You Go Girls! Celebrating Women of Aviation

IMG_3117It’s Women of Aviation Worldwide Week and it begs the question: How exactly do you define “of aviation?” People tend to focus on increasing the number of female pilots, which is definitely a worthy cause. But what about female mechanics? Engineers? Ground personnel? Stairs truck drivers?  Being involved in aviation encompasses so much more than just flying!

The Past

You may have heard of Raymonde de Laroche (first woman to receive a pilot’s license) and Amelia Earhart (first woman to fly solo non-stop across the United States) but how many female aviation pioneers can you name whose contributions were made outside the cockpit? Turns out there are bunches of them.  Here are just a few:

 Phoebe Omlie – 1st Female Airplane Mechanic

phoebe_1929Phoebe Omlie was born in Iowa in 1902 and fell in love with aviation as a teen when she saw a fly-over to commemorate a visit from President Woodrow Wilson. She went on to get her pilot’s license and performed as a stunt pilot and wing walker. All of that is really awesome but then she did something which, in my opinion, makes her even more awesome still – in 1927 she became the first female to earn an airplane mechanic’s license!

 Mary Van Scyoc – 1st Female Air Traffic Controller 

Born in Kansas in 1919, Mary went on her first airplane ride at age 16 with Clyde Cessna. (Yes, THAT Cessna!) She went on to get her pilot’s license and later a degree from Witchita University in English and Physical Education. She taught school for a year then, soon after the start of World War II, she saw an ad for Air Traffic Controlers and signed up. In 1942 she began working in Denver tower.  Later she transferred to Witchita and eventually worked in the Cheyenne tower as well. To be fair, a number of women began working in ATC around the same time. Mary is generally credited as the first so she gets the mention, however they’re all amazing. You go girls!

 E. Lillian Todd – 1st Woman to Build an Airplane

toddplane1909Ms. Todd was born in 1865 in Washington DC. As a girl she showed an affinity for mechanics and invention – interests she later attributed to her grandfather’s influence. In 1906 she designed a biplane based on the wings of an albatross, which she had been able to study at the natural history museum.  She was eventually able to build the plane with funding from a benefactor and in 1910 it flew 20 feet.  Are you kidding me with this?  I can’t even build a decent paper airplane, let alone a functioning biplane.  Ms. Todd ROCKS!

 Bessie Dempsey – 1st Female Engineer at Boeing

Bessie started out her professional career as a Vaudeville dancer in California. She went back to school and studied engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. After graduating in the top 10 percent of her class she got a job as an engineer at Boeing, where she worked for 24 years.  So wait… she got to be in a movie with the Marx Brothers (A Night at the Opera) AND she got to work at Boeing?  Wow! Talk about having it all!

1st Woman to Drive a Stairs Truck

Sadly, this pioneering soul has been lost to the annals of history. I am truly devastated.  Whoever she is, I’m sure she relished every moment behind the wheel.

The Future

IMG_3058Last year for Women of Aviation Worldwide Week I rounded up a bunch of teenage girls and dragged them off to an aviation museum. I was a bit uncertain about how the trip would go since none of the girls had expressed any interest in airplanes or aviation. As it turned out, everyone had a really great time.  Here are some things that I learned:

– Inspiration comes in all forms.

– Airplane art is way cool.

– If they can climb in it, on it, under it or around it, they will.  More than once.

IMG_3118– Simulators are AWESOME.

– Rest breaks are important.

– Girls know more than you think.

– They’re open to learning more than you think.

– They’ll notice things you didn’t notice.

– Even if they aren’t interested in becoming pilots, they are quite confident that they COULD be pilots if they want to be.

And that’s really what it is all about.  I don’t know if these girls will go on to pursue careers in aviation, but at least now they know that they can if they want to. Ultimately, the best thing we can do for aviation is to get as many people involved as possible – men and women, young and old, from every corner of the globe and in every facet of the industry. Oh – and letting me drive the stairs truck wouldn’t hurt either. 

IMG_3014