22 of history’s incredible female aviation pioneers 

On International Women’s Day, Key.Aero explores the many women who have broken down barriers in aviation. Read on to find out which famous aviator’s couldn’t have succeeded without the help of their sister…  


Beatrice ‘Tilly’ Shilling OBE (8 March 1909 – 18 November 1990) 

On what would have been her birthday, there is no better place to start with our count of incredible aviation pioneers for International Women’s Day than with Beatrice Shilling. Educated at Manchester University, Shilling’s discipline was within the aeronautical engineering department. This had been her dream from the age of just 14, when she had bought herself a motorbike. Receiving her Bachelors degree in 1932, she stayed at the university to achieve her Master of Science degree in Mechanical engineering. In 1936, Shilling was employed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment based in Farnborough, Hampshire. Her first position was as a technical author with the Air Ministry’s technical publications department. She was allowed to transfer to doing work on aircraft engines. On 1 November 1939 she was promoted to become technical officer in charge of carburettor research and development and later promoted again to principal technical officer. Shilling’s most well-known contribution to the aviation industry was her development of the ‘Miss Shilling’s orifice’, a device used to restrict fuel flow to the carburettor of the Rolls Royce Merlin Engines, preventing engine stalls. 


Fay Gillis Wells (October 15, 1908 – December 2, 2002) 

Wells was both an American pilot as well as an esteemed journalist and broadcaster. She began her flying career in 1929, in which she became one of the first female pilots to bail out of her plane, saving her own life. She co-founded the ‘Ninety-Nines’, acting as first secretary with Amelia Earhart as first president. During the war, Wells put her aviation career on hold and sought out potential African locations for a Jewish Homeland and aided the country in the war effort with her Husband. In the 1960s, she re-connected with her love for flying and became the chairman of the first International 99s convention in 1967.  


Florence Leontine Lowe – A.K.A ‘Pancho Barnes’ (July 22, 1901 – March 30, 1975) 

Florence grew up in California, where she was indulged in wealth and a private education. She gained the nickname ‘Poncho’ after she was caught up in revolutionary activity in Mexico, leading her to disguise as a man using this alias. In 1928, she began flying lessons and after just six hours of lessons, she was able to fly solo. In 1930, she took part in the Women’s Air Derby where she beat Amelia Earhart’s world record speed. She later moved to Hollywood to pursue a career as a stunt pilot for movies, appearing in many adventure films throughout the 1930s.  


Katherine Sui Fun Cheung (December 12, 1904 – September 2, 2003) 

After moving to America from China in 1921, Katherine became fascinated with different aircraft when her father would take her to Dycer Airport in Los Angeles. Her determination to become a pilot later blossomed when she enrolled in aviation classes in 1931. She was already married with two daughters at the time; however this did not hinder her drive. She began performing in air shows across the Californian cost. in 1937, she decided to move back to China and open a flying school following the Japanese invasion of China. During the Second World War, Katherine became a flight instructor in the USA which was her final venture within the aviation sector.  


Amelie Beese (September 13, 1886 – December 22, 1925) 

In 1906, Beese initially wanted to kickstart her career as a sculptor. Later on in 1909 she built up an interest in mathematics and engineering, leading to her keen interest in aviation. In 1910, she travelled to Johannisthal, the first airfield in Berlin. Her journey to becoming a pilot was far from linear, beginning with her first instructor quitting due to Amelie crashing a plane. In 1911, she finally found another instructor who helped her fly unaided for the first time. The following year, she opened her own flying school at the Berlin base and designed a collapsible plane using her architectural knowledge. In 1925, Beese experienced another airplane crash, marking then end of her aviation career before her unfortunate death later that year.  


Katherine Stinson (February 14, 1891 – July 8, 1977) 

Born and raised in Alabama, Stinson first ignited her love for flying after she took her first trip in a hot air balloon. From there, she immediately sold her piano to raise money for flying lessons. Her first instructor was Max Lillie, who also taught the Wright Brothers, and originally turned down her request due to her being female. At the age of 21, she obtained her pilots license, making her the fourth woman in the USA to do so. Further in her career, Katherine was branded with names such as the ‘Flying Schoolgirl’ and ‘Americas Sweetheart of the Air’. She became the first woman to complete a loop, performing the same routine 500 times without an accident. During the First World War, she worked as a mail service pilot for the US Air Mail Service. Shortly after, her aviation career came to a close when she decided to work as an ambulance driver for the red cross in Paris.  


Marie Marvingt (February 20, 1875 – December 14, 1963) 

Initially, Marvingt became a world famous French athlete, specialising is sports such as swimming, fencing and bobsledding. She then pushed forward in her aviation career, beginning with flying hot air balloons in 1907. She then went on to study fixed-wing aviation in 1910, passing all piloting and examination requirements in an Antionette Aeroplane. In November of that year, she went on the set the world’s first aviation records for women in time in the air and distance travelled. Marie later proposed that aircraft should be used as air ambulances and drew up a protype – the idea was later used within the emergency services. When the first World War began, Marie disguised herself as a man and served as an infantry lieutenant in the 42nd battalion of foot soldiers. She was later kicked out and went on to become the first woman in the world to fly combat missions over German-held territory.  


Marga von Etzdorf (August 1, 1907 – May 28, 1933) 

Marga was born in Germany in 1907. She obtained her pilots license when she was just 19 years old, being the second woman to do so after the WWI. In 1928, she became the first woman ever to work for a commercial airliner. Being mostly self-taught, Marga flew commercial Junkers for Lufthansa. She wanted to be the owner of her own aircraft, therefore in 1930 she bought herself a Junkers A 50ce and plastered it with bright yellow paint. This plane went on many trips with her, including a long distance flight to Istanbul and a 12 day flight to Tokyo. After facing multiple injuries from the Journey back from Tokyo, she resided in Thailand where she became the first person to send reports on the Siamese revolution. After losing control of her plane when attempting to travel to Cape Town, Marga took her own life after feeling she was unable to return to Germany after her failed flight attempt.  


Elsie MacGill (March 27, 1905 – November 4, 1980) 

Elsie was born in Vancouver, Canada. Her Mother was a big supporter of the women’s suffrage movement and encouraged Elise to complete a degree in electrical engineering. In 1927, she graduated from the University of Toronto and was the first woman to gain a degree in her field. From there, her engineering career flourished. In 1938, she became the first woman to be given corporate membership of the Engineering Institute of Canada (EIC). She was then selected to be the chairman of the EIC in 1942. She continued her work as an aeronautical engineer throughout the Second World War, enabling her to push the country forward in regard to aircraft construction. Throughout her career, she became known as ‘Queen of the Hurricanes’, after the factory she worked in was selected to build the Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft.  

Read our article on Elsie Macgill here: The Queen of the Hurricanes


Willa Beatrice Brown (January 22, 1906 – July 18, 1992) 

In 1934, Brown initiated her aviation career after studying at a racially segregated airfield in Chicago. In 1935, she gained her aircraft mechanics license then followed on from this by earning her private pilots license as well as a commercial pilots license in 1939. She was the first African American woman to earn either type of license within the USA. Willa, alongside Cornelius Coffey and Enoch P. Waters, formed a National Airmen Association specifically for those of African American descent. She wanted to encourage African American participation within the aeronautics industry. Brown was also a vocal activist for racial equality, flying to colleges and speaking on the radio to get African Americans interested in aviation.  


Geraldine ‘Jerrie’ Fredritz Mock (November 22, 1925 – September 30, 2014) 

In 1964, Mock became the first woman to fly solo around the world, branding her with the nickname ‘The Flying Housewife’. When stopping over in Morocco, she was greeted by the president of the Aero Club of the country. When landing in Saudi Arabia. Mock recounts that she was crowded with many confused men who couldn’t believe a woman was flying the plane. She was awarded the Louis Bieriot medal in 1965 for her achievement. Previous to this achievement, Mock also became one of the first women to study aeronautical engineering at Ohio State University.  


Ellen Church (September 22, 1904 – August 22, 1965) 

Church initially began nursing in San Francisco; however she was also a registered pilot. After enquiring about becoming a pilot for the commercial airliner Boeing Air Transport (BAT), she was turned down and told that she may be able to become a nurse onboard the aircraft. BAT then hired Church as a head stewardess in 1930, making her the first female flight attendant, alongside seven others. Her position included helping passengers with their travel, as well as handling luggage and assisting the pilot with pushing aircraft into hangars. Later that year, she embarked on her first commercial flight on a Boeing 80A to Chicago. Her aviation career was cut short after sustaining an injury from a car accident.  


Sarla Thukral (August 8, 1914 – March 15, 2008) 

Sarla was the first Indian woman to ever fly an aircraft, previous to gaining her aviation pilots license in 1936 when she was just 21 years old. After obtaining her license, she completed 1000 hours of flying in aircraft owned by the Lahore flying club, allowing her to obtain her A license. Her husband was a massive supporter of her work and was also the first Indian to get an airmail pilot’s license. After the tragic passing of her husband in 1939, Thukral tried to apply for her commercial pilots license but was unable to due to the beginning of the Second World War. Although her aviation career was fleeting, it still marks a historic turning point for women in Indian history.  


Janet Bragg (March 24, 1907 – April 11, 1993) 

Born in Georgia, USA, Bragg became the first African-American woman to obtain a commercial pilots license. She enrolled in aeronautical university in 1933, attending a segregated black aviation school. She was the only woman in the class, consisting of 24 black men. She obtained her private pilots license in 1934, then is 1943 she applied to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program. She was denied entry due to the colour of her skin; she was also disallowed entry into the military nurse corps for the same reason. After facing many trials based on her race, she eventually received a commercial license at Pal-Waukee Field in Illinois. Bragg was also heavily involved in the inception of the National American Airmen.  


Anna Leksa-Daab (November 14, 1910 – January 21, 1998) 

Polish-born Anna Leksa-Daab was the first woman to join the Air Transport Auxiliary. Going on to be one of only three Polish women to join, Anna’s experience flying meant that she was authorised to pilot aeroplanes, balloons and gliders. Following her graduation from school, Anna had trained from 1938 at the Warsaw Aero Club and was eventually called up for military service in 1939. She made her way to being appointed a second lieutenant of the Staff Squadron Aviation Command (Poland). In September 1939, Anna managed to escape a German-occupied airfield in a RWD-13, a Polish tourist plane. From here, she joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, passing her exams in January 1941. Between 1941-1945, Anna ferried 1,295 aircraft to and from the front lines. Of these, there were 93 different types of aeroplane. In Spitfires alone, she flew 557. 

Watch David Duker's video about the Air Transport Auxiliary here: The Spitfire Girls


Amy Johnson (July 1, 1903 – January 5, 1941) 

Amy Johnson, from East Yorkshire, became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia in 1930 at the age of 27. The aircraft she flew – a de Havilland DH.60 Gipsy Moth – was named Jason after her father’s business trademark. She was awarded the Harmon Trophy for her valiant flight, alongside a CBE. During the Second World War, she joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in which she climbed the ranks to first officer. In January 1941, Johnson’s aircraft ran out of fuel in the middle of horrendous weather conditions and crashed into the Thames Estuary. Although attempts were made to rescue her, she was washed away by the current and was never found.  


Katharine Wright (August 19, 1874 – March 3, 1929) 

Little known for her contributions to early aviation, Katharine Wright was in fact the younger sister of the ‘forefathers of aviation’, Orville and Wibur Wright. Although not directly linked with aviation herself, Katharine’s support of her brother’s endeavours were a crucial factor in allowing them to successfully create their ‘Flying Machine’. As the Wright Brothers were privately funded, it was in fact Katherine who provided this funding through her continuing work as a teacher. Additionally, her help and support in voicing their accomplishments caused the Wright brothers to be recognised world-over. Following a nasty accident that left Orville Wright bedbound in hospital, Katherine stayed by his side and nursed him back to health. He went on to say that without her care and devotion, he would have not survived his many wounds. Often dubbed ‘the secret to their success’, Katharine’s older brothers were more than aware of her massive contribution to their cause and have been quoted as saying ‘if ever the world thinks of us in connection with aviation, it must remember our sister’. 

La Sauce

Kathy La Sauce (1949 – present) 

Kathy La Sauce is most notably known for being the first woman to pilot a C-141 Starlifter. La Sauce began flight training in September 1976 at Williams Air Force Base with an Undergraduate Pilot Training Class consisting only of women. Many of the women in the class would go on to achieve great things in their field. Kathy would later become the first woman aircraft commander at Norton Air Force Base and reached lieutenant colonel. 

Marry Riddle (April 22, 1902 – October 25, 1981) 

Riddle was born into the Clatsop Tribe in Oregon. When she was 11 years old, she saw her first plane and was completely encapsulated by it, beginning her obsession with aircraft. When she was 17, she witnessed a woman crash an airplane, this event made her more determined to prove to the world that women could fly well. After completing a course at the Rankin Flying School in Portland, she flew solo for the first time in 1930 – making her the second Native American woman to earn a pilots license. Throughout her time within the aviation sector, she learnt to parachute, took part in air shows and later became an aircraft inspector during the Second World War.  


Evgeniya Shakhovskaya (Princess Eugenie Mikhailovna Shakhovskaya) (1889 – 1920) 

Princess Eugenie became a pioneering aviator in Russia and was the first female military pilot. She began taking flying lessons in 1911, followed by obtaining her flying license in 1912. After giving up flying for a few years, she re-kindled her love for it when taking began flying reconnaissance missions during the First World War. From here her life began to spiral, as she was accused of being a spy and was sentenced to death, this was then changed to life imprisonment. During the 1917 Russian revolution, Eugenie was freed and became the chief executioner for the Cheka, leaving her life of aviation behind.  


Maryse Bastie (February 27, 1898 – July 6, 1952) 

Maryse was a French aviator during the 1930s. Her fascination with aircraft grew after getting married to her husband, who was a WWI pilot. She then became determined to become a pilot herself, obtaining her license to fly shortly after. Her husband was killed in a plane crash in 1926, however this made her more determined to pursue her aviation career as she began performing aerobatics to earn money for herself. She then went on to set records in flight duration, distance and record solo flight time across the South Atlantic. She became a captain within the French Air Force, formulating over 3000 hours of flying time.  


Winifred Drinkwater (April 11, 1913 – October 6, 1996) 

Born in Scotland, Drinkwater joined the Scottish flying club in 1930. She became Scotland’s youngest pilot after qualifying for her private pilot’s license later that year. She went on to get her commercial license in 1932, at the age of 19, making her the world’s first female commercial pilot. Another notable achievement was when she gained her ground engineer license in 1933. She conducted many press assignments whilst conducting charter work, including flying over photographers who were searching for the Loch Ness Monster.