Recognizing five trailblazing female aviators throughout aviation’s history.

Every year, March 8th marks International Women’s Day, a day recognizing the achievements of women and raising awareness of women’s equality issues across various industries.

Female aviators have been a part of aviation since the dawn of flying. However, a significant journey remains ahead in terms of women’s representation within the industry. Although slowly growing, the share of women in the cockpit, seen as the highest-status aviation career, is still pitifully small.

According to a report by CAPA, the percentage of women airline pilots globally varies between 4% and 6%. Another stark reality is that aviation has much catching up to do, as only 3% of CEOs in the industry are women, according to the Airports Council International (ACI).

To mark the day, this article recognizes five trailblazing female aviators over the years.

1 Raymonde de Laroche

The world’s first licensed female pilot

Additionally, she:

  • Is assumed to be the first woman to pilot a plane.
  • Received the 36th aeroplane pilot’s license issued by the Aeroclub de France (the world’s first pilot license issuing organization.

Raymonde de Laroche, born Elise Raymonde Deroche on August 22nd, 1882, in Paris, France, ventured into acting during her twenties. Embracing the stage, she adopted the name “Raymonde de Laroche,” which she retained throughout her career.

Aviation entered de Laroche’s life during the Wright brothers’ Flyer demonstration events in Paris in 1908, revealing to her the possibility of flight. She commenced training in 1909 in Chalons, France, and achieved her first solo flight the same year, demonstrating remarkable aptitude in her new endeavor.

Coincidentally, as we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, de Laroche was granted license number 36 on this very day in 1910. Today, 114 years ago, she became the first woman to receive an official pilot’s license, yet her early years were marked by turbulence. During an airshow in Reims, France, in 1910, she encountered the wake of another aircraft, leading to a crash and severe injuries.

2 Willa Brown

The first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license and a commercial license

Additionally, the:

  • First African American woman to run for the United States Congress
  • First African American officer in the Civil Air Patrol
  • First woman in the U.S. to have both a pilot’s license and an aircraft mechanic’s license

Born in 1906, Willa Brown was an American aviator and civil rights activist. She made history as the first African American woman to obtain both private and commercial pilot licenses. Additionally, Brown was the first African American woman to campaign for a seat in the United States Congress. Alongside these achievements, she held an aircraft mechanic license and was the first African American officer in the Civil Air Patrol.

In her early twenties, Brown graduated from college in 1927 with a bachelor’s degree. A decade later, she earned an MBA from Northwestern University, discovering her passion for aviation. It was during her Master’s studies when Brown joined the Challenger Air Pilots Association and learned to fly at Harlem Field in Chicago’s southwest side. By 1935, she had obtained her Master Mechanic Certificate with a private pilot’s license in 1938 and a commercial pilot’s license in 1939.

Throughout her life, she championed gender and racial equality in aviation, collaborating with diverse associations to foster interest, deepen understanding, and enhance African American involvement in both aviation and aeronautics. Later in her career, she returned to high school teaching, specializing in business and aeronautics until her retirement in 1971. Notably, she served on the Women’s Advisory Committee of the Federal Aviation Administration, becoming the first black woman to do so.

3 Zara Rutherford

The youngest female pilot to fly solo around the world

Additionally, the:

  • First person to complete a circumnavigation in a microlight aircraft after a five-month journey

Born in 2002, Zara Rutherford made headlines in 2021 as the youngest woman to fly solo around the world. The 19-year-old Belgian-British pilot spent 155 days in her Shark Aero ultralight before landing in Kortrijk-Wevelgem, Belgium, successfully completing her round-the-world journey.

Part of the reason for undertaking this challenging journey was to inspire girls and young women to pursue careers in aviation and STEM fields. Reflecting on her motivation, Rutherford commented:

4 Katherine Sui Fun Chueng

The first Chinese woman to obtain an international flying license

Additionally, the:

  • Assumed to be the recipient of the first private license issued to a Chinese woman
  • Became a United States citizen after attaining her licensure

Katherine Sui Fun Chueng, born in Guangdong, China, in 1904, spent the majority of her life in the United States. After completing her education in China, she immigrated to the United States at the age of 17 to pursue music studies.

Her passion for aviation ignited when her father, a produce buyer, brought her to Dycer Airport in Los Angeles while teaching her to drive. Fascinated more by planes than by cars, Chueng expressed a desire to learn to fly. Despite three years of piano studies, Chueng abandoned her schooling; by 1931, Chueng was determined to take up flying. In a letter from a friend back in China, she was informed that Chinese flying schools would not allow women to enroll as pilots, which was not unusual. In the US, only 1% of licensed pilots were women.

After obtaining her private pilot’s license, Chueng showcased her skills at fairs and air shows along the California Coast. She aspired to establish a flight school in China but faced personal losses, including the deaths of her friend Amelia Earheart, her cousin, and her father, as well as her brother’s death in China in 1942, leading her to give up flying. During World War II, she worked as a flight instructor in the United States. After the war, she bought a flower shop, where she worked until retiring in 1970.

5 Phoebe Omlie

The first woman to receive an airplane mechanic’s license

Additonally, the:

  • First licensed female transport pilot
  • First woman to be appointed to a federal position in the aviation field.

Phoebe Omlie, an early American female aviator, was a trailblazer in aviation. Born in 1902, she achieved several significant firsts: she was the first woman to obtain an airplane mechanic’s license, the first licensed female transport pilot, and the first woman appointed to a federal position in the aviation sector.

Beyond the achievements mentioned above, Omlie has made numerous world records in aviation, such as achieving the highest altitude parachute jump by a woman. She also made history as the first woman to traverse the Rocky Mountains in a light aircraft. Notably, according to Gene Nora Jessen’s book, “The Powder Puff Derby of 1929: The First All Women’s Transcontinental Air Race,” First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt considered her one of “eleven women whose achievements demonstrate progress in the world.”












Written by: JT

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