9 Famous Female Aviators

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Fabulous flying women

Photo: Alan C. Heison/Shutterstock

Several years ago, the worlds of aviation and space exploration lost a legend when the first American woman to fly in space, Sally Ride (pictured), succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 61. Ever since Ride went into orbit aboard the Challenger in 1983, the trailblazing astronaut has inspired countless number of young women to take flight and follow their dreams by pursuing careers in aviation and astronautics.

Interestingly enough, just days before Ride’s death, veteran pilot Liu Yang, 33, became the first Chinese woman to enter space while aboard spacecraft Shenzhou 9 on a 13-day mission.

In honor of Ride and Yang, we've rounded up nine other pioneering aviators and astronauts, contemporary and historic, who have shattered flight records and stereotypes — and in some cases, the sound barrier — and changed the course of history in the process.

We've come a long way since 19-year-old Aida de Acosta, much to the chagrin of her horrified parents, hopped into a dirigible in Paris and became the first woman to fly solo in a powered aircraft in 1903.

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Baroness Raymonde de Laroche

Photo: Library of Congress [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

Although she may have disappointed her parents by not going into the family trade of toilet de-clogging, this Paris-born daughter of a plumber went on to change history in 1910 as the first woman to receive a pilot's license. Under the tutelage of aviation expert Charles Voisin, the feisty actress-turned-aviatrix took to the sky numerous times and, despite her decidedly plebian lineage, earned herself the title of baroness in the process.

De Laroche, also an accomplished balloonist and engineer, cheated death on more than one occasion. In 1910, de Laroche's aircraft crashed at an air show in Reims, France, and she suffered injuries so severe that she was grounded for two years. In 1912, she was once again injured in a car crash that claimed the life of her mentor, Voisin. After serving as a military chauffeur during World War I, de Laroche was reunited with her true love: aviation.

In 1919, while attempting to become the first professional female test pilot, de Laroche's experimental aircraft crashed during approach at an airfield in the seaside village of Le Crotoy. De Laroche, 36, and her co-pilot were both killed on impact. There is a statue erected in her honor at Paris's Le Bourget Airport, and Women of Aviation Worldwide Week falls on the date, March 8, that de Laroche earned her wings.

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Amelia Earhart

Wikimedia Commons.

This pioneering female aviator's claim to fame is well-known: in May 1932, the Kansas-born record-breaker became the first woman to fly solo, nonstop, across the Atlantic Ocean. Only one person, Charles Lindbergh, had previously accomplished that feat. In 1937, she disappeared at the age of 39 under mysterious circumstances in the central Pacific while making a round-the-world trip.

In addition to her famous transatlantic flight, Earhart became the first woman to fly solo, nonstop, across the United States from Los Angeles to Newark in 1932. Earhart was the first pilot, male or female, to fly solo from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland (1935). Additionally, she was the first person to fly solo between Los Angeles and Mexico City and between Mexico City and Newark (also in 1935). Before taking control in the cockpit during her famous long-haul solo flights in 1932, Earhart was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean as a passenger (1928).

A prolific author and essayist, Earhart served as an editor of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1928 to 1930. An accomplished seamstress, Earhart designed and endorsed her own fashion line sold at Macy's. She is believed to be the first celebrity to do so.

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Jacqueline Cochran

Wikimedia Commons.

Where to begin when describing the numerous aviation feats of this one-time Saks Fifth Avenue beautician born as Bessie Lee Pittman in 1906 in Muscogee, Florida? A trophy-collecting contemporary of Amelia Earhart often referred to the "Speed Queen," Jacqueline Cochran held more distance, altitude and speed records than any other pilot, male or female, at the time of her death in 1980.

To start, Cochran was the only woman to compete in the 1937 Bendix race (she won the race the following year), the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic (1941), the first female pilot to break the sound barrier (1953), the first woman to land and take off from an aircraft carrier, the first female president of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (1958-1961) and the first pilot to fly above 20,000 feet without an oxygen mask.

She was also the first aviatrix to also run a Marilyn Monroe-endorsed cosmetics company (her line was aptly dubbed "Wings") and the first female pilot to run for Congress (a close friend of Dwight Eisenhower, she was the Republication nominee for California's 29th Congressional District in 1956, losing in the generation election to the country's first Asian-American congressman, Democrat Dalip Singh Saund). Phew. And get this: Cochran, a bona fide celebrity, successful businesswoman and an instrumental figure in recruiting and training women to fly noncombat aircraft during World War II, received her pilot's license after only three weeks of instruction.

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Bessie Coleman

Photo: National Air and Space Museum/Wikipedia

In June 1921, Bessie Coleman became the first African-American and Native-American woman to earn a pilot's license. Born in rural Texas, Coleman moved to Chicago in her 20s where she worked as a manicurist and became enamored of her brothers' tales of World War I. Wanting to pursue a career as a pilot, her race and her gender kept her out of flight schools in the U.S., reports the Smithsonian, so she made her way to France where she could enroll in an aviation academy.

When she returned to Chicago, Coleman had difficulty finding working so she made a career as a stunt pilot, performing daredevil tricks for multicultural crowds. Her awe-inspiring aerial acrobatics earned her the nickname "Queen Bessie." She died at age 34, 10 minutes into a practice run, when the biplane piloted by her mechanic went into a nosedive. Coleman wasn't wearing her seat belt and was thrown from the plane.

Although Coleman was never able to open the aviation school she dreamed of, many clubs and tributes continue in her honor.

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Willa Brown

Wikimedia Commons.

Following in the footsteps of Coleman,Willa Brown was the first African American woman to earn both a pilot’s license (1938) and a commercial license (1939) — no trip to France required.

A former schoolteacher and social worker with a degree in education from Indiana State University, Brown went on to establish the Coffey School of Aeronautics at Chicago’s Harlem Airport alongside her flight instructor-turned-husband, Cornelius Coffey. This institution would later become the first government-approved aviation training school for African Americans. The duo, along with newspaper editor Enoch P. Walters, formed the National Airmen Association of America, an organization with the aim of integrating black pilots into the U.S. military.

Brown's tireless fight for racial equality on the ground and in the sky eventually proved successful when the Coffey School was selected by the Civil Aeronautics Administration as one of several black aviation programs allowed to offer the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) to its pupils. In 1942, Brown became the first black female member of the Civil Air Patrol. Later, the Coffey School, with the U.S. Army's stamp of approval, began to send pupils to the pilot training program at the Tuskegee Army Air Field (Sharpe Field) in Macon County, Ala.

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Emily Howell Warner

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In this day and age, squeezing yourself into your seat on a commercial passenger flight and hearing a female voice announce that "This is your captain speaking" over the PA system is a pleasant surprise. Out of the 53,000 members of the Air Line Pilots Association, a mere 5 percent are female, while only about 450 women worldwide serve as airline captains according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots.

Less than 40 years ago, this was even more of a rarity. In 1976, at 36 years old, Denver-based pilot Emily Howell Warner became the first female to command a major American passenger flight when Frontier Airlines made the bold move of placing her in the captain's seat of a de Havilland Twin Otter. Previously, Warner served as a first officer for Frontier, a position that the former flight school instructor and single mom secured after several years of aggressively vying for the job.

When Frontier eventually did hire Warner as a pilot in 1973, she had all but given up hope, having watched many of her male students from the Clinton Aviation Academy graduate and easily secure jobs with commercial airlines. After earning her captain's wings with Frontier, Warner went on to fly a Boeing 737 for the United Postal Service and later became an examiner for the FAA. In 1974, she became the first female member of the Air Line Pilots Association and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2001. Her Frontier pilot’s uniform is proudly on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

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Beverly Burns

Wikimedia Commons.

On July 18, 1984, during a transcontinental People Express (a short-lived budget airline that merged with Continental in 1987) flight from Newark to Los Angeles, Baltimore-born Beverly Burns went down in history as the first female pilot to command a Boeing 747. This game-changing feat that garnered Burns the Amelia Earhart Award the following year.

In addition to her duties as captain, Burns, an erstwhile American Airlines flight attendant, also served as a baggage handler, gate agent, dispatcher and avionics trainer while with People Express. By the time she retired in 2008, Burns had logged a total 25,000 hours of flight time and had piloted not only the Boeing 747, but also the Boeing 757, Boeing 767, Boeing 777 and a variety of McDonnell-Douglas commercial aircraft.

The reason she became a commercial airline captain in the first place? Burns recounts, during her flight attendant days, a first officer explaining to the crew why there were no female pilots of commercial aircraft: "He said, 'Women are just not smart enough to do this job.' I knew as soon as the words came out of his mouth — "women cannot be pilots" — that I wanted to be an airline captain immediately," Burns told the Baltimore Sun in 2002.

Over the years, Burns has received numerous honors and accolades in both Maryland and New Jersey. In fact, Feb. 6 was designated as Beverly Burns Day in Baltimore by former Mayor Martin O'Malley back in 2002.

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Eileen Collins

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The child of Irish immigrants, Elmira, New York-born Eileen Collins ruled as the queen of Kennedy Space Center from the early 1990s through her retirement in 2006. During this time, the former military flight instructor and math wiz became the first female astronaut to serve as pilot of the Space Shuttle during STS-63, the 1995 rendezvous between the shuttle Discovery and Russian space station Mir (another female, the late Janice E. Voss, joined Collins on board as a mission specialist during the 2,992,806-mile mission).

Four years later, after a second visit to Mir as pilot of Atlantis during 1997’s STS-84, Collins graduated to become the first ever female commander of a shuttle mission during STS-93. Collins went on to command one other shuttle mission, 2005’s STS-114. When she retired three years later, Collins had logged a total of 872 hours in space during her four flights. To date, she has amassed an impressive collection of medals, awards and honorary doctorates and is an inductee in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Collins shared a few words of wisdom in a NASA profile released prior to STS-114: “We’re a nation of explorers. We are the kind of people who want to go out and learn new things, and I would say take risks, but take calculated risks that are studied and understood.” According to Collin’s NASA profile, in addition to commanding and piloting spacecraft, she enjoys slightly less risky activities such as golf and reading.

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Peggy Whitson

Photo: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

NASA astronaut Peggy A. Whitson, Ph.D., holds several records: At 57 years old, she's the world's oldest spacewoman, and in 2008 she became the first female commander of the International Space Station (ISS). She made her eighth space walk on March 30, 2017 — the most for any woman — and beat the current record for women with 53 hours and 22 minutes of total spacewalking time, the Washington Post reports.

Her more recent accomplishments are drawing even more attention. The Iowa native is currently a flight engineer on Expedition 50/51, which launched on Nov. 17, 2016, and is her third long-duration mission to ISS, according to NASA. On April 24, 2017, she broke the record for the most cumulative time in space (534 days) by an American astronaut, which was previously held by Jeff Williams.

By the time she returns to Earth in September, Whitson will have spent 666 days in floating above the planet. She hopes she won't hold the title for long.

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More top-notch flying women

Wikimedia Commons.

Because nine is such a restrictive number, we've rounded up 10 other game-changing female aviators and astronauts. And be sure to check out Women In Aviation International's comprehensive list of the 100 Most Influential Women in the Aviation and Aerospace Industry to see even more female pilots.

Harriet Quimby (pictured) – First female to earn a pilot's license in the U.S. (1911)

Jean Batten – First pilot to fly solo from England to New Zealand (1936)

Adrienne Bolland – First woman to fly over the Andes Mountains (1921)

Helene Dutrieu – Pioneering Belgian aviatrix; first woman to pilot a seaplane (1912)

Amy Johnson – First woman to fly solo from England to Australia (1930)

Opal Kunz – First president of The Ninety-Nines, the International Organization of Women Pilots (1929)

Nancy Harkness Love – Commander of Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (1942)

Geraldine Mock – First woman to fly solo around the world (1964)

Jeanette Picard – First licensed female balloon pilot in U.S.; first American woman to enter the stratosphere (1934)

Valentina Tereshkova – First woman to fly in space (1963)