The Women Pilots that History Forgot
November 21, 2016
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  • More than 100 years after Harriet Quimby broke down barriers as the first woman to earn a pilot certificate, there are still very few women who choose flying as a career.

    Worldwide, only 3% of airline pilots are women, the Royal Aeronautical Society said earlier this month.

    Now, there’s a move to change that.

    And the obvious place to begin is by highlighting the achievements of the long-forgotten queens of the air — the women who ignored the men who scorned them, broke through the restrictions society placed on them, and paved the way for Amelia Earhart.

    “Outstanding historic female pilots are largely unknown as role models to non-aviator women,” said Penny Hamilton, whose project, Teaching Women to Fly, aims to do just that.

    Here are three of them, whose stories researcher and author Lauria Notaro dug up for her book, Crossing the Horizon:

    Miss America of Aviation: Ruth Elder

    Ruth Elder was known for her beauty and acting, but her real dream was to become the female version of transatlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh.

    Newspapers at the time loved to describe her as ‘the pretty American girl’ who refused to give up her dream of flying from New York to Paris. 

    A woman out of her time, she even put flying above marriage. 

    “Her husband complained that she devoted all her attention to aviation and none to her home,” reported The Scotsman in 1930.

    But mechanical problems caused her monoplane, and dream, to crash in her last attempt on October 11, 1927.

    She survived, floating in the Atlantic Ocean, 360 miles from land before she was rescued. At the time, it was the longest flight ever made by a woman.

    “I knew if the venture succeeded it would lift me from obscurity. If it failed, and I went down, it would only be another useless life lost,” Elder told the Sunday Mail.

    Her name, while often overlooked, will forever linked to the title “Miss America of Aviation”.

    A British Earl’s daring daughter: Elsie Mackay

    The daughter of British Earl James Mackay, Elsie Mackay insisted on being both an actress and a flier.

    She was better known by the public as Poppy Wyndam. That’s the name she picked to avoid her father’s ire in her career choices.

    But while Mackay stared in eight films, she died trying to accomplish her true dream: becoming the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air in March 1928.

    Mackay flew under a male pseudonym and planned her entire flight in secrecy, researcher and author Laurie Notaro told CNN. This included “bringing an airplane over from the United States because no one would sell her one in England.”

    The queen of diamonds and air: Mabel Boll

    Mabel Boll, got her nickname — the Queen of Diamonds — because she loved her sparkly jewelery. But the American socialite loved flying even more. She wanted to be remembered as the ‘Queen of the Air.’

    When living in Paris as a young widow, she tried to find a pilot to fly with her across the Atlantic in January 1928.

    “Mabel Boll was also Amelia Earhart’s closest and fiercest competitor. She and Earhart were stationed 90 miles apart on Newfoundland, depending on the same weather reports to make their transatlantic attempts,” Notaro told CNN.

    Boll didn’t succeed. Earhard made the crossing six months later, in June.

    Why remember these women?

    “Everyone knows about Charles Lindbergh, but that’s not the case for these women,” Notaro said. “History turned its back on them. I very much wanted to right that wrong.”

    “We have to remember the other pioneering aviatrixes who paved the way for Amelia Earhart as well as all of the woman pilots that came after them,” she added.

    For Hamilton, the aviation researcher, focusing on these women can inspire young girls.

    “It helps young women see that they can actually follow their aviation or aerospace dreams because they see the face of a woman trailblazer,” Hamilton said.