Queens of the Air: American Women Aviation Pioneers

This post was co-written with Katherine Stinson, an Archives Specialist in the National Archives (NARA) Moving Image and Sound Branch.

One of the joys of archives is discovering a research subject you never even knew was missing from your life. The NARA Moving Image and Sound Branch and the Motion Picture Preservation Lab collaborated on a large project to transcribe textural records accompanying the film reels digitized for our U.S. Army Signal Corps Historical Films project. This involved closely reading and retyping everything from film shot lists to entire newspaper pages. In the 94 pages of textual material for an item titled Aviation, Historical, Since 1919, we came across a woman aviator celebrated alongside Charles Lindbergh at the White House in 1927. It was the famous Ruth Elder, the first woman to attempt a transatlantic flight.

Ruth Elder Aviatrix GIF by US National Archives - Find & Share on GIPHY
Ruth Elder, from Historical Ocean Flights, Local Identifier: 342-USAF-16205.

When most of us think of women aviation pioneers, our knowledge may begin and end with Amelia Earhart. The discovery of Ruth Elder pointed us to an exciting time in aviation history when woman pilots captured the nation’s imagination. Their flights were captured by newsreel cameras and their stories inspired novels. Thousands of people would come to see them fly, even as they often had to face down prejudice and discrimination to even set foot in the cockpit. Ever since journalist and screenwriter Harriet Quimby became the first American woman licensed as a pilot in 1911, many remarkable women have been breaking barriers to find their place in the sky, including one who shares a name with an author of this post.

Katherine Stinson

Katherine Stinson was a woman pilot from the early days of aviation and was born on February 14, 1891 in Fort Payne, Alabama. She was inspired to become a pilot after she flew in a hot air balloon in 1911. She worked hard to pay for flying lessons and overcame barriers due to her gender, since few flying instructors were willing to take a woman under their wing and teach her to fly. On July 24, 1912, at the age of 21, she became one of the first women in the United States to earn a pilot’s license.

Katherine Stinson and her brother Eddie sit beside each other in an early-model airplane. Katherine holds a bouquet of flowers on her lap.
Eddie and Katherine Stinson at Cicero Field, Chicago, in 1915. Local Identifier: 237-G-141-11.

After earning her license, Stinson and her family founded the Stinson Aircraft Company, and a flying school, the Stinson School of Flying, in the San Antonio, Texas area, due Katherine Stinson’s belief that the San Antonio area had an ideal climate for flying. Stinson became known for her flying stunts, such as performing loop-the-loops in the sky with her plane, and she was one of the first people to fly at night. She earned several nicknames, including “The Flying Schoolgirl,” “America’s Sweetheart of the Air,” and “Air Queen.” In 1917, Stinson went on a tour of China and Japan and was one of the first women to fly in Asia.

Katherine Stinson sits beside a baby in an early-model airplane. Both are holding onto control levers.
Katherine Stinson and friend at Cicero Field, 1912. Local Identifier: 237-G-141-12.

Once the United States entered World War I, flying for non-military purposes became restricted to save resources for the military and the Stinson School of Flying was forced to close.  In 1918, Stinson became the first woman commissioned as a mail pilot for the Post Office Department. After working for the Post Office, Stinson applied to be a volunteer pilot for the army during World War I, but was rejected twice due to her gender. Stinson ended her aviation career and went to Paris to work as a Red Cross ambulance driver instead. She contracted tuberculosis while in Paris and later moved to New Mexico, where the dry desert climate helped with her health. She married Miguel Otero Jr. and focused the rest of her career on architecture, designing buildings with Native American and Spanish influences.

World War I photo card showing Katherine Stinson in the open cockpit of a biplane, holding a Red Cross card. The caption reads, "Ready to carry American Red Cross contributions to Washington. The picture shows Miss Katherine Stinson in her airplane in Boston, tuning up for her trip."
Local Identifier: 165-WW-429P-1281; National Archives Identifier: 45532836.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was the first African American and Native American woman pilot. She was known for her daring stunt tricks in the air and performed for audiences in both the United States and Europe. Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, to a large family. She grew up in Texas and briefly attended college at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Oklahoma before dropping out due to a lack of tuition money.

Close up of Bessie Coleman, wearing an aviation cap and goggles.
Bessie Coleman, Local Identifier: 237-G-142-10.

In 1915, Coleman moved to Chicago to join her brothers. They served in World War I and told her about how women in France were more commonly allowed to fly airplanes, unlike in the United States.  This inspired Coleman to apply to flight schools across the United States, but she was rejected from all of them due to her being African American and a woman. Undeterred, Coleman began taking French classes and applied to flight schools in France, which were more welcoming.

Bessie Coleman and Tony Fokker stand in front of an airplane. He is looking at her and she is looking at the camera.
Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license, visited aircraft builder/designer Tony Fokker in the Netherlands in the early 1920s. She learned to fly in France after futile attempts to find instruction in the U.S. Local Identifier: 237-G-142-23.

Coleman was eventually accepted at the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in France and formally received her international pilot’s license on June 21, 1915. To earn money for her own plane, Coleman went on speaking tours and showed films of her flights to audiences all over, with the caveat that the places she went to could not discriminate against African Americans. In 1922, she became the first African American woman to complete a public flight and audiences were thrilled with her loop-the-loop and Figure 8 tricks in her plane.  She also became known for giving flight lessons and inspiring both Africans Americans and women to fly planes.

Coleman was involved in several serious plane accidents early in her career but was able to recover and fly again. On April 30, 1926, Coleman was a passenger on a flight with a mechanic, William Wills.  While they were flying, a wrench got caught in the engine and Wills lost control of the plane, causing it to flip over.  Coleman was not wearing a seatbelt and most planes at this time did not have a roof over the passengers, so Coleman fell out of the plane and died in the crash. Her legacy lived on through flying clubs for African American women named in her honor, and she was commemorated on a United States postage stamp in 1995.

Ruth Elder

Ruth Elder was a 23-year-old aspiring actress and student pilot in 1927 when Charles Lindbergh completed the first solo transatlantic flight between New York and Paris. She was inspired by Lindbergh and determined to become the first woman to make the flight. She recruited her flying instructor George Haldeman as her co-pilot for the trip and found financial backing for the flight, scheduled for just five months after Lindbergh’s.

Ruth Elder Aviatrix GIF by US National Archives - Find & Share on GIPHY
Ruth Elder and George Haldeman captured by a Pathé newsreel cameraman, from Historical Ocean Flights, Local Identifier: 342-USAF-16205.

Her plane was a Stinson Detroiter (manufactured by the Stinson Aircraft Company) that she named the American Girl. On October 11, 1927, Elder and Haldeman took off from New York’s Roosevelt Field, headed for Paris.

American Girl Avation GIF by US National Archives - Find & Share on GIPHY
The American Girl is readied for takeoff, from Historic Oceanic Flights, Local Identifier: 342-USAF-16205.

As told in the November 1927 issue of The National Magazine, the pair encountered a ferocious storm over the Atlantic. After fighting the winds and rain for hours the American Girl also developed an oil leak, forcing Elder and Haldeman into an emergency water landing. The pair managed to locate a Dutch oil tanker, named the Barendrecht, before splashing down and were rescued from the wings of the plane before it caught fire and sank.

On the deck of a ship, Ruth Elder holds a bouquet of flowers, while George Haldeman leans against the ship's railing. In addition to Haldeman, Ruth Elder is surrounded by a group of seven other men, some wearing military uniforms.
Ruth Elder (center) and George Haldeman (far left) upon arrival in Lisbon, Portugal. Local Identifier: 306-NT-281A-3; National Archives Identifier for Ruth Elder Prominent Personalities file unit: 2828792.

During their flight, Elder and Haldeman covered 2,623 miles, setting an over-water endurance record, even though the flight was cut short before reaching their European goal. The Barendrecht delivered the two pilots to the Azores, after which they traveled to Lisbon, Portugal, followed by Madrid and Paris. Upon returning to New York City, they were honored with a ticker-tape parade and in Washington, D.C., they dined at the White House with President Coolidge and Charles Lindbergh.

As a result of her daring flight, Ruth Elder was one of the most famous women in the United States. She toured the country on the vaudeville circuit and starred in two aviation-themed feature films, Moran of the Marines (1928) and The Winged Horseman (1929), both of which are now lost. In 1930, she was an inspiration for the four-book novel series The Ruth Darrow Flying Stories, written by Mildred Wirt Benson, the first author to write Nancy Drew books under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene.

Amelia Earhart would go on to become both the first woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger in 1928 and the first woman—and first person since Lindbergh—to complete a solo transatlantic crossing in 1932. Earhart and Elder both competed in the heavy plane class of the first Women’s Air Derby in 1929, coming in third and fifth respectively in the air race from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio. The winner of the Derby was Louise Thaden, who later bested a field of male and female pilots in the 1936 Bendix Trophy Race from New York to Los Angeles. This was the second year women were permitted to race against the men, and women pilots made up three out of the top five finishers.

There are so many fascinating women involved in American aviation history. To learn more about those covered in this post and additional woman aviators, visit these resources:

The Ninety-Nines

“The Maker of Pilots: Aviator and Civil Rights Activist Willa Beatrice Brown” from NARA’s Rediscovering Black History blog

Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas: Katherine Stinson

Women in Texas History: Katherine Stinson

National Women’s History Museum: Bessie Coleman

Biography from The Official Website of Bessie Coleman

Women in Aviation Resource Center: Ruth Elder

Dunn, Hampton (1996) “Ruth Elder: All-American Girl of the Jazz Age,” Sunland Tribune: Vol. 22, Article 11.