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Female Helicopter Pilots on The Rise

a woman standing next to a helicopter

Women, historically, have had to fight harder to break into male-dominated fields, and aviation is up there at the top of that list. Today, only a small percentage of pilots are female. Keep reading to learn about the trend-setters who paved the way.

German pilot Hanna Reitsch was the first female helicopter pilot and one of the few pilots to fly the Focke-Achgelis Fa 61, the first fully controllable helicopter (1938), for which she received the Military Flying Medal. Hanna Reitsch’s full history is impressive & fascinating. Here’s a link to learn more:

In 1954, after 18 days of lessons, Jean Ross Howard Phelan became the 8th American woman, and 13th worldwide, to receive her helicopter accreditation. Almost immediately, she began to contact other female helicopter pilots, and the “Whirly-Girls”, an international organization of women helicopter pilots, was formed in 1955.

a close up of a clock


Today, the “Whirly Girls” has over 2,000 members from over 44 different countries. In 1930, there were around 200 women pilots but in the next five years there were more than 700. Today that number stands in the 30-thousands…Yet, still, only 7% of certificated pilots (comprises both fixed wing & rotor craft) are women. A long way to go…but making strides.

Here’s the link to their international FaceBook page:

The timeline and history of women who’ve influenced the female-pilot movement is huge & detailed, definitely much more than this blog article has room for. But let’s examine just a few of the other women who set the standard and who continue to further the trend of the female aviator:

Female Firsts:

Who is the first female who comes to your mind? Chances are high that it’s Amelia Earhart. It’s true she became the first woman to make a solo flight in a plane across the Atlantic Ocean, and the first person ever to fly solo from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland.

And as mentioned above, there’s Whirly Girl member #1, Hanna Reitsch, the first woman in the world to fly a helicopter.

In 2009 at Fort Myers, VA, members of “Freedom Team Salute” honored retired Col. Sally D. Murphy, the Army’s first female helicopter pilot. Thousands followed her lead and now serve our country piloting helicopters in all branches of the military.

a vintage photo of a group of people posing for the camera

Col. Sally D. Murphy, the U.S. Army’s first female helicopter pilot.

Desiree Horton is the only female fire department helicopter pilot in California. While there are over 320,000 firefighters nationwide, only 4% are women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. As the only female, she had to wear male flight suits since they did not have any for women. Horton, who has been flying since the age of 19, said the job can be tough since her voice is recognizable among the male voices.

Desiree Horton smiling for the camera

A “Female Aviators” General Timeline:

1910: A French woman named Elise Raymonde de Laroche becomes the first licensed female pilot.

1911: Harriet Quimby becomes the first American woman to earn her pilot’s license. She is the first woman to fly at night and the first woman to fly solo over the English Channel.

1921: Bessie Coleman becomes the first African-American to earn a pilot’s license.

1929: The Ninety-Nines, the first organization of female pilots, is formed.

1930: Amy Johnson won fame when in 1930 she became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, doing so in a de Havilland Gipsy Moth. She was also the first woman in the world to qualify as an aircraft engineer. During the Second World War, Johnson joined the Air Transport Auxiliary and died in 1941 when the plane she was ferrying crashed in the sea in bad weather conditions. Johnson remains a prominent female figure in the male dominated world of aviation.

1934: Helen Richey becomes the first American female pilot to be hired by a commercial airline. After facing much discrimination, she left 10 months later and returned to flying at air shows and competitions.

1937: Amelia Earhart, arguably the most famous female pilot ever and the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, disappears while attempting to be the first woman to fly around the world.

1940s: During World War II, women take jobs at factories to build military airplanes and bombs to aid in the war effort and become part of the “Rosie the Riveter” campaign. Also, Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran and Nancy Love help form the Women Air Force Service Pilots, or WASPS.

1953: Jackie Cochran becomes the first woman to break the sound barrier.

1964: American pilot Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock is the first woman to accomplish what Earhart set out to do—fly around the world.

1973: Emily Howell Warner becomes the first female captain of a U.S. commercial airline.

1986: Jeana Yeager and her co-pilot, Dick Rutan, become the first aviators to fly around the globe without stopping to refuel.

1999: Eileen Collins, a former test pilot in the Air Force, is the first female Space Shuttle Commander.

2007: Created by the mother-daughter team Nancy and Deanie Parrish, the first Fly Girls of WWII WASP exhibit goes on display at the Women’s Memorial in Washington, DC. The traveling exhibit is on permanent display at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo in Michigan.

2016: Matice Wright – President Obama appointed her to the United States Naval Academy Board of Visitors in 2016. She was the Navy’s first African American female naval flight officer in 1989. After eight years of service, she became a White House Fellow In the Treasury Dept. and earned an MBA from Johns Hopkins.

2019: Christina Koch surpassed the record for the single longest space mission by a woman, as previously established by NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson in 2017. The 40-year-old Expedition 61 flight engineer exceeded Whitson’s record of 289 days, 5 hours and 1 minute on Saturday (Dec. 28) at 6:16 p.m. CST.

2020: March 8-14 is Women of Aviation Worldwide Week (WOAW), a global aviation awareness week for girls of all ages observed to mark the anniversary of the world’s first female pilot license (obtained March 8, 1910 by Raymonde de LaRoche). The week is a call to address gender imbalance in the air and space industry.

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