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U.S. Women of Military Aviation History Since World War I

U.S. Women of Military Aviation History Since World War I

An historical timeline for Women of Aviation Worldwide Week, March 2-8, 2015, prepared by Barbara Ganson, Ph.D., President, American IWOAW Committee, and Associate Professor of History, Florida Atlantic University.

U.S. women aviators have been flying since 1910, but progress towards achieving equality in the air for American women military aviators only came about gradually during the twentieth century.

World War I and U.S. Women Aviators

Aerobatic pilots Katherine Stinson and Ruth Bancroft Law both offered to fly for the U.S. military during World War I. The U.S. military however denied their requests. The flying experiences of these early American women aviators clearly illustrate the limitations society placed on women around the time of World War I.

Katherine Stinson’s sister, Marjorie, as a civilian instructor, however, trained more than 85 civilian cadets in San Antonio, Texas, who went on to serve in the military during World War I, including student pilots from Canada and Mexico.

Societal attitudes towards women in the military in the United States, in other words, prevented women from full and equal citizen rights during the war effort, even though there was a definite need for experienced and competent pilots.

Although Ruth Law’s and Katherine Stinson’s requests did not achieve the desired results, they at least questioned women’s proper roles in the air service in the U.S. Army. The flyers volunteered for patriotic reasons within the limitations set for their gender.

Law’s and the Stinson sisters’ contributions to the war effort may have indirectly contributed to the greater acceptance of women as citizens and gaining the vote in 1920 through volunteering their services both at home and abroad.

U.S. Women and the Second World War

Women Civilian Pilots fly for the U.S. military and the Air Transport Auxiliary in the United Kingdom.

Until World War II, U.S. women were barred from flying for the military; then only civilian women pilots could fly for the U.S military as Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS), Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASP.

Twenty-eight women aviators between the ages twenty-one and thirty-five became the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron in the fall of 1942. Each had to have had at least 500 flying hours, a commercial license, and a two-hundred horsepower engine rating. Some WAFS and WASP had earned their civilian wings at government expense through the Civilian Pilots Training Program, as college students, which accepted one woman for every ten applicants.

Some 25 U.S. women civilian pilots, nevertheless, flew under combat conditions as ferry pilots during World War II, while serving for Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary in England between 1942 and 1945. Among them were America’s first female commercial pilots, including Helen Richey of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and Edith Foltz Stearns, originally from Dallas but who lived and worked in Portland, Oregon with her husband and son. Air racer and record setter Jacqueline Cochran was the ATA Commander for the USA in the UK before returning to the US to take command of the WASP training program in 1943.

The women of the ferrying command in the U.S. merged into one organization, called Women Airforce Service Pilots on August 5, 1943. Helen Richey entered the WASP at Sweetwater, Texas, upon her return to the USA, while Edit Foltz Stearns after serving from 1942 to 1945 for the British ATA became a flight instructor who trained military cadets at Corpus Christi Naval Station in Texas. (See Barbara Ganson, Texas Takes Wing: A Century of Flight in the Lone Star State, University of Texas Press, 2014).

WASP flew missions such as ferrying, towing targets in gunnery schools for ground and aerial gunners at day and night, became flight instructors, and performed aerial mapping and other duties such as maintenance flight testing. Ironically, even though 1,074 WASP flew more than 60 million miles across the nation in every type of plane the Army Air Forces owned during World War II, they were still not called the first military women pilots. WASP were not considered military pilots until 1977, when Congress declared that they were indeed veterans of World War II. Of the 25,000 women who applied to become WASP, 1,830 were accepted, and 1,087 earned their WASP wings, and 38 died in the line of duty.

U.S. Women become official Military Aviators with the coming of the Women’s Movement in the 1970s.

Aviation itself was not the catalyst for change for women in the military. Women however seized opportunities in the military, as attitudes towards women began to change in the society as a whole in the U.S. with the rise of the women’s movement in the 1970s.   It is through women aviators’ hard work dedication, skill level, courage, and military training, that U.S military women aviators achieved greater air equality in the military.

February 22, 1974, the late Lt. Cmdr. Barbara Allen Rainey becomes the Navy’s first woman pilot. A graduate of the Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., she was commissioned in December 1970.

June 4, 1974 Sally D. Woolfok becomes the Army’s first female military pilot to fly Bell UH-1, later UH Iriquois helicopters.

June 17, 1976 Katherine Bessette Carl becomes the first female U.S. Air Force Aircraft Maintenance Specialist in the School of Applied Aerospace Services, Sheppard AFB, Wichita Falls, Texas.

March 4, 1977, Janna Lambine becomes the U.S. Coast Guard’s first woman aviator having graduated from naval aviation training at Naval Air Station at Whiting Field, Milton, Florida. Her first assignment was as a helicopter pilot at Air Station Astoria, Ore., where she flew search and rescue missions, as well as pollution and fisheries surveillance.
The Navy’s first female F-14 Tomcat combat pilot, Lt. Kara Spears Hultgreen, a 1987 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, becomes the first female pilot killed after the Department of Defense risk rule was rescinded. She was killed on Oct. 25, 1994, when her left engine stalls on approach to landing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Pacific Ocean near San Diego.

April 1995 Marine Corps Maj. Sarah M. Deal becomes the first female pilot in Marine Corps history. A graduate of Kent State University’s aerospace flight technology program, Deal was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 1991. At the time, there was a ban on women in combat units, so, instead of applying for flight school, she attended air traffic control school. Her chance came when the secretary of defense lifted the ban on women serving as pilots of combat aircraft in 1993.

In 1991, Congress lifted the ban on women flying in combat aircraft. By 1994, the first female Air Force pilot graduated from F-15E Strike Eagle combat crew training at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.

It took a number of dedicated pilots to achieve what women have achieved in the military during these past 100 years. Today women fly every type of military aircraft than men fly. Women have served as aerobatic pilots for the USAF Thunderbirds and the latest news is that there is a woman Blue Angel who flies for the U.S. Navy. Women in today’s world can enroll to become a military pilot or undergo navigator training and learn to operate any aircraft, as well as fly in combat.


This material is from a book manuscript in progress on the history of U.S. women and flight. For a discussion of American women in World War I, see Kimberly Jensen, Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, c. 2008).

See also
Women Aviators Finally Fill Cockpits of Military Aircraft
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 19, 2003