These Early Female Aviators Broke Records, Changed the World

Nearly a century ago, a small group of pioneering women took to the sky.

Pilot Ruth Elder (1902 - 1977) standing in front of her plane. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Though Amelia Earhart is the most famous female aviator, she was not the only woman storming the skies in rickety open-cockpit planes in the 1920s.

In 1928, fewer than a dozen American women held pilot’s licenses, but a small group of them was determined to change the face of flying, according to Outside Online. They did this with new speed and distance records, daring theatrics in airborne races, including repairing their planes in midair and jumping out of fiery crashes.

“It would have been impossible to be a child growing up in America [in the late 1920s and ’30s] and open your newspaper every day or hear your radio programs every night and not hear the stories of these women,” says Keith O’Brien, author of the new book Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History, told Outside. “They were huge stars. Actually, that word doesn’t do them justice. They were icons.”

In his book, O’Brien talks about five pioneering women pilots — Amelia Earhart, Ruth Elder, Florence Klingensmith, Ruth Nichols, and Louise Thaden — who came together for the right to race against men, and sometimes beat them.

At the time, airplanes were made out of wood and fabric, and flying was extremely dangerous with frequent in-air malfunctions. The cockpit was deemed no place for a woman — a societal norm these five female ignored.

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