Flying high: pioneering women of aviation

March 4-10, 2024, is Women of Aviation Week and March 8 is International Women’s Day. What better way to celebrate than by remembering some of the pioneering women in aviation?

The firsts
Three side-by-side b&w images of woman pilots in early aircraft
(L to R) Raymond de Laroche photo courtesy This Day in Aviation History, Bessie Coleman courtesy Cradle of Aviation Museum, Eileen Vollick photo courtesy Canadian 99s

Frenchwoman Raymonde de Laroche is thought to be the first woman to pilot a plane. She received her pilot’s license on March 8, 1910, the day we now recognize as International Women’s Day.

Bessie Coleman was the first African American to earn a pilot’s license. Coleman had to travel to France to find a flight instructor as none of the American schools would train blacks. She earned her pilot’s license in France in 1921, returned to America and took up stunt flying to earn money. She died while test flying her newly delivered aircraft in 1926, the day prior to a flying event scheduled in Florida.

In 1928, At the young age of 19, Eileen Vollick became the first Canadian woman to receive a pilot’s license, just one year after her first ride in an aircraft.

Women in military service

British pilot Pauline Gower was granted permission in November 1939 to form the Women’s Section of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which would ferry aircraft from the DeHavilland factory to RAF training bases. She was the first woman to be allowed into, let alone fly, a Royal Air Force plane.

Two side-by-side- images in black and white. The first shows a female fighter pilot standing next to a fighter, in the next photo she's climbing down from the cockpit of her aircraft
Canadair Sabre, RCAF, with USA pilot Jacqueline Cochran, Jacqueline Cochran climbing down from a Sabre jet. RAMWC archives

Jacqueline Cochran became the first woman to break the speed of sound. She did so on May 18, 1954 in a F-86 Sabre Mk. 3. At the time of her death, Cochran held more speed, altitude, and distance records than any pilot in history. Cochran was also the founding director of Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Between 1943 and 1944, the women of WASP flew over 60 million miles ferrying aircraft, personnel, and carrying out other transport duties. The WASP received retroactive military status in 1977. FUN FACT: We’re currently restoring a F-86 Sabre Mk. 6, a later, Canadian-made model of the aircraft Jackie Cochran set her record in.

In 1980, the Canadian Armed Forces opened pilot classification to women. Leah Mosher, Deanna Brasseur, and Nora Bottomley were the first three women picked to train as pilots in the Canadian Forces. Captain Brasseur went on to become one of the first two female CF-18 pilots in the world in 1989. Check out Leah Mosher’s flight suit in front of the Hasting Family Temporary Gallery the next time you visit our museum.

Side-by-side images. In the first, a woman aviator emerges from the cockpit of a small aircraft with her fist raised triumphantly in the air. The other image shows a antique flight suit on display in an aviation museum.
Captain Leah Mosher, RAMWC archives, Mosher’s flight suit on display at RAMWC

Women in space

Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova of the Soviet Union was the first woman to fly in space. She was selected from a group of more than 400 applicants and underwent months of training. Tereshkova’s flight aboard Vostok 6 launched on June 16, 1963 and lasted about three days.

The first Canadian woman in space was Dr. Roberta Bondar. In January 1992, she joined the crew of NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery as the first neurologist in space and conducted over forty experiments for fourteen nations. The data collected was used to better understand the mechanisms that allow the human body to recover from exposure to space.

Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, Discovery, in February 1995. She was also the first woman to command a space shuttle, Columbia, in July 1999. Collins is a veteran of space flights, having logged over 872 hours in space.

Side-by-side portraits of female NASA astronauts
Roberta Bondar official NASA portrait, Eileen Collins official NASA portrait

Conquering commercial flight

Canadian Lorna DeBlicquy wrote a guest editorial in 1974 in Canadian Flight protesting the discrimination against women pilots by Crown Corporation Air Transit. Among the first commercial female pilots in Canada, she broke down barriers and served as a tireless advocate for women in aviation. In 1995, she was awarded the Order of Canada.

Rosella Bjornson became the first woman in North America to serve as First Officer on a commercial airliner while working for Transair. She later became a captain with Canadian Airlines and Air Canada. Bjornson retired in 2004 after 31 years as an airline pilot.

Judy Cameron was the first woman pilot hired by Air Canada in 1978, the first Canadian female captain of a Boeing 767 and the first Canadian woman to captain a Boeing 777. FUN FACT: In 2019, Air Canada launched the Captain Judy Cameron scholarship for aspiring commercial pilots or AMEs (aircraft maintenance engineers).

Other notable women in aviation
A beaming woman faces the camera standing in front of what appears to be the nose of an antique aircraft. Black and white photo
Amelia Earhart standing under nose of her Lockheed Model 10-E Electra

In 1932, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic solo. Three years later, she became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean. In 1937, Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan attempted an around-the-world flight beginning in Miami. After completing 22,000 miles of their journey, Earhart’s Lockheed Electra disappeared. They were last seen on takeoff from Lae, New Guinea, on July 2, 1937. FUN FACT: Our museum has a Lockheed Electra L-10A on display, very similar to the one Earhart flew which was a model L-10E.

Elizabeth (Elsie) MacGill was the first woman to earn a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering and the first practising Canadian woman engineer. She helped design Canada’s first metal-hulled airplane, the Fairchild Super 71, the one and only prototype of which is on display at our museum.


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