By Valerie Ward
In 2011, the centenary of British women pilots was celebrated by the British Women Pilots Association. 29 August 2011 was dubbed Hilda Hewlett Day, 100 years since she became the first woman to hold a UK pilot’s licence. Women were involved in aviation from the earliest days, with balloons, parachute jumps and early aircraft, but when military and commercial activities developed, flying was widely regarded as a job for men. Women pilots struggled to gain acceptance against established male prejudice. Many of the women pilots who made pioneering flights said afterwards that they did it because they couldn’t get a ‘proper job’ as a pilot, commercial or military. Between the wars most female pilots and aircraft owners came from wealthy backgrounds; those with a less privileged upbringing had to be very determined to get into the air. Some women managed to become flying instructors, aircraft engineers, or operated air-taxi companies, and a handful became involved in aeroplane design and production, perhaps as the wife of an aircraft manufacturer. Otherwise stunt flying and record attempts were the only means for most women to earn any money as pilots. Some of the women had androgynous nicknames; ‘Call me Johnnie’ said Amy Johnson, and others might be Billie or Jackie, but that didn’t mean they wished they were male, it just helped to gain acceptance in a man’s world. When the Second World War came along female pilots flew in non-combat roles in the ATA and WASPs, and proved their worth, delivering aircraft of all sizes and degrees of complexity, but in Russia (where at least five women pilots had served in the Great War) three female regiments flew in combat. When the war ended, however, women were expected to give up their flying roles and leave them to men. The second half of the 20th century saw a slow acceptance of women pilots in commercial aviation and military roles in almost all countries. In this book we meet over 100 aviatrices from over a century of women flying. The author, Valerie Ward has always been fascinated by aviation, but she was in her forties before she took the controls of an aircraft (a Cessna twin above), and in her fifties when she took the plunge and began flying lessons, though she doubts if she will ever achieve a PPL.
A member of Sherburn Flying Club, close to where she lives in North Yorkshire, she has flown in Cessnas, Pipers, Robins and even an Extra aerobatic aircraft.
An interest in the lives of Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart led her to other aviatrices, and to build up an extensive reference library on them. This little book is her tribute to those women pilots who blazed the trail for future female flyers. Some of those described in this publication are famous pioneers or record-breakers, others were the first in their chosen field. Very few saw themselves as ‘pioneers’, however; all they wanted to do was fly. It is impossible to offer detailed stories of every aviatrix in this small publication, but Valerie hopes that it will encourage further reading and research, and perhaps help to inspire a new generation of women pilots.