First Women Pilots: Early Female Pioneers of Aviation

Portrait of Matilde Moisant (left) and Harriet Quimby (right) Circa 1911-1912

Breaking into aviation was no easy chore for females at the turn of the century. Many were forced to take chances and risk their lives to further their cause.

First Females in the Sky

The first female to leave the earths surface was Elizabeth Thible of Lyons, France, and she accomplished this feat by floating over a mile above the ground in a hot-air balloon in 1784.

As early as 1798 women in Europe were piloting balloons on solo flights. One of the most famous was Madeleine Sophie Blanchard a famous French balloonist who was appointed official Aeronaut of the Empire by Napoleon.

She toured Europe and attracted huge crowds that wanted to view the spectacle, but tragically she plunged to her death in 1819 during a dangerous aerial fireworks display.

By 1834 Europe was leading the way for female aviators with over twenty-two different women having successful made solo flights in their own balloons.

Mary Myers of Frankford, New York was one of the first women balloonists in America to make a solo flight in the 1880‘s. She was known as “Carlotta, the Lady Aeronaut” and became famous for performing aerial exhibitions. She also set a world altitude record in 1886.

But it wasn’t until 1911 that Harriet Quimby became the first licensed female airplane pilot in America and Matilde Moisant the second shortly thereafter.

Harriet was a San Francisco based writer who relocated to New York in 1903 to write for Leslie’s Weekly.

Harriet Quimby wrote a series of articles about flying and the potential for carrying passengers and parcels and was a member of the Moisant International Aviators exhibition team.

On April, 16th 1912 she successfully crosses the English Channel by flying from Dover to Hardolot, France.

She was Americas sweetheart and had a large following and helped launch much interest in flying and sparked the bug in many women to pursue careers in aviation.

Later that year in June, her career as a pilot came to a tragic end when both Harriet and her passenger were thrown from the her plane built by Frenchman Louis Bleriot, when it dove out of control and sent them to a crushing death in shallow water.

Matilde Moisant retired from flying in April, 1912 after surviving a horrifying crash in Wichita Falls Texas after performing aerial stunts.

The crash was caused by spectators who crowded onto the landing field causing her to take emergency evasive action and subsequently loosing control of the plane.

These types of tragedies sadly, only served to perpetuate the sentiment among male pilots and the general public at the time that females had no place in the sky.

The resistance to lady pilots was profound! Arguments arose regarding a woman’s physical ability to control a plane, considering their naturally weaker physique, and the thinner air in the upper atmosphere.

But, the most widely believed criticism of female pilots was the perceived belief that women were prone to panic and thus were temperamentally unfit to fly.

The path for lady pilots was not an easy one, meeting with resistance and stumbling blocks all along the way. Women had extreme difficulty getting flight training or hired in flight based professions.

Early women aviators got involved in record-breaking and long-distance flying, and dangerous stunts to attract attention and raise funds because of their exclusion from being test pilots or operating transport aircraft.

Airplane racer Helen Richey was hired by Central Airlines in 1934 as the first woman pilot on a regularly scheduled airline, but later resigned because of the Pilot Unions refusal to accept her, and the condescending restrictions they forced upon the airlines to allow her to fly only in good weather.

The road for female pilots in America was a difficult path, but with the courage, and perseverance of female pilots like Harriet Quimby and Matilde Moisant they paved the way and helped to carve out a permanent place for themselves in aviation history.


  1. Moolman, Valerie. Women Aloft, which is part of The Epic of Flight series by Time-Life Books 1981.