three weeks.
Flying became her obsession and she may have set as many as two-hundred records in the course of her remarkable career; a record un-matched by any other pilot, male or female.
In the early stages of the Second World War she became the first female pilot to fly a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean as part of the ‘Wings for Britain’ program. In 1953 she became the first woman to break the speed of sound, and in 1964 she bettered even that by flying at more than twice the speed of sound.
She passed away in 1980 at her home in California.