These Female Pilots Broke Down Barriers in Aviation

Only around three percent of the world’s pilots are women.

This story is part of Women of Impact, a National Geographic project centered around women breaking barriers in their fields, changing their communities, and inspiring action. Join the conversation in our Facebook group.

A mother of five and grandmother of eight, Babs Ambrose established Stono Farm Market and Tomato Shed Café, an organic vegetable farm on Johns Island in South Carolina. She founded a nonprofit, taught marketing to women entrepreneurs in Russia, served as the mayor, and—on top of her other responsibilities—held her pilot’s license. The farm’s central wide dirt road was called “the runway,” because it was, in fact, a runway. Babs shared that flying a plane gave her “an exhilarating sense of freedom,” and, as a woman, a particular feeling of accomplishment.

While Babs is not alone in her success, only an estimated three percent of the world’s pilots are women. From Valentina Tereshkova, to Bessie Coleman, to Amelia Earhart, it seems women pilots have a particular aptitude for shattering not one but multiple glass ceilings at a time.

Pilot Bessica Raiche was a linguist, artist, dentist, and began her own practice as one of the first American woman specialists in obstetrics and gynecology. In 1910, she was the first American woman to fly solo and took that flight on an airplane she built out of silk, bamboo, and wire in her living room. Born in 1906, “Speed Queen” Jacqueline Cochran was the first female pilot to break the sound barrier and the first pilot to fly above 20,000 feet without an oxygen mask. By 1980 she held more speed, distance, and altitude records than any other pilot, man or woman. Willa Brown was the first black female US-licensed pilot, the first African-American officer in the US Civil Air Patrol, and the first black woman to run for Congress.

At Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, the 99s Museum of Women Pilots pays homage to the history and current achievements of these courageous women in aviation with over 5,000 square feet of archives and constantly evolving displays. The museum boasts interactive exhibits, a flight simulator, and the largest collection of Amelia Earhart memorabilia, including her flight goggles and original pilot’s license.

Earhart was the first president and a founding member of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots that began in 1929 inside a Curtiss Airport hangar in Valley Stream, New York (their meeting tea was served from a tool box). The Ninety-Nines have been active now for almost ninety years—supporting the museum, gathering often for competitions and skill-building days, giving first flight experience to girls who have never flown before, and traveling on fun fly-outs with the “49 ½’s” (the 99s’ significant others).

This composite image was created at London Heathrow Airport's runway 09L between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. Mornings at Heathrow are typically some of the busiest times for arriving aircraft, as waves of widebody jets from Asia and North America complete their long haul flights to London.
This composite image was created at London Heathrow Airport's runway 09L between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. Mornings at Heathrow are typically some of the busiest times for arriving aircraft, as waves of widebody jets from Asia and North America complete their long haul flights to London.
Photograph by Mike Kelley

In the 1970s, the organization relocated from New York to Oklahoma, a more central home base for members flying in from 50 states and over 30 countries. Oklahoma City is also just a puddle-jump away from Atchison, Kansas, home of the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum and the Amelia Earhart Festival, held every summer, the third weekend in July. The 99’s First Fundraising Hangar Dance will be held on September 29, 2018 at Sundance Airpark in Yukon, Oklahoma with live jazz, dancing and a 1940s best dressed contest. The event will raise money for artifact restoration and improved museum displays and technology. While women remain underrepresented in aviation, the 99s bravely remind that there’s always room for more. Sky’s the limit.

Based in Virginia, writer Cait Etherton also took pilots lessons. Follow her travels on Twitter.
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