Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey
Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey


THE FLIGHTDECK • February 2021

The female aviation pioneers you’ve never heard of

We’ve all heard of Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Yet, despite enormous (and at the time scandalously unladylike) achievements, many of her fellow female pioneers have evaded the recognition they deserve. Just in time for International Women’s Day (8 March), we present six such women, historic and current, who made aviation history

Raymonde de Laroche (1882 -1919)

Raymonde de Laroche (1882-1919)

Who was she? The first woman to earn a pilots licence
Daughter of a plumber, Elise Raymonde Deroche was born in Paris and was a stage actress, adopting the name Raymonde de Laroche. Interested in cars and aircraft, she decided to add ‘pilot’ to her résumé when she asked Charles Voisin, who built his own airplanes, to teach her. She was an enthusiastic and fast learner, and, on 8 March 1910, she was awarded the 36th licence issued by l’Aeroclub de France, becoming the first woman in the world to hold a pilot’s licence. She went on to win prizes at international airshows and even had the title of ‘Baroness’ bestowed upon her for her achievements, but a fatal crash cut her pilot career short.

Harriet Quimby (1875–1912)

Harriet Quimby (1875-1912)

Who was she? The first woman to get a US pilot’s licence
Born in Michigan and raised in the more free-thinking California, Harriet Quimby moved to New York to pursue a career as a journalist and photographer. She was a daredevil who, after racing cars and interviewing several male aviators for her column in Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, persuaded her editor to pay for her flying lessons. In a strange parallel to Madame Laroche, on 1 August 1911, Quimby earned licence number 37, issued by the Aero Club of the United States. One day after the sinking of the Titanic, 16 April 1912, Quimby became the first woman to fly across the English Channel.

Bessie Coleman (1892 – 1926)

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)

Who was she? The first black woman to hold a pilots licence
Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, as one of 13 siblings to a Native American/African-American father, who eventually left her mother, an African-American maid, to raise her family alone. Despite many challenges, she made it to university, but dropped out to move to Chicago to work as a manicurist. She became interested in aviation through the stories told by her brothers, who served in the army during WWI, but could not get lessons locally. Instead, she taught herself French and moved to France to earn her pilot’s licence, also taking up parachuting. Coleman specialised in stunt flying and earned a living through exhibition flying and performing aerial tricks.

Phoebe Omlie (1902 – 1975)

Phoebe Omlie (1902-1975)

Who was she? The first woman to receive an airplane mechanics licence
Omlie became fascinated with all things aviation-related in her teens, and not only became the first licensed female air transport pilot, but also made a women’s world record parachute jump in 1922. She and her husband, also a pilot, established a regional airport near Memphis, where she went on to get her airplane mechanic’s licence. In 1928 she became the first woman to fly across the Rocky Mountains in a light aircraft and set an altitude record for women by soaring to 25,400ft a year later. Many more records followed, not to mention that she also co-authored the 1937 Aviation Act.

Anny Divya (1987 -)

Anny Divya (1987-)

Who is she? The youngest woman in the world to pilot a Boeing 777
Born in the Punjab, Divya enrolled in a flying school in Uttar Pradesh after finishing school and qualified at 19 years of age. She pursued a career with Air India and, after training around the globe, she first got to fly the Boeing 777 at the tender age of 21. She took over as a fully qualified commander at 30, making her the youngest woman ever at the helm of this mighty commercial jet, and, ever since, has encouraged young women to pursue their dreams, however impossible they may seem.

Sara Britton

Sara Britton (1977-)

Who is she? The first ever female trainer on the British Airways Boeing 777 fleet
With an academic scholarship from Oxford University already under her belt, Sara Britton was sponsored by British Airways on the Cadet Programme in 1999, soon becoming First Officer on the Airbus fleet followed by a six year stint with the mighty Boeing 777. Sara became British Airways’ first ever female Training Copilot (examining those undertaking their simulator training) for the Boeing 777. And it was only one short year ago that she began her journey to becoming the second only female Airbus Training Captain – this time, examining pilots on the aircraft during service. Despite a busy career in the skies, Sara has raised two sons and takes on mentoring jobs to help inspire the next generation of female pilots.

This article has been tagged Adventure, Culture