As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s pay tribute to the great women who blazed the trails so the rest of us could fly.
Aida de Acosta Root Breckinridge (1884 – 1962) was the first woman to fly a powered aircraft solo, piloting a dirigible airship in 1903, when she was 19 years old and after just three lessons. Her horrified parents hushed up her achievement for fear that no man would want to marry a woman who had done such a thing — the story came out when Aida recounted it to her husband decades later.
Raymonde de Laroche (1882 – 1919) was the first woman to earn a pilot’s licence; and possibly the first woman to fly a plane. She was issued license #36 by the Fédération Aéronotique Internationale in 1910, beginning her career in aviation. On July 18, 1919, she was killed in a crash of an experimental aircraft on which she was a co-pilot.
Lilian Bland (1878 – 1971), an Anglo-Irish journalist and aviator, may have been the first woman in the world to design, build and fly an aircraft. Born in England, Lilian was a sports and photojournalist whose interest in aircraft was sparked by a postcard an uncle had sent her. Inspired by the Wright brothers, she built the Bland Mayfly in 1910, the first powered biplane in Ireland.
Mary Bailey (1890 – 1960), was a born daredevil who came from an aristocratic family; she was speeding in cars and motorbikes at a time when it wasn’t common to see women behind the wheel. During World War I, she volunteered as an aviation mechanic with the Royal Air Corps, and earned her own pilot’s licence in 1927. She quickly set about making records: Mary became the first woman to fly across the Irish Sea, and she also set an altitude record in light aircraft the same year she got her licence. Throughout her flying career, she won many trophies, and also became the first female pilot to be certified for “blind flying” (flying using instruments alone).
Florence Lowe “Pancho” Barnes (1901 – 1975) was a pioneer aviator and a founder of the first movie stunt pilots’ union. She also broke Amelia Earhart’s speed record at the Women’s Air Derby in 1930.
Mildred Mary Petre (also known as Mrs. Victor Bruce, 1895 – 1990) was the first woman to fly around the world alone, taking off from London in September 1930 and arriving there again in February 1931. To accomplish this feat, she piloted a Gipsy Moth called Bluebird eastward through Europe, using ships to cross oceans before flying again across Asia, North America and then back to Europe. She also holds the distinction of being the first woman to be prosecuted for speeding, picking up many citations in her first car, an Enfield-Allday, in the 1920s.
Jacqueline Cochran (1906 – 1980) was the first woman to break the sound barrier, which she did in a jet aircraft on 18 May, 1953, at age 47. She was also the head of the US Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), leading about a thousand civilian pilots who served in non-combat roles — testing aircraft, ferrying planes, and training other pilots. As one of the most prominent racing pilots of her generation, she broke many records and set many firsts: she was the first female bomber pilot to fly across the North Atlantic in 1941; the first woman to land and take off from an aircraft carrier, and later to fly a jet aircraft on a transatlantic flight; the first female pilot to land using instruments alone; the only woman ever to be president of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (1958–1961); the first woman to fly a fixed-wing jet aircraft across the Atlantic; the first pilot to fly above 20,000 feet with an oxygen mask; and the first woman to enter the Bendix Transcontinental Race. She still holds more distance and speed records than any pilot living or dead, male or female.
Eileen Marie Collins (born 1956) was the first female pilot and first female commander of a Space Shuttle, logging 38 days, 8 hours, 20 minutes in outer space. Eileen was selected as an astronaut in 1990, and first piloted the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1995. She commanded the STS-114 NASA mission to resupply the International Space Station in 2005 — during which she also became the first astronaut to fly the Space Shuttle through a complete 360-degree pitch maneauver.
Jessica Cox (born 1983) is the world’s first licensed pilot who was born without arms, due to a rare birth defect. Earning her licence in 2008, the half-Filipino pilot uses her legs at the controls. She is also a disability rights advocate and motivational speaker who has traveled to the Philippines on humanitarian missions (notably to raise funds for Guiuan, Samar, in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda).
Brooke Castillo (born 1970) is the Philippines’ first female commercial jet captain. Before she earned the rank, she was already the country’s first female commercial jet pilot, earning the distinction in 1996. After joining Cebu Pacific, she became the first woman to captain a commercial jet in 2003.
This article first appeared in the March 2020 issue of Smile magazine.