Women at the turn of the twentieth century refused to be excluded from the excitement of aviation even though it was dangerous. These early “aviatrixes” proved women had the strength and courage to conquer the sky.
First American Woman to Solo in an Airplane
Blanche Stuart Scott became the first American woman to solo in a fixed-wing, heavier-than-air machine on September 2, 1910, after Glenn Curtiss reluctantly gave her flying lessons.
First American Woman with a Pilot’s License
Harriet Quimby became the first American woman with a pilot’s license on August 1, 1911. As an author, she shared with her readers firsthand accounts of her aviation thrills including her success as the first female pilot to cross the English Channel.
First Black Licensed Pilot in the World
After being denied entrance to flying school due to her race and gender, Bessie Coleman took lessons in Europe. Earning her pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale on June 15, 1921, she became the first Black pilot with a civil aviation license.
The First Woman to Fly Non-Stop across the Atlantic Ocean
Amelia Earhart gained international attention in 1928 after becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean as a passenger. Four years later she again gained admiration when she piloted her own aircraft non-stop across the Atlantic. Her mysterious disappearance in 1937 added to her legend.
Women Airforce Service Pilots
During World War II women served with the US Army Air Forces in a civilian capacity under the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program. WASP flew nearly every type of USAAF aircraft from light trainers to heavy bombers. Driven by their patriotic commitment, they inspired other women who would one day be allowed to serve in the military.
America’s First Woman to Fly a Jet
Ann Baumgartner Carl served with the WASP at Wright Field, Ohio, testing aeromedical equipment and as assistant operations officer for the fighter test section. On October 14, 1944, she flew America’s first jet aircraft, the Bell YP-59A, becoming America’s first woman to fly a jet.
One of the First Chinese-American Women to Earn a Pilot’s License
Hazel Ying Lee, one of the first Chinese-American women to earn a pilot’s license, was also the first Chinese-American pilot to fly for the WASP. She graduated from Pursuit School qualifying to fly high-powered fighters like the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, North American P-51 Mustang, and the Bell P-63 King Cobra.
Carrying on His Mission
Nadine Canfield Nagle, an Ohio native, was moved to participate in the war effort after her husband was killed in action. Carrying on his mission, she enrolled, trained, and served with the WASP.
The Only Native American to Join the WASP
Ola Rexroat, an Ogala Sioux, was the only Native American to join the WASP. She towed aerial gunnery targets and transported cargo and personnel. After the war, Rexroat served for ten years as an air traffic controller in the Air Force.
Thousands of women supported the Army Air Forces during World War II in medical professional roles. These women, primarily nurses, continued to support the Army Air Forces and Air Force until transferring to the Air Force Medical Service when it activated in July 1949. While women were a common presence in nursing and other health professional roles, it was 1951 before the first female physician joined the Air Force.
First Woman in the National Guard
Captain (later lieutenant colonel) Norma Parsons served with the US Army Air Forces during World War II as a flight nurse and returned to military service in 1950 as an in-theater nurse during the Korean War. During the conflict, Parsons was one of few women flying close to the front lines during evacuation missions for the critically injured. In 1956 with the passage of Public Law 845, Parsons commissioned with the Air National Guard, becoming the first woman to serve in the National Guard.
Air Force’s First Female Physician
Captain Dorothy Elias was commissioned as the first female physician in the US Air Force on March 14, 1951. Assigned to the indoctrination center at Sampson Air Force Base, New York, Dr. Elias served for one year. After completing her term of enlistment there were no other women physicians until April 1962 when Lieutenant (later lieutenant colonel) Patricia Nell, MD commissioned in the Air Force Medical Corps Reserve.
Women in Music
The 543d Air Force Band, best known as the WAF Band, existed from 1951 to 1961 with a total of 235 female musicians participating during the band’s lifetime. Women in the band became USAF ambassadors in their status as touring representations of the military. Their performances served as a recruiting tool, boosted troop morale, and inspired citizens to a heightened sense of patriotism.
Leader of the WAF Band
Captain MaryBelle Johns Nissly returned to military life in 1951 after the Chief of Bands and Music for the Air Force recruited her to conduct and command the WAF Band. Captain Nissly supported the women in the WAF Band as they overcame limitations on women in the armed services. During the 1950s the WAF Band was one of few places where women could find work as professional musicians.
One of the Top Trumpeters in the Nation
Airman Third Class (later master sergeant) Martha “Martye” Awkerman served with the WAF Band as cornet soloist, lead trumpet, and dance band leader from 1955 until the band inactivated in 1961. While in the WAF Band she was regarded as one of the top women trumpeters in the nation.
First Woman in the USAF Band
In 1972, Technical Sergeant (later senior master sergeant) Karen Riale Erler earned an audition with the integrated USAF Band. She was the first female instrumentalist (clarinet) to join an Air Force band since the inactivation of the WAF Band in 1961. She was also the first female instrumentalist to join any of the premier military bands and the first woman to be selected for the Inter-Service Symphonic Band, an elite band made up from each of the military service’s bands.
Counter snipers, Security Forces members with specialized training, are charged with protecting equipment and people. Upon completion of the Close Precision Engagement Course, counter sniper teams provide security for Air Force personnel and resources by defending flight lines, watching over sensitive operations, and removing enemy sniper threats. Women have been involved in this precision work since 2001.
First Female Sniper
Senior Airman (later captain) Jennifer Donaldson Weitekamp graduated from Counter Sniper School on April 14, 2001, becoming the Air Force’s, and the US military’s, first female sniper. Weitekamp had served as a patroller with the Illinois Air National Guard prior to enrolling in the advanced security forces training. Donaldson spent six years with Security Forces deploying several times in support of Operations NOBLE EAGLE and ENDURING FREEDOM before she was commissioned as an officer.
Excelling in Non-Traditional Roles
Senior Airman Polly-Jan Bobseine, a Security Forces fire-team member, is the personification of female strength in a male-dominated environment. Over several deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan during the mid-2000s, she participated in numerous high-risk operations. In 2008 Airman Bobseine gained attention for eliminating a terrorist 725 yards away from her concealed position while he planted an improvised explosive device.
On January 7, 2020, an all-female team from the 31st Munition Squadron and 731st Munition Squadron proved their ability to generate a sortie during the Rapid Aircraft Generation and Employment (RAGE) competition. The six-member team, nicknamed the Bouncing Bettys, won the quarterly bomb-building competition at Aviano Air Base, Italy.
The team of women highlighted the impact women have on preparing aircraft for combat flights, and also honored women’s history in the munitions environment. All of the women on the team dressed as Women Ordnance Workers (WOW) from World War II. WOWs played an integral role in the success of the US’s war effort by assembling munitions in rural factories. The Bouncing Bettys were named after M16 anti-personnel land mines.
Fighter Pilot Firsts
In April 1993 the Department of Defense (DoD) lifted the Combat Exclusion Policy, a 45-year old practice preventing women from serving in combat roles. This policy change only affected aviation positions, but allowed women to fly any Air Force aircraft.
First Female Fighter Pilot
In 1992 when Second Lieutenant (later major general) Jeannie Flynn Leavitt joined the USAF, women were restricted from flying combat missions. Once the DoD repealed the policy she enrolled in the F-15E Formal Training Course. Upon graduation in 1994 she became the first USAF female fighter pilot. Since earning her wings, Leavitt has logged more than 3,000 flight hours with over 300 hours in combat.
First Female Raptor Pilot
In 2008 Captain (later lieutenant colonel) Jammie Jamieson became the first female operational and combat-ready F-22A Raptor pilot. In addition to breaking into one of the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft she was a member of the Air Force Women’s Initiative Team reviewing occupational hazards for pregnant pilots and how to improve female aviator retention rates.
First Female F-35 Test Pilot
In December 2018 Major Rachael Winiecki, a developmental test pilot, flew her first test flight in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Major Winiecki used her knowledge of close-air support, combat search-and-rescue, and forward air controller tactics to test the stealth aircraft’s air-to-ground capabilities in addition to its air-to-air abilities. As a test pilot Major Winiecki ensured all products were safe, secure, effective, and efficient for the war fighter.
Fighter Pilots in Combat
While the Department of Defense lifted the Combat Exclusion Policy in 1993, it was two years before women flew their first combat sorties. Women entering fighter pilot training courses underwent the same training as men and experienced similar difficult combat situations.
Surviving the Enemy
On April 7, 2003 an enemy surface-to-air missile hit Captain (later colonel) Kim “Killer Chick” Campbell’s A/OA-10 while she provided close air support to ground forces. The missile struck the aircraft’s tail, impairing both hydraulic systems. Captain Campbell switched into manual reversion flight control mode and started the long return to Kuwait. Hand cranking cables and wires rigged to the aircraft flaps and rudders, she manually landed the A-10. For her heroism and selfless devotion to duty during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, Captain Campbell received the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor.
All Female Crew in Combat
On March 30, 2011, Dudette 07, the first all-female Air Force combat mission, flew over Afghanistan. The two-ship formation consisted of all women, with two F-15E pilots and two weapon system officers reinforced by an all-female crew of mission planners and maintainers. During the mission the women provided air support to coalition and Afghan forces taking on enemy fire in the Kunar Valley just west of the Pakistan border.
Mercury 13 Astronaut Program
From 1959 to 1961 thirteen women trained to join the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) astronaut program. Regardless of how well they scored on the grueling fitness, psychological, personality, and intelligence tests, NASA denied their requests. Some of the women far exceeded the men’s test results, including Geraldyn Cobb who scored in the top two percent of all test subjects. In 1962 the women went before the US Congress special subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics petitioning for the right to resume the test program, but no action resulted.
Women in Space
NASA never accepted any of the women from the Mercury 13 testing program in spite of petitions to President John F. Kennedy and public hearings before the House Committee on Science and Astronautics. In 1978 NASA selected its first female astronaut candidates and five years the first American woman went into space.
Research Chemist in Space
Second Lieutenant (later colonel) Catherine “Cady” Coleman entered USAF active duty in 1988 as a research chemist at the Air Force Research Laboratory. In 1992 NASA selected Coleman to join its Astronaut Corps, where she remained on special detached duty from the USAF until 2009. During her astronaut career Coleman logged more than 4,330 hours in space aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia and the International Space Station. As a mission specialist her responsibilities included deploying of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, supervising more than 100 science and technology experiments, and recording the first album in space while playing her flute.
Tanker Pilot Turned Astronaut
After earning her KC-10 pilot wings in 1985, Second Lieutenant (later colonel) Pamela Melroy logged over 5,000 hours of flight time as a tanker pilot and test pilot with over 200 combat and combat support hours in support of Operations JUST CAUSE and DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM. In December 1994 NASA selected Melroy to join its Astronaut Corps where she qualified for shuttle pilot duties. During her career she logged 924 hours in space on three assembly missions to build the International Space Station. Melroy served as pilot on two missions and mission commander on one, becoming the second woman to command a space shuttle mission.