History tells us that the first licensed woman pilot in the United States was Harriet Quimby in 1911. History forgets to tell us that Katherine Wright, sister of the Wright brothers, had as much to do with the first flight at Kittyhawk as did her brothers. Women flew airplanes before they could vote - but not in the U.S. military!
During WWI Princess Eugenie Shakhovskaya and Princess Sophie Alexandrovna Dolgorunaya were among the first women to become military pilots in Europe and though American women pilots volunteered, none were taken seriously. We all know the story of the gallant WASP pilots - women who flew every airplane made during WWII - including an experimental jet at 350 mph at 35,000 feet, (flown by Ann Baumgartner in 1944) - yet were not considered military pilots until decades later.
Jacqueline Cochran broke the sound barrier in 1953, set speed and altitude records and lobbied for the use of women pilots in the military - to no avail. Civilian women were flying over the North Pole, around the world, and through the sound barrier but until the '70s the military resisted having women pilots.
The Navy, not the Air Force, took the first step - in 1974 six women earned their wings and became the first Naval aviators. The Army followed suit in 1974 and trained female helicopter pilots.
The Air Force caught up in 1976 and admitted women to the pilot training program. But there was a catch. By virtue of exisiting policies, their flying was limited to non-combat. Military women pilots would not be flying combat missions.
At least not yet.
The first ten female officers to graduate
from Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training
- T-38- Williams AFB, Arizona.
1977. Dept. of Defense Photo.
Although the military finally trained women pilots the services still played games with gender quotas, the pilot slots, combat exclusion laws and the type aircraft women were allowed to fly. From 1976 to 1993 women pilots were kept out of the cockpits of combat aircraft - in actual combat. Even though women aviators flew during Panama, Grenada and Desert Storm their presence was somehow "excluded" from combat records. Not until 1993 were women allowed to fly combat aircraft.
The first woman pilot in the United States flew in 1911 - it took the military 65 years to recognize and train women as pilots and another seventeen years to permit them to invade the sacrosanct area of combat aircraft. Gratefully the tide is turning. An all women Air Force Fly Over team was present at the dedication of the Women's Memorial in 1997. A female Air Force Colonel - Eileen Collins - was the first woman to command a space shuttle mission in 1999. Air Force B-52's and Navy Tomcats are being flown by women.
Finally - the sky is not the limit for women in the military!
The 2006 Air Force Thunderbirds team includes first female pilot. Major Nicole Malachowski, of the 494th Fighter Squadron at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, joins the team as the first female demonstration pilot on any U.S. military high performance jet team.
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