A Brief History
On June 4, 1784, Élisabeth Thible became the first woman to fly in an untethered hot air balloon, soaring for a 4 kilometer trip that took 45 minutes and reached perhaps 5000 feet above the ground, making her the world’s first female aviatrix. Today we discus 10 brave women who dared death or severe injury in the quest of a thrill or an accomplishment that other women could be proud of. (Note: 10 is not enough to give dare devil flying women justice, so an additional list of 10 Military Women Aviators will be forthcoming!)
1. Elisabeth Thible, first woman to fly, 1784.
The history of manned flight is dominated by men inventing and testing their various flying contraptions, but not because women were afraid to risk their lives, but rather because of social norms and mores that kept women out of the engineering field. Once humans started getting off the ground, women were eager to risk their lives for the thrill of flying. Elisabeth Thible, a Frenchwoman from Lyon, is probably the first female to have flown.
2. Jeanne LaBrosse, first woman to solo in a balloon, first woman to parachute, 1788
The Montgolfier brothers of France were the first to successfully harness the physics of heated air causing a balloon large enough o carry people up into the air, and it did not take long for adventurous women to want to fly high in the sky as well. Being a passenger is one thing, but being the solo pilot is quite another, and Jeanne LaBrosse is the first known woman to fly solo in any sort of airship. She also has the distinction of being the first woman to parachute, an even more risky and adventurous feat. The parachute fall was accomplished not in a conventional harness, but in a balloon gondola.
3. Jackie Cochran, first female supersonic pilot, 1953.
On May 18, 1953, 46-year-old Jackie Cochran, a world famous female racing pilot, while flying a Canadian Air Force F-86 Sabre over Rogers Dry Lake, California at a record speed of 652.3 mph, took the plane in a dive, causing the tell-tale “sonic boom,” thereby becoming the first woman to pilot an airplane at a supersonic speed. Not only was she the first woman to fly supersonic, in 1961, while piloting a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, she became the first woman to fly at Mach II (twice the speed of sound)!!! Cochran is probably the most significant female aviation record breaker of all time.
4. Amelia Earhart, first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, 1928.
If an American man, Charles Lindbergh, could do it, certainly so could an American woman, so a year later Earhart completed her historic flight, a risky business even in a large airplane with a several person crew, let alone a single pilot all alone. Earhart was one of the premier female aviation pioneers and was famously lost on one of her dare devil excursions in an attempt to circumnavigate the Earth in 1937 by airplane. Earhart was probably the most inspirational example for female pilots in history.
5. Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space, 1963.
In the early days of manned space flight, astronauts (or cosmonauts if you are Russian) were thought to be some sort of super tough guy he-man, bold and brave and tough. This assessment was indeed correct, but unlike the Americans, the Soviets realized that a woman could also be just as brave and tough as a man when it came to ‘going where no man (or woman) had gone before.’ Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian woman, was, the first of 59 women (so far) that have traveled in space. This space pioneer is quite the heroine in Russia, having been politically active in the old Soviet Union and in the post-communist Russia. She was honored to be the flag carrier at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Valentina was only the 12th person in space and was the first civilian to make a space flight. The first American female in space was Sally Ride in 1983, tied for the 120th person in space. Ride died of pancreatic cancer in 2012 at only age 61. Note: Ralph Cramden offering his wife, Alice, a “trip to the moon” on The Honeymooners does not qualify. How sad for us that it took the US 20 years after Tereshkova’s flight to put a woman into space. President Trump announced in 2019 that he planned to arrange for the first woman to land on the Moon in an upcoming lunar flight program.
6. Aida de Acosta, first woman to solo in a motorized aircraft (dirigible), 1903.
Dirigibles were rigid framed lighter than air airships filled with Hydrogen gas, a highly flammable and explosive substance as evidenced by the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, that were powered by gasoline or diesel engines driving propellers. (Note: The United States had a near monopoly on safe, inert Helium gas, which it used in American airships.) In 1903, the practice of flight in a dirigible was still highly dangerous, but this did not stop Aida from taking the helm of a dirigible after only 3 flying lessons! Aida was an American woman on vacation in France when she made her historic solo flight. She later founded the first ever eye bank in the US.
7. Emma Lilian Todd, first woman to design an airplane, 1910.
Starting in 1906, American aviation pioneer Emma Todd flouted social norms by delving into the newly evolving field of aircraft design. By 1910 she had designed her first successful airplane, test flown by French aviation pioneer Didier Masson. Incredibly, reflecting the paternal nature of society, Todd was denied a permit to fly her own airplane!
8. Thérèse Peltier, first woman airplane passenger, first woman to pilot an airplane, 1908.
Records of the earliest flights are not complete, but a degree of possibility exists that Peltier was not only the first female passenger on an airplane flight, she is also quite possibly the first woman to ever fly an airplane solo the same year. Her close friend, Leon Delagrange, a sculptor and early aviation enthusiast, got Peltier interested in flight and when he died in an aviation mishap in 1910, she left the aviation world behind. Peltier’s solo flight was only about 200 meters long at a height of about 2.5 meters but was thrilling and dangerous enough!
9. Raymonde de Laroche, first female licensed pilot, 1910.
Ah, these intrepid French women! Between the US and France, early aviation had a ton of men and women involved in the pioneering of flight, an adventurous and often dangerous enterprise. At least 7 other Frenchwomen followed Laroche in receiving a pilot’s license that year (1910), one of which was Marie Marvingt, the first French woman to receive a balloonist’s pilot license in 1901.
10. Blanche Scott, “Tomboy of the Air,” first female stunt pilot and test pilot,1910.
Self-described “first American woman to fly an airplane,” Scott’s first flight happened when a strong gust of wind lifted her airplane off the ground, so her “flight” was not widely recognized as such. The plane had a power limiter on the throttle so that she could practice taxiing without the risk of taking off. She went on to a career as a stunt pilot, performing at airshows and “barnstorming” across the country. She was also the second woman to drive an automobile across the United States in 1910, driving a Willys-Overland car (the people that later invented the Jeep). Despite her dare devil flying, Scott lived to the old age of 84 years and died in 1970. The first woman stunt pilot, she was known for flying upside down and taking “death dives” to thrill the audience. In 1912, she became the first ever female test pilot, working for Glenn Martin. She retired from flying in 1916 in protest of the limited positions in aviation mechanics, design and engineering for women.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who do you believe is the greatest female Dare Devil? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
O’Brien, Keith. Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.
Van Wagenen Kiel, Sally. Those Wonderful Women in Their Flying Machines: The Unknown Heroines of World War Two. Four Directions, 1994.
Welch, Roseanne. Encyclopedia of Women in Aviation and Space. ABC-CLIO, 1998.
The featured image in this article, artwork published in the 1870s in a historical Parisian fashion magazine showing spectators watching French balloonist Jeanne-Genevieve Garnerin (born 1779) ascending in a balloon on 28 March 1802, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924. See this page for further explanation.