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Women Pilots Built Their Careers on Fear of Flying : Companies Hired Them to Prove Safety of Air Travel

March 23, 1986|JOYCE DALL'ACQUA | Smithsonian News Service

Jacqueline Cochran, a charter member of the Ninety-Nines, became the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953. She was also an ace in business, starting a successful cosmetics company, which her flying helped publicize. A highly competitive racer who was always eager to fly "hot" racing airplanes, Cochran won the prestigious 1938 Bendix transcontinental race.

As the American public became sold on air transportation in the 1930s, women played an increasingly important role in the selling. Dozens of new air transport lines were added, and passenger growth mushroomed.

Nichols and Earhart promoted aviation by making countless speeches and writing hundreds of magazine articles. Many airplane companies hired women to demonstrate and promote their products in the 1930s. The sales gimmick was successful for the companies, and it gave the women a chance to fly, although Helen Richey resigned her job as the first woman commercial airline pilot in 1934 because the all-male pilots' union refused to admit her, and she was seldom allowed to fly.

Where There's Smoke

The "stars" of aviation were in great demand for advertisements. "Cigarettes have nearly been my downfall," Earhart wrote in 1928 after "wickedly endorsing" a certain cigarette, though she estimated smoking only three that year. Earhart donated her $1,500 fee to Cmdr. Richard Byrd's South Pole expedition, but an irate reader still admonished: "I suppose you drink too!"

In 1936 and 1937, Earhart worked with female students of Purdue University, one of the few U.S. colleges to offer aviation classes to women. Purdue presented her with a new twin-engine Lockheed Electra loaded with all the latest instruments, funded by Lockheed, Bendix and other groups. The donors wanted to promote aviation, Earhart said, "and especially, perhaps, overcome women's 'sales resistance' to air travel."

It was in that Electra that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, nearly succeeding in completing the world's longest around-the-world flight. In July, 1937, after flying 22,000 miles, the plane was lost at sea. Throughout her career as an aviation spokeswoman, Earhart insisted that the risks of long-distance flights and air races should not be compared to the safety of ordinary air transportation. "You might as well compare automobile racing with safe driving," she wrote.

By the outbreak of World War II, Oakes noted, air travel had become commonplace. With the novelty gone from private flying, manufacturers and aircraft sales companies no longer needed women as demonstration pilots and saleswomen.

"By making aviation tamer and more acceptable," Oakes said, "women had, ironically, closed several doors to paths they had previously followed toward fame in aviation."

Tiny Minority

In 1930, only about 200, or 1%, of licensed American pilots were women. Though the number of female pilots today has increased to more than 44,000 (including 275 who are commercial pilots), they are still a tiny minority--6%--of all pilots.

Now, as then, however, some of the most distinguished pilots are women. For instance, Brooke Knapp, a 40-year-old pilot from Los Angeles, holds the world's record for the fastest around-the-world flight (average speed, 512 m.p.h.)

Hazel Jones, a pilot for more than 40 years and the current president of the Ninety-Nines, believes the future of women in commercial aviation is bright. "Most airline pilots were in the military, and a great many of the Korean War-era male pilots are now retiring from commercial work. As more women get military pilot training, they'll be stepping into those vacancies. The number of airlines also has been growing rapidly since the industry was deregulated, creating more opportunities for the woman pilot."

Whatever the future may hold, it was the determined women aviators of the 1930s who helped pave the way. In the early 1930s, German-born Thea Rasche, a charter member of the Ninety-Nines, wryly summed up the spirit of that decade's women aviators: "Flying is far more thrilling than love for a man and far less dangerous."

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