Thursday, January 19, 2012

Those Magnificent Women In Their Flying Machines

It was in 2008 that the last female veteran of WW1,  passed away.  Though her passing was covered by the press in both her native Britain, and in Canada, her adopted home, her death didn’t seem to garner the attention that the old soldiers – men such as Harry Patch – attracted in their final years.  To be sure, her experience was different – Harry Patch had marched into battle, and saw action again in the second world war. He was a remarkable man who had no truck with limelight-seeking politicians who sidled along to pay their respects at a timely moment for a photo-opportunity – good old Harry made Tony Blair wish he had kept well away.

But let’s get back to Gladys Stokes.

She transferred from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps to the newly formed Women’s Royal Air Force in April 1918, where she became a Leading Aircraftswoman.  Her story is a remarkable one, with early adventures that are the stuff from which books are written, however, the fact that she was an aircraftswoman – who was responsible for certain aspects of aircraft production in the Great War – fascinated me, and led me to look a little further into the lives of women who took to the air during the 1914-18 war, and in the years that followed.  We’ve all heard of Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson, but they were simply following in the steps of some truly intrepid flyers – and if you think that women flying combat missions is something new, then think again!

 Female pilots volunteering for military service in WW1 included the following brave women:  Helene Dutrieu, who made flights from Paris to check on German troop movements. Marie Marvingt flew bombing missions over Germany.  
A cadre of Russian aviatrix included Princess Eugenie Shakovskaya, an artillery and reconnaissance pilot, and Princess Sophie Dolgorukaya who was a pilot and an observer.  Courageous women, all.  Is it any surprise, then, that so many women took to the air in the post-WW1 years?

I remember listening to recordings of women who had lived through the Great War, and whose lives were changed not only by their experiences, but by the huge shifts in society following the conflict. One woman was asked about being a “flapper” in the 1920’s and in reply commented, “They called us flappers because we were like butterflies breaking out of the cocoon and flapping our wings so we could fly.” And fly they did, socially, educationally – and quite literally.

While I was in England in October last year, I came across a series of articles in an annual written in the 1930’s, and one just fascinated me:  Flying As A Career For Girls.   Here’s how it begins:
“For some years now flying has been a delightful hobby for wealthy girls, but at last it is beginning to take its place as providing a career for the not-so-well-off.”  The article points out that some fledgling female pilots prefer to be taught by their own sex, and commented on the number of flying clubs with “girl instructresses.”  I think I would have stuck at my flying lessons if I hadn’t been instructed aloft by a half-bored pilot with a smoldering cigar that never left his mouth, even as he was shouting commands at me (and that was only my first lesson!).

The records established by women are inspiring even today. The author describes New Zealander Jean Batten as being, “The gamest little airwoman in the world.” Batten was often in the news given her flying exploits, especially when she established the record of flying solo from Port Darwin, Australia to Kent, England (8,615 miles in 5 days, 18 hours, 15 minutes).  
Other intrepid airwomen include Harriet Quimby,  the first women to fly at night, and to pilot her own ‘plane across the English Channel (1912).  
Alys McKey Bryant, the first woman pilot in Canada (1913)
And one I really love – Bessie Coleman, the first African American, man or woman, to earn a pilot’s license. 
There’s a list that goes on and on of women’s accomplishments in the field of aviation in the first 40 years of the last century.  Author Dorothy Carter, herself a pilot, wrote many stories for girls and young women, generally featuring an intrepid aviatrix who could not only teach others to fly, but who could teach the men a thing or two about aircraft.  I love glancing through these old stories, and reading the biographies of women who took to the skies, especially that extraordinary generation of women between the wars who seemed to be game for almost anything.  And I wonder how girls and young women today could be inspired by their stories – they may not want to take to the air, but every woman, in her own way, wants to fly.

“We swung over the hills and over the town and back again, and I saw how a man can be master of a craft, and how a craft can be master of an element. I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup. I learned to watch, to put my trust in other hands than mine. And I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know -- that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.”  Beryl Markham, West With the Night


  1. Great entry! I was telling my husband about the women flying in WWI and he said he had never heard that before and neither had I! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you so much, Shana, for your comment. When you start to look into the history of women in aviation - and not only as pilots - you realize just how intrepid women were in what was a completely new means of travel. I'm so inspired by them - and for women born into an age of corsets and stays, the experience must have been truly exhilarating.

  3. West with the Night is one of my favorite books! Thanks for this great list of courageous women pilots, Jacqueline!

  4. I didn't realize that women participated in the airforce during WWI! I have studied women in the airforce during WWII - this was like icing on the cake! :)

    Thanks for sharing:)

    ~ Natalie

  5. Wonderful post, on many fronts. I've loved West with the Night for years, I think it might be one of my all time favorites, really. My grandmother was a WAAF in WW2 and I've been fascinated by women pilots and women who worked with the air force my whole life so it's so interesting to hear about early female aviators.

    And also, that astronaut on the far right in your photo is my darling friend and the godmother of my children. I almost squealed when I saw that photo here. It never ceases to thrill me when I think of what she has done with her life.

  6. What an interesting, and informative, post! I've had a lifelong interest in aviation and have always found the early years a fascinating period. Flighty xx