Women in Aviation

Aviation Medicine
Women in Aviation
Military Medicine


"Oh my God - it's a woman!"

Comment by a station owner when Nancy Bird landed on his property.

The following is adapted from the introduction to a paper I wrote for the Australian Military Medicine Association in 1997. The paper was entitled "Fast women: Or why women who fly high performance aircraft are fast but not loose" and I was fortunate enough to win the Weary Dunlop Award for this presentation.  You can download the entire article:

Download here

If you want to explore the area further I have added some links at the bottom of the page.

Women entering a male dominated sphere for the first time will always encounter difficulties. Some of these problems relate to the physical or physiological attributes of the women themselves. Others relate to the attitudes of the men whose world they wish to enter. The Royal Australian Air Force has recently its seen its first females break into one of the last bastions of male domination left in todayís military - the fast jet world.

The concept of flying women is not new. A brief look back at the history books tells us that women played a large role in the early history of aviation. Early pioneers included the Wright Brothers sister Katharine, Harriet Quimby in her purple satin flying suit who was the first woman to fly the channel, and household names such as Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson. Australia even had itís own pioneer aviatrix, the aptly named Nancy Bird, who learned to fly in 1933 at the age of 17 and flew for one of this countryís earliest airborne ambulance services.

Women have also played a major part in the military in general, however the role of female aviators in Western militaries has been an area of politics and controversy, particularly when enough men were available to do the job. Despite this, thousands of female pilots were called upon in World War 2 to fill vacant cockpits and free men for fighting duties.

In the US, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) based at Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas kept the home planes flying from 1943. Eventually over 2 000 women flew over 70 aircraft types in non-combat roles, mostly performing ferrying, training and transport duties. Seventy of these women were killed or injured whilst flying, but it was not until 1977 that the WASPs were granted Veterans status by Congress.

The British kept women aviators out of uniform but had them fulfilling similar functions to the WASPs as part of the civilian Air Transport Auxiliary. It wasnít until 1952 that the first female RAF pilot, Jean Bird, a reservist, was given her full set of wings. By this time she had been flying for 20 years, had over 300 hours on 90 aircraft types and had a Senior Commercial Pilotís licence. In fact she had more experience than most of the instructors who trained her for her wings. Unfortunately the WAAFVR, the only arm of the military in which these women could serve, was disbanded in 1957 due to an early Defence reform program. The Russians were far more progressive in World War 2, allowing women to fly in a combat role and creating entire female bomber and fighter regiments.

After the war, the surplus of fully qualified male pilots meant that women, who were still unable to take on a combat role, were relegated back to their "proper" positions as wives and mothers. The one exception to this was the USSR who continued to allow women to fly and in 1962 put the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova.

The role of females in society gradually changed over subsequent years and in the 1970s female aviators once again began training in Western Defence Forces. In the late seventies and early eighties the Canadians conducted the "Servicewomen in Non-traditional Roles" (SWINTER) study, culminating in the first female CF-18 pilots undergoing training in 1987. The US soon followed and now most Western militaries allow women to fly all aircraft types.

Australia lagged a little behind in this area. Some women apparently  managed to slip the shackles and fly in the UK during the war with the ATA, but our first female military pilots did not graduate until 1988. Fast jets were opened to women in 1995, however the first candidate unfortunately failed Introductory Fighter Course (IFC). In 1997 an ex transport pilot passed IFC and  commenced F-111 conversion however opted Girl Navs out of finishing training. 1999 saw two firsts - the first Australian female military aerobatic pilot and the graduation of the first female F-111 navigators  who became the first Australian female fast jet aircrew.

Some of the reasons given for females NOT to  fly fast jets (as touted by men):


"Women canít fly fast jets - their tits will sag, and their wombs will fall out"

Crusty Old Jet Jockey, 1991


"Men do not believe us capable."

Amelia Earhart, 1930s

"Women's Problems" - specific health issues

"I just donít trust something that bleeds for five days and doesnít die"

Mr. Garrison, South Park, 1999

Cultural and Attitudinal

"You would not want to fly a combat mission with a woman."

 Ex USAF Chief of Staff, 1992

Want to read more? The reference for my article is: 

Smart TL. Fast women: Or why women who fly high performance aircraft are fast but not loose. Aust Mil Med 1998; 7(1):8-16 

OR Download the entire article in pdf format 

Fast women: Or why women who fly high performance aircraft are fast but not loose


You'll will find out more about female aviators by checking out these links:


Australian Women Pilots Association - formed by Nancy Bird Walton who is still a member, or at least was the last time I spoke to her.


British Women's Pilots Association


Military Women - incredibly this site also pays tribute to Xena!


The International Organization of Women Pilots (the 99s) - has a great history section.


The International Womenís Air and Space Museum - the site I used to  gather much of the historical information presented above.


Women Airforce Service Pilots 


Women in Aerospace


Women in Aviation - includes a timeline


Women in Aviation Resource Center


Women in Aviation International


Women of NASA


Women's Achievements in Aviation and Space - a special exhibit on the NASA website.

Individual Female Aviators:

Nancy Bird


Bessie Coleman - pioneering African American pilot


Amelia Earhart


Amy Johnson


Harriet Quimby


Valentina Tereshkova


'Baroness' Raymonde de Laroche - my new favourite - first woman to fly!

For more links to tales of remarkable women go to:


Australian and New Zealand Women Aviation Pioneers


Aviatrices : Yep, the Girls were up there too!


WIARC's Featured Women page.



Copyright © Warriordoc 2000, 2001, 2002. All Rights Reserved