Disclaimer: When we knew we wanted to write a post about female pilots, we invited our followers on Facebook and on Instagram to submit some ideas for people they’d like us to cover. We received so many great suggestions and came across so many amazing stories, we couldn’t possibly cover them all in a single article. Look for this to be the first in what will probably become an ongoing series of articles.
Great Female Pilots
While female aviators have been making their mark from the very beginning, too few people can name any great female aviators beyond Amelia Earhart. And while Earhart is great, to be sure, there are generations of lady pilots who are every bit as interesting. Here’s a sampling of some aviatrixes you probably didn’t read about in your history class.
One of 13 children born to sharecropper parents, Bessie Coleman was so determined to become an aviator that she taught herself French so that she could move to France for pilot’s lessons when schools in the United States denied her entrance.
Upon earning her pilot’s license in 1922 (after only seven months of instruction), Coleman became the first black woman and first woman of Native American descent in the entire world to achieve the accolade. Specializing in stunt flying and parachuting, Coleman returned to the U.S. and made her living doing what she loved. Though she had a desire to start a flying school specifically for African Americans, she unfortunately never got the chance. Coleman died in 1926 as the result of an accident during a rehearsal for an air show.
Her legacy as a pioneer lives on as she is enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame, the Nation Women’s Hall of Fame and has schools, libraries and more bearing her name.
A retired U.S. Air Force officer, Nicole Malachowski recalls attending an air show with her parents at the age of 5. While experiencing the awesomeness of an F-4 Phantom II, as a preschooler she made a declaration that day that would prove prophetic: “I want to be a fighter pilot.”
Malachowski would indeed go on to become a fighter pilot, earning her pilot’s license before her driver’s license at the age of 16, attending the Air Force Academy and eventually commanding a F-15E Strike Eagle fighter squadron, among many other impressive accolades.
And while women have served the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds in maintenance and support roles since the 1970s, it wasn’t until Malachowski piloted the squadron’s Number 3 plane in the 2006 and 2007 show season that we had our first female Thunderbird pilot.
Born Florence Lowe, Pancho Barnes was an American stunt pilot and businesswoman. She began using the nickname “Pancho” after some months spent in Mexico disguised as a man.
The granddaughter of Thaddeus SC Lowe, the founder of the Army of the Potomac’s balloon corps, it may be that her interest in aeronautics was genetic. In any case, Barnes first tried flying in 1928. She completed her first solo flight after only 6 hours of instruction.
She would go on to earn a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot, flying in Howard Hugh’s film Hell’s Angelsbefore flying in other films and creating a company that specialized in providing stunt pilots to movie studios. She was a rival of Amelia Earhart’s, breaking Earhart’s women’s air speed record in 1930.
Barnes was one of the foremost figures in aviation of the 20thCentury. Married multiple times, at her wedding to her fourth husband in 1952, legend has it that Chuck Yeager served as best man while General Albert Boyd gave her away.
Tammie Jo Shults
Though she recently made headlines for saving the lives of 149 passengers aboard a commercial flight, Southwest Airlines pilot Tammie Jo Shults had already made history, long before any of us even knew her name.
A retired fighter pilot, Shults was among the first females to fly the U.S. Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet. During Operation Desert Storm, Shults served as an instructor aggressor pilot for male naval aviators who were to be deployed – the combat exclusion policy at the time precluded her from seeing combat.
Her exceptional training came in handy on April 17, 2018. When a broken window on the plane caused it to decompress (resulting in the ultimate death of one passenger), Shults was remarkably cool under pressure and employed quick thinking to land the crippled plane in Philadelphia, saving the rest of her passengers.
Harriet Quimby was an American pilot, screenwriter, journalist and an actress. After becoming the first woman in the U.S. to earn her pilot’s license, she also became the first woman to fly across the English Channel (that accomplishment in 1912 received underwhelming media coverage because it coincided with the sinking of the Titanic).
It is easy to imagine a scenario where Quimby would have gone on to receive many more accolades. Alas, in July of 1912, while flying with one other aboard, she met her untimely demise at only 37 years old. After circling Boston Light in Boston Harbor in her new Bleriot monoplane, Quimby began her descent. For reasons unknown, the plane pitched forward suddenly while at an altitude of approximately 1,000 feet. Both Quimby and her passenger were ejected, falling to their deaths.
However, Quimby’s legacy lives on. Enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame and Long Island Air and Space Hall of Fame, her likeness has been replicated on a U.S. airmail postage stamp and multiple monuments in her home state of Michigan.
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, there is really no way we could do justice to all of the amazing female pilots of the past and present with a single article. Hopefully these brief snapshots have inspired you to do some more research on the history of women in aviation.
Have a recommendation of another female pilot (or another topic in general) that you’d like to see us cover? Drop us a line on social media or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.