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Authors: Eileen F. Lebow

Before Amelia

BOOK: Before Amelia
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Cal Rodgers and the
Vin Fiz:
The First Transcontinental Flight

A Grandstand Seat:
The Army Balloon Corps in World War I

The Bright Boys:
A History of Townsend Harris High School


Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation


Copyright © 2002 by Potomac Books, Inc.

Published in the United States by Brassey's, Inc. All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever
without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of
brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Lebow, Eileen F.

Before Amelia : women pilots in the early days of aviation /
Eileen F. Lebow.—1st ed.

   p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 1-57488-482-4 (alk. paper)—ISBN 1-57488-532-4 (pbk. alk. paper)

1. Women air pilots—Biography. 2. Aeronautics—History. I. Title.
TL539 .L42 2002



First paperback edition 2003

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper that meets the American National Standards Institute Z39-48 Standard.

Available from:

Potomac Books, Inc.
22841 Quicksilver Drive
Dulles, Virginia 20166

First Edition

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2

For Therese,
whose courage matches that of
the pioneer women aviators



1 In the Beginning

L' Aéroplane est lá!

Vive les Femmes!

den Tragödien unseres Berufes

5 The Imperial Eagle Sprouts New Wings

6 The English Catch the Bug

7 America Gets Wings

8 Offcial Bird

9 A Second Bird Takes to the Air

10 Star Quality

11 Superstar II

12 Little Sister

13 More Rare Birds

14 The Challenge Is There

Appendix: The Fliers

Notes on Sources



About the Author


MANY PEOPLE HAVE contributed to this book. I am indebted to each one. In France, George Bourinet helped arrange appointments and wrote letters of introduction, and, with his wife, Simone, provided hospitality and comfort. Martine and François Faber welcomed me in Nancy and provided me with some excellent material from several sources on Marie Marvingt. At Musée de l'Air et l'Espace, Stéphane Nicolaou, Gilbert Deloizy, and Armel Brault were interested in my project and most helpful. Alain Marchant assisted me at the archives of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

German museums and archives were particularly helpful in finding information on early German women fliers. I especially want to thank Monika Niese at Heimatmuseum Treptow, in Berlin; Dr. Eva A. Mayring and Dr. Bettina Gundler at the Deutsches Museum, in München; Veronika Mantei of Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin; and the staff of Frauen Stadt Archiv, in Dresden; Daimler-Benz Aerospace, in München; and Lufthansa, in Köln. Their responsiveness and interest were encouraging. Petr Cenker at the National Technical Museum in Prague supplied useful information on Bozena Làglrovà.

In England, Christine Benson visited the staff at Brooklands Museum and paved the way for my meeting Gail and Anthony Hewlett, who shared family reminiscences of “The Old Bird.” Julian C. Temple, curator of aviation at Brooklands, was interested and helpful, and introduced me to Michael Goodall, also at Brooklands, who generously shared his knowledge and photographs. Derek Judge shared information on Edith Maud Cook, his research subject for the past four years. The staffs at the Hendon Royal Air Force Museum, the Royal Aeronautical Society, and the British Library were most helpful during several visits.

For assistance in finding photographs of Lilian Bland, I am indebted to Stella O'Leary for putting me in touch with Thomas E. Fitzgerald, Norman Houston, and Jackie Hogg of the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington, who led me to Dr. Ann McVeigh of Reader Services, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, in Belfast.

In the United States, librarians and archivists around the country have assisted with research. The staffs of the Library of Congress, at the Manuscript Reading Room, the Photograph and Print Division, and, particularly, the Science Reference Section under Connie Carter, were helpful and invariably creative in solving problems. John Buydos suggested Russian references and helped translate them. Kate Igoé, Marilyn Graskowiak, Kristine Kaske, and Dan Hagedorn at the National Air and Space Museum were most accommodating and resourceful. Juanita Hartman, the librarian at Langley Air Force Base, found a special report on Russian women fliers for me—thank you. Special thanks go to Joan L. Hrubec and Lynn Johnson of the International Women's Air & Space Museum, Inc., in Cleveland. Rebecca Looney, assistant curator of the Cradle of Aviation Museum, in Garden City, New York, helped with information and photographs of women fliers. Casey Smith at the San Diego Aerospace Museum also assisted with photographs, as did Lygia Ionnitiu and Giacinta Bradley Koontz. Ned Preston, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) historian, and Jim McMullen at Women in Aviation, International, in Daytona Beach, Florida, supplied current figures on women in aviation. (A special thank-you should be given to the unknown FAA telephone operator who, when told the purpose of my call, said: “Wait. Let me think a minute; who would be the right person?” She found the right person.) Nora Sullivan described the course of aeronautics she took at college. Judith Wells of the Lynn Public Library, in Lynn, Massachusetts, sent material from the reference department on Ruth Law. Mitch Yockelson and Ken Tessendorf were dependable for tips on possible sources and ideas on where to look next. William W. Lowe
shared information on Katherine Stinson; Eileen Sullivan and Edward Strudwicke facilitated financial arrangements overseas. Marilyn Wisoff introduced me to Therese Gluecksmann, who became my friend and a fine German translator. Her help was invaluable. Michele Wolf did a fine editing job, for which I thank her. Finally, my husband, Morton Lebow, has edited, printed, schlepped, and comforted, all with rare good humor. I am most grateful.

In the Beginning

ON OCTOBER 22, 1909, at Châlons, France, a fragile aeroplane maneuvered across the field, turned, and, with motor at full gas, rushed and lifted into the air for a distance of some three hundred meters before settling down again. With roars of approval, the ground crew ran to help the pilot out, and a tall, elegant woman, smiling broadly, stepped into history.

Raymonde de Laroche had just driven a heavier-than-air machine into the air alone and is generally recognized as the first woman in the world who did so. Five months later she was issued license No. 36—35 men preceded her—by the Aero Club of France, joining the growing number of men licensed in Europe and the United States.

Her sisters in Europe and America were quick to follow in her foot-steps. They knew they could ride bicycles and motorcycles, and drive automobiles—balloons were tame—and now here was this marvelous machine with its promise of speed, adventure, financial gain, and overall pure pleasure. The fact that they were invading a man's world didn't worry them; it never occurred to them.

By the end of 1910, France had three more licensed women pilots, and elsewhere adventuresome women had taken to the skies in 1911: Lydia Zvereva in Russia, Melli Beese in Germany, Hilda Hewlett in England, and Harriet Quimby in the United States. Like Laroche, each was the first licensed woman pilot in her country, followed soon after by other intrepid women.

Their appearance on the flying field, at first a surprise, came to be accepted in spite of early opposition from male aviators. Like most trailblazers, these pioneer women fliers learned to ignore criticism that claimed woman were unsuited for aviation, taunts that women were interested only in catching a man, and dirty tricks that sometimes resulted in crash landings, and focused on their goal. Adventurers at heart, individualists, definitely too large for the pigeonhole for women in that period, the first women fliers were caught up in the excitement aeroplanes generated. They had to fly and experience for themselves the intoxication of flight; they were courageous beyond imagining to step into flimsy machines, with disaster a constant risk. They were assured— most were familiar with wheels and motors—and viewed the aeroplane as a continuation of the new century's progress.

Melli Beese, Lydia Zvereva, and Hilda Hewlett were among the lucky women who had the financial and familial backing that allowed them to pursue the new craze; Lyubov Golanchikova and Hélène Dutrieu worked hard to achieve their wings and the possibility of a better living that aviation offered. Raymonde de Laroche, Lyubov Golanchikova and the Americans, Blanche Scott and Katherine Stinson, understood the show-business aspect of aviation exhibitions and did not hesitate to promote their career like any star of the theater. If male stars received a larger sum for an appearance, women pilots hid their annoyance behind a smile, collected their fee, and put on a good show. Perhaps because of the predominant male attitudes, some of the early female pilots quickly lost interest in exhibitions and competitions, devoting their energy instead to teaching or building aeroplanes. Lydia Zvereva, Hilda Hewlett, Melli Beese, and Marjorie Stinson (Katherine's sister), an American, taught students to fly; the first two also built aeroplanes for their respective countries in the First World War.

France's Raymonde de Laroche and her pilot's license, the first ever issued to a woman. She received it on March 8, 1910

Women were used to advertise aeroplanes as well as fly them. In Germany, the Rumpler Taube builder wanted Melli Beese to fly his aeroplane to show the military how easy it was, and in America Alfred Moisant sent Bernetta A. Miller to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate his company's monoplane, using the pitch: If a woman can fly it, anybody can! Elsewhere, the aeroplane builders Anthony Fokker and Henry Farman recruited Lyubov Golanchikova and Hélène Dutrieu because they believed women pilots were well suited to the fragile, unstable machines of the time; the women's lighter weight and size were assets; their smaller hands moved more dexterously than a man's; and despite criticism from aviation star Claude Grahame-White that they lacked coolness— sangfroid, so loved by the French—women's reactions in emergency situations proved him wrong repeatedly.

BOOK: Before Amelia
13.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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