All throughout March, Airlines for America has been recognizing women trailblazers in aviation in celebration of Women’s History Month. These women took to the skies when few people – men and women – were able to, making their aerial accomplishments all the more significant. Their paths were forged through tackling numerous challenges, including discrimination, and while they may not have intended to become pioneers in their fields, their accomplishments warrant our recognition and applause. Below are just a few figures among countless of individuals who contributed to the deep history of women in aviation.
Born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, Bessie Coleman was the first African American and Native American woman to receive her pilot’s license. She became interested in aviation after her brother teased her that French women were allowed to fly airplanes while she could not. Coleman was spurred by this and applied to flight schools across the country but was rejected based on her race and gender. Undeterred, Coleman attended flight school in France and received her international pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale in 1921. Upon her return to the U.S., Coleman was lauded as “a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race” by The Associated Press. She began barnstorming in 1922 and amassed renown for her participation in air shows, during which she showcased arial maneuvers such as figure eights and loop-the-loops. Coleman was committed to combating racial discrimination and refused to participate in events that barred African Americans. She also served as an advocate, encouraging Blacks and women to learn how to fly. While she sought to open her own flight school, she passed away in 1926 before she was able to realize her dream after falling out of her airplane.
Cornelia Fort was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1919 and became known for being the first U.S. pilot to encounter Japanese planes en route to attack Pearl Harbor when she was conducting a civilian training flight midair. Fort’s father had prohibited her brothers from becoming pilots, but she defied her family’s expectations and learned to fly after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, establishing her as the second woman in Tennessee to receive a commercial pilots license and the first woman to earn her instructor’s license. Fort went on to become a flight instructor in Colorado and Hawaii, where she was hired to teach defense workers, soldiers and sailors how to fly before World War II. Upon the start of the war, Fort was the second woman to join the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (the predecessor to the Women Airforce Service Pilots), and ferried planes from factories to military air bases. Fort and other women faced intense discrimination from male pilots. She found the best solution was to be to let her skills speak for her, saying, “any girl who has flown at all grows used to the prejudice of most men pilots who will trot out any number of reasons why women can’t possibly be good pilots…The only way to show the disbelievers, the snickering hanger pilots is to show them.” Fort was the first of 38 WASP pilots to die in the line of duty after a midair collision in 1943. At the time of her passing, Fort had logged more than 1,100 flight hours.
Hazel Ying Lee was born in 1912 in Portland, Oregon and became the first Chinese American woman to earn a pilot’s license and the first to fly for the U.S. military. She became interested in aviation after attending an air show with a friend, joined the Chinese Flying Club of Portland and received flight lessons from aviator Al Greenwood. Lee obtained her pilot’s license in 1932 and “enjoyed the danger and doing something that was new to Chinese girls,” according to her sister Frances. Prior to World War II, Lee went to China to serve as a military pilot, only to be denied by the Chinese Air Force, which did not accept women pilots. In 1942, she joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), where she was only one of two Chinese Americans and became known among her colleagues for her leadership and fearlessness. Despite encountering anti-Asian discrimination, Lee remained proud of her heritage and taught other WASPs about her culture and inscribed her classmates’ nicknames in Chinese on their airplanes with lipstick. Lee piloted numerous aircrafts, including the Boeing-Stearman PT-17, and was one of 30 women qualified to fly high-powered, single-engine fighter aircraft, such as the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. During her career, she had only two forced landings, and was a member of a team that delivered over 5,000 fighter planes to Great Falls, Montana, which was a part of the war supply chain to provide Russian allies with planes. Lee died in service after her plane collided with another plane in 1944.