NAHF and Boom Technologies Spotlight Six Record-Breaking Women

Jackie Cochran earned her pilots license in just three weeks. Courtesy WASP/National Aviation Hall of Fame

Boom Technologies recently asked readers if they could name the first woman to pilot an airplane faster than the speed of sound, or the first woman to win a national air race.

“As part of Women’s History Month, Boom teamed up with the National Aviation Hall of Fame (NAHF) to spotlight six barrier-breaking women and bring their stories forward. These aviators broke barriers of gender, class, race—and sound—and made an indelible contribution to aviation and the world we live in,” the Boom story said. Highlighted were Bessie Coleman, Harriet Quimby, Louise Thaden, Jackie Cochran, Patty Wagstaff and Joan Sullivan. The NAHF provided bios on each of the six, excerpted in the blog post—portions of which we have summarized for you here.

Bessie Coleman was the first civilian licensed African-American pilot and the first Native American woman pilot. Today, she’s inspiring a new generation. Bessie Coleman ignited a love of aviation in millions around the world. Born in 1892, Coleman was also known for breaking barriers outside the cockpit. Throughout her career, she would only perform at air exhibitions if the crowd was desegregated and permitted to enter through the same gates. Coleman’s ultimate goal was to establish a flying school for African Americans. Her dream became a reality when William J. Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in LA in 1929.”

“At a time when women’s roles were limited, Harriet Quimby was climbing into a cockpit as well as working as a journalist writing about the new experience of flight. Quimby became the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license—the 37th license ever issued—on August 1, 1911. Her first published account of flying included detailed instruction on how ‘ladies might wish to dress for an airborne excursion.’ It also outlined the mechanics of the aircraft, the equipment, and its quirks…On April 16, 1912, Quimby’s fame reached its zenith as she climbed into her Bleriot biplane and headed out over the white cliffs of Dover in search of a safe landing in Calais, France. Her flight across the English Channel was a resounding success.”

“Record-setting pilot Louise Thaden’s legacy includes the triple crown of aviation: altitude, speed and endurance records.” She was also the first woman to win the Women’s Air Derby (the first women-only cross-country air race) as part of the 1929 National Air Races. “Between 1929 and 1936, women were barred from entering air races,” said the blog post. Thaden said in her 1938 book High, Wide, and Frightened, “There is a decided prejudice on the part of the general public against being piloted by a woman, and as great an aversion, partially because of this, by executives of those companies whose activities require employing pilots.”

“When racing reopened to women, Thaden didn’t allow much time to pass before entering another competition. She won the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race in 1936 with co-pilot Blanche Noyes, the first time that women were allowed in the competition. Thaden and Noyes, who flew in a Beech Staggerwing C17R, were first to cross the finish line and the first women to win the race. Their victory set a new East-to-West record of 14 hours, 54 minutes. Thaden received the Harmon Trophy as the ‘outstanding woman pilot in the US’ for this accomplishment.”

“In 1932, Jackie Cochran earned her pilot’s license in just three weeks” while working as a cosmetics saleswoman. “From that moment on, breaking barriers in aviation became her life.” She was the first woman to pilot a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean, receive the Distinguished Service Medal, break the sound barrier, take off and land from an aircraft carrier, attain a flying speed of 842 mph and serve as President of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. “As a force behind—and wartime head—of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), she led more than 1,000 civilian women who ferried planes from factories to port cities. Her plan was to “free a man to fight” by ferrying aircraft, towing targets or flying in other non-combat capacities. Following the war, she received the Distinguished Service Medal for her service.”

“On May 18, 1953 Cochran became the first woman to break the sound barrier, flying an F-86 Sabre past Mach 1 at Edwards Air Force Base. On that same day, Cochran flew the same airplane— accompanied by then Maj. Charles Yeager in his chase plane—over the Edwards low-level course, setting a new speed record [of] 652.337 miles per hour, receiving one of her five Harmon Aviatrix Trophies for the effort. She went on to set a world speed record of 1,429 mph (2,300 km/h) in 1964 and no fewer than eight speed records in 1967. At the time of her death, Cochran held more speed, altitude, and distance records than anyone in the world, male or female.”

“As the first woman to win the US National Aerobatic Championships, Patty Wagstaff has pushed the limits of aerobatic flight. To those who question her abilities because she is a woman she responds, “Do you think the airplane knows or cares?” Wagstaff has earned worldwide recognition flying low-level aerobatic routines before millions of spectators.” Wagstaff won the US Nationals three times, three years in a row.

“Wagstaff flies as a stunt pilot for films and television, and she coaches other aerobatic pilots. She also provides transition training for airline and military pilots into warbirds, instructing in T-28s and T-6s. Wagstaff’s advice for aspiring girls and women in aviation? ‘Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from women who have gone before you, and find allies that will help you achieve your goals.’”

“Medical response pioneer Joan Sullivan Garrett made aviation history saving lives as founder of MedAire, the first aviation global medical emergency response company. Garrett pioneered the use of advanced aviation-safety solutions to provide critical-care medical response to people in remote locales, and was instrumental in raising standards for medical equipment required to be carried on aircraft. ‘My passion is providing medical care,’ explained Garrett. ‘When I saw a medical helicopter arrive at a trauma scene…that’s when I fell in love with aviation. Soon after, I found a need in aviation that let me live my passion.’ Insights provided by Garrett and MedAire, based on assisting in hundreds of thousands of in-flight medical events, were instrumental in the decision by the US Congress to require AEDs (automated external defibrillators) on all commercial airlines.”

Rob MarkAuthor
Rob Mark is an award-winning journalist, business jet pilot, flight instructor, and blogger.

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