Female First Flights

Ride, Sally Ride

Read about some of the intrepid women who made firsts in airplanes or in outer space during the 20th century.

Amelia Earhart

AMELIA EARHART was the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean by airplane. She was part of a three-person crew which flew from Nova Scotia to Wales on 18 June 1928. Earhart was mostly a passenger: her co-pilots Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon did all the flying. But the men were largely ignored in the hubbub over Earhart’s accomplishment, and her book about the flight, 20 Hours, 40 Minutes, was a bestseller. Four years later, on 20 May 1932, Earhart flew alone from Newfoundland to Ireland, becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. (Charles Lindbergh was the first man to pull the trick, having soloed in 1927.) Earhart disappeared in 1937 while attempting yet another first: to become the first pilot to fly around the world at the equator.

Against the Wind

Four years after Amelia Earhart’s solo flight, aviatrix BERYL MARKHAM became the first person to fly the Atlantic from east to west, against the prevailing winds. Markham was an accomplished bush pilot who had grown up and learned to fly in Kenya. She departed from London on 4 September 1936, headed for New York, and crash-landed the next day in a peat bog in Nova Scotia. Markham described the flight in her 1942 memoir West With the Night.

First Among Firsts

Aviatrix BESSIE COLEMAN was the first African-American ever to receive a pilot’s license. Unable to find training in the United States, Coleman learned French and moved to Paris in November of 1919, one year after the end of World War I. There she attended flight school and was finally awarded her license by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale on 15 June 1921. Like Earhart, Coleman is remembered for an unusual demise: Coleman died after plunging from the open cockpit of her plane while testing it before a Florida airshow in 1926.

First by a Long Shot

Russian VALENTINA TERESHKOVA was the first woman in space. (By a long shot: after Tereshkova’s 1963 flight aboardSoyuz 6, no other woman went into space until cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya went up aboard Soyuz T-7 in 1982.) Two years after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, Tereshkova spent three days circling the earth on Soyuz 6, then parachuted to safety as the capsule returned to Earth. The next year Tereshkova married fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev and in 1964 she scored another first: she gave birth to a daughter, Elena, the first child born to parents who both had visited space.

Sally Ride

America’s first woman in orbit was SALLY RIDE. Ride joined NASA’s astronaut training program in 1979 and twice flew as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger: first in June of 1983, and again in October of 1984. After the Challenger’s tragic 1986 explosion, Ride served with Neil Armstrong and Chuck Yeager on the investigative commission ordered by president Ronald Reagan. Ride retired from the astronaut corps in 1987; she later became a professor of physics at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) and founded the company Imaginary Lines to encourage the study of science among young women.


And while Yuri Gagarin may have been the first man in space, he was preceded by a female: LAIKA THE DOG. Laika was a mixed-breed stray who was plucked off the street and made part of the Soviet space program. She was sent into orbit aboard Sputnik II in 1957, becoming the very first Earth creature to visit outer space. Sadly, in the rush to score a scientific and political first, the Soviets didn’t arrange a way to bring Laika down again. She died in space, and the next yearSputnik II burned up on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

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