Did you know…?

The Department of Defense did not allow women to fly in combat until 1993. United States Navy Lt. Kimberly Dyson became the first American woman to fly a combat mission for the U.S. a year later in 1994.

Women in aviation and their contributions to the industry were heavily ignored for many years. However, many of those contributions are being acknowledged today for the impact they had on the aviation industry.

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The Top 5 Most Significant American Women In Aviation & Their Impact On The Industry

Despite numerous setbacks, the following 5 women have earned their place in aviation history:

1. Olive Ann Beech (1903-1993)

Olive Ann Mellor (Beech) co-founded Beech Aircraft Company with her husband Walter in 1932. She also played a pivotal role in its growth into a leading aircraft manufacturer.

From an early age, Mellor defied gender norms, opening a bank account at 7 years old and, eventually, managing her family’s finances. Her financial experience led to an aviation career in 1925 as a bookkeeper and secretary at Travel Air in Wichita, Kansas.

Quickly learning all business operations, she became Walter Beech’s secretary as the company grew. The couple later married in 1930 and started Beech Aircraft Company a few years later with Mrs. Beech as secretary-treasurer.

When Walter first became ill in 1940, Olive took over, guiding the company through World War II as it grew from a few hundred to 14,000 employees building military aircraft. After Walter died in 1950, she became president, tripling sales during her 20-year tenure and supplying aircraft to NASA for major space programs.

Olive Beech merged Beechcraft with Raytheon in 1980 before retiring in 1982. Her leadership has earned her numerous accolades including the 1936 Bendix Trophy and induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. She is also the first woman to win the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy and was recognized as one of America’s most distinguished women by the New York Times in 1943.

2. Amelia Earhart (1897-1937)

Amelia Earhart is an American aviation pioneer whose daring exploits and mysterious disappearance in 1937 make her one of the most recognized aviators in history.

After serving as a nurse’s aide in World War I, she took her first aircraft ride in 1920 and quickly became obsessed with flying. She earned her pilot’s license in 1923 and gained international fame as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean as a passenger. In 1932, she made history again by becoming the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic.

Over the next few years, Earhart continued setting aviation records on dangerous long-distance flights. One of those flights includes the first solo flight from Hawaii to California in 1935. However, the 39-year-old Earhart disappeared on July 2, 1937, over the Pacific Ocean during an attempted round-the-world flight.

Earhart holds the American Distinguished Flying Cross and the Cross of the French Legion of Honor awards. She is also known for co-founding the Ninety-Nines in 1929, an organization of female aviators.

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3. Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)

One of a few significant international women in aviation, Bessie Coleman became the first woman of color to earn a pilot’s license in the United States. She was an African American and self-identified Native American born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. Not able to attend flight schools in the U.S. due to discrimination, she went to France to receive training – earning her international pilot’s license in 1921.

She began building her reputation in the United States, earning herself nicknames like “Brave Bessie” and “Queen Bess.” She staged her first public flight in America on Labor Day, September 3, 1922, performing aerial tricks for audiences. She was also an advocate for women and African Americans to pursue aviation. Coleman spent her time touring and giving flight exhibitions and lessons, refusing to appear at segregated venues. Coleman’s dream was to start her own flight school.

In 1926, the 34-year-old died in an aircraft crash when a wrench became stuck in the engine during a test flight. As a result, she fell from the open cockpit. Though her life was cut short, Coleman left a legacy as a leading woman in aviation. She was even honored on a U.S. postage stamp in 1995 with many aviation groups named after her. In 2023, the U.S. Mint featured Coleman in a commemorative quarter celebrating her achievements.

4. Jacqueline Cochran (1906-1980)

Born in 1910 in Florida, Jacqueline Cochran set numerous speed, distance, and altitude records throughout her career. In 1953, she became the first woman to break the sound barrier by flying a Canadian Air Force F-86 Sabre Mk.

She started working at a young age before establishing herself as an entrepreneur with her own cosmetics company in the 1930s. However, her true passion was aviation. After earning her pilot’s license in 1932, she began advanced instruction at the Ryan School of Aeronautics to build up her flight time.

In the 1960s, she set new altitude and speed marks, flying over Mach 2 at 58 years old in a USAF Lockheed F-104G Starfighter. She was decorated for her World War II service and leadership in aviation organizations like the Ninety-Nines. At the time of her death in 1980, she held more flight records than any other pilot, male or female.

Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP)

During World War II, Jacqueline Cochran played a critical role in merging the Women’s Flying Training Detachment and Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron in 1943. Together, these 2 groups founded the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program to train civilian female pilots to fly military aircraft. As WASP’s Director, she led over 1,000 WASPs who ferried planes and carried out other essential flight duties.

5. Jerrie Mock (1925-2014)

In 1964, Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock became the first woman to complete a solo flight around the world. Flying a Cessna 180, she landed in Columbus, Ohio 29 days later on April 17th after a 23,103-mile journey. Her aircraft, nicknamed “Charlie,” is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

A 38-year-old suburban mother of 3 children, Mock became inspired to fly after her husband jokingly suggested it. After filing her plans for a global solo trip, she departed on March 19, 1964. However, she would soon face several challenges like bad weather, armed soldiers at a particular stop, and having to navigate international airspace red tape.

Her famous flight gained international media attention, including at the Dhahran Airport in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. She recalls a man shouting to make it known that no male was accompanying her on her travels – certainly a shock to the surrounding crowd in 1964.

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