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Celebrating aviation’s women pioneers

by Charlotte Branson BALPA Media Officer

Happy International Women’s Day! Today invites women and men to celebrate women the world over, highlight difficulties still faced and encourage discussion around gender-related topics.

We see many inspirational women celebrated today: political activists, artists, writers, and everyday women who have moved the world in some way or another. So, we thought, why not take this opportunity to celebrate just some of the great achievements by women in aviation.

Amelia Earhart

Arguably the most famous of all female aviators, perhaps somewhat owing to her mysterious disappearance, Amelia Earhart’s accomplishments in her flying career are known the world over. After her father treated her to a 10-minute flight, she fell in love with flying and following this worked hard to save the $1,000 needed for lessons. Amelia bought a second-hand Kinner Airster biplane, and on 22nd October 1922, flew the Airster to an altitude of 14,000 feet (4,300 m), setting a world record for a female pilot.

As her celebrity status grew, she went on to publish books, work as an associate editor at Cosmopolitan magazine and create a clothing line. In 1931, she set yet another world record of flying 18,415ft in a Pitcairn PCA-2 autogyro. In 1932, a 34-year-old Amelia Earhart set out on her first solo transatlantic flight and successfully landed in Ireland after 14 hours and 56 minutes. Despite her many achievements in aviation and supporting other women in the industry, she has perhaps become most famous for her final and ill-fated flight. In 1937, after a first failed attempt earlier in the year her last voice transmission was received on Howard Island in the Pacific Ocean. While there have been many theories as to what happened, the aircraft nor Amelia or her co-pilot were ever found.

Amy Johnson

After being supported and encouraged by her father to follow her passion for aviation, Amy Johnson achieved worldwide recognition after becoming the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. However, during her time she achieved many other records and feats, including becoming the first pilot to fly from London to Moscow in one day along with co-pilot Jack Humphreys. She also set other long-distance records such as setting a record time for flying from Britain to Japan, Britain to South Africa and Britain to India.

In 1940, during the Second World War, Amy joined the Air Transport Auxiliary to ferry new, repaired and damaged military aircraft between factories, assembly plants, and transatlantic delivery points. It was the following year while completing a ferry flight that Amy went off course during poor weather conditions and ended up ditching in the Thames Estuary, where despite attempts to save her, she died. As well as her many honours during her lifetime, she has also achieved many posthumously. Most recently, easyJet’s campaign to introduce more women into aviation has been named the ‘Amy Johnson Initiative’.

Yvonne Pope Sintes

In an earlier blog post, we wrote about Yvonne Pope Sintes, the first British female jet airline captain. Revealing some of her struggles in her early career in her published book, Trailblazer in Flight: Britain’s First Female Jet Airline Captain, she tells of how until the 1960s, women wanting an airline career were destined to be air stewardesses. This is exactly how Yvonne began her career; after being turned down by the RAF, who said they wouldn’t train women pilots, she became a stewardess in the hope that the pilots would teach her how to fly. And indeed, one captain, who had been an instructor during the war, offered to help. Once she had attended to passengers he would tutor her.

Despite all the odds, Yvonne joined Morton Air Services in 1965 but faced criticism from her colleagues – from both men and women. Other women viewed her with suspicion and as she recalls, made comments that the cockpit wasn’t a place for women, while one of her fellow pilots threatened to resign on announcement of her employment. In the face of early objections, Yvonne’s aviation career went from strength to strength, and she went on to become a captain with Dan-Air in 1972. Now in her eighties, she still recalls her flying days with a real passion.

Royal Brunei’s first all-female crew lands in Saudi Arabia

While a first for Royal Brunei, an all-female crew is unusual but not unheard of. However, what made this flight in March 2016 special was that the plane landed in Saudi Arabia – a country where women are still prohibited from driving. Amazing, that these women can skilfully and capably land a B787, yet would be unable to drive a car out of the airport (although not technically illegal, driving is forbidden by conservative religious rules). Stories such as this capture the disparity of women’s rights across the world.

Modern day aviation

What the above stories demonstrate is that women have been pioneering in aviation almost since its inception – yet this leads us to question why only 6% of pilots in 2017 are female. We’re not quite sure why – as we know for sure that capabilities for flying are not determined by gender, age, race, financial background – or anything else other than aptitude. All that matters – or should ever matter – when it comes to aviation is skill.