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Female Pilots with Attitude

Patricia Sullivan

At a time when we routinely accept women in virtually all professions, trades and roles, it's sometimes hard to remember how long it took to get here. I particularly like being reminded of those who broke barriers and remained true to their personalities and beliefs.

The 1920s and 1930s were one of those periods when a lot of women suddenly broke through earlier societal constraints. They had won the right to vote in 1920, a number of young women gained admission to medical school and the economy was booming.

In this atmosphere, a very young Elinor Smith took up flying. She seized the airplane yoke at age eight and was the youngest person to get her pilot's license at age 16. (She later married a Sullivan, but was known in aviation by her maiden name. No relation to me.) A contemporary and friend of Amelia Earhart, she also had a rivalry going with her celebrated colleague.


While writing about her yesterday, I was reminded about another aviatrix I wrote about six years ago, Jean Ross Howard Phelan.

A firecracker who was one of the first female helicopter pilots, she too had a vivid personality. The story is no longer on our site, so the link is a .doc from our archives. However, it doesn't contain her photo, which is one of my favorites from the obit columns -- Love that wink. It is reproduced here courtesy of Carolyn Russo, who wrote a Smithsonian book on women and flight.

She's wrapped in a quilt that the Whirly-Girls, an international group of female helicopter pilots, created. That quilt didn't come easily. When asked to embroider their name, number and country on a square of muslim, some of the women wrote back "I'd rather hover in a crosswind than embroider."

Don't fail to read to the end; she had a great quote about how to survive a middle of the night heart attack.

By Patricia Sullivan  |  March 24, 2010; 11:19 AM ET
Categories:  Patricia Sullivan  
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