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No. 1503:
New Women Fliers

Today, a new generation of women fliers. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Early airplanes drew women to them. Women wanted freedom from their corseted Victorian lives and those new machines pointed the way. We glimpse the mood of the first generation of women who took to the air, at an air show near Boston in the summer of 1912.

The beautiful and flamboyant Harriet Quimby, first woman to fly the English Channel, was piloting her Bleriot airplane. It lurched suddenly and she fell to her death. Watching her was an-other flier, Ruth Law, who went on to an illustrious career as a barnstormer. After Law gave it up, she grumbled that:

Things are so proper now ... A pilot has so many rules ... to follow ... I couldn't skim over the rooftops or land in the streets ... The good old days of flying are gone.

These women were daredevils of the old school. The new generation of women fliers, after WW-I, was still daring but also more purposeful. Airplanes now had greater range. Flight was reaching into the far corners of the world. Amelia Earhart came out of America. Beryl Markham, who first flew the Atlantic East-to-West, learned to fly in British East Africa.

Jean Batten had been a three-year-old child in New Zealand when Harriet Quimby fell from the sky. Batten learned to fly in 1928. Like Katherine Stinson sixteen years before her, Batten had sold her piano to pay for flying lessons. Like Stinson, Batten's superior motor skills had been honed on the piano.

Stinson had gone from America to France to learn flying. Batten went from New Zealand to England. In 1933, she set a record flying from England back to Australia. Then she set a second record by being first to make the return trip. She crossed the South Atlantic Ocean in record time. She took hair-raising risks and set other records. She was probably a greater pilot than Earhart, but (unlike Earhart) she retired and lived to the age of 75.

The year Batten flew from England to Australia, a 17-year-old girl named Nancy Bird was learning to fly in Australia. Nancy Bird's life took a new path entirely. Within two years, she was the youngest woman ever to hold a commercial pilot's license.

She did some racing, but she proved less interested in record-setting than in public service. A Catholic Priest recruited her to help take medical service into the western Australia outback. Still a teen-ager, Bird became a lifeline to remote settlers - shuttling fresh fruit, getting the sick to hospitals in Sydney, and earning barely enough to keep her airplane aloft by shuttling passengers.

It was in women like Nancy Bird that all the stunting and record setting finally bore its fruit. It may seem ironic to find flight maturing at the hands of a nineteen-year-old. But hasn't it always taken the young to make sense of their forebears' still half-formed ideas.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Lomax, J., Women of the Air. New York: Ivy Books, 1987.

Welch, R., Encyclopedia of Women in Aviation and Space. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1998.

See also Episode 289 and a longer essay on women and flight.

Jean BattenNancy Bird
Jean Batten (left) and Nancy Bird (right)