If the women aviators of the early 20th century sometimes seem to have been almost comically courageous, improbably determined – a collection of gung-ho, barnstorming daredevils – the fact is, they had to be. This was an era of primitive planes and tenuous technology and, with every flight, there was a risk of plummeting through the clouds back to earth. The rewards were exciting, a tranche of records waiting to be broken, but at the same time they had to battle deeply ingrained sexism. In 1926, for instance, the International Commission for Air Navigation authorised women to pilot commercial planes – but advised against allowing passengers on board. This made it rather difficult to make a living.
With these barriers in place, some unlikely characters came to the fore, as underlined by Bernard Marck's beautifully illustrated new book, Women Aviators. This profiles 100 extraordinary individuals, and arrives just prior to Amelia, a new biopic of Earhart, starring Hilary Swank. The brilliant, androgynous Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, has attracted more attention than her contemporaries, but any of their stories would make for a compelling screenplay.
Marck profiles the ridiculously accomplished Frenchwoman Marie Marvingt, for example, who preceded her flying career by learning to drive a train and pilot a steamboat; paddled a canoe from Paris to Germany; dominated competitive winter sports from 1908-1910; became the fifth best mountain climber in the world; spoke five languages; wrote poetry – in addition to being a gifted dancer. Then, in 1911, two years after stepping on a plane, she won the women's flying contest, the Femina Cup. A few years later she asked to serve in a fighter squadron during the first world war; on being refused, she disguised herself as a man and served as a sharpshooter in the trenches until her deception was discovered. She continued by championing the idea of flying ambulances, and acted in a way that made her nickname, the "fiancee of danger", seem perfectly apt.
Then there's Elise Deroche, known as "the Flying Baroness", who became the first licensed woman pilot in the world, and recovered from a crash in which she sustained 18 fractures – including eight in one hand – to continue flying. Or Harriet Quimby, a journalist and screenwriter, who became the first woman granted a pilot's licence by the Aero Club of America, the first to fly at night, and the first female aviator to cross the Channel. Or the Belgian Hélène Dutrieu, also known as the Woman Sparrowhawk, who was the women's world cycling champion in 1897 and 1898, before taking up stunt motorcycle performances in Paris – including her famous "jump of death". When these were outlawed by the police, she soon moved on to flying, winning the inaugural Femina Cup.
In the US, in the 1920s, the African-American Bessie Coleman shot to prominence. Coleman had grown up one of 13 children of sharecroppers in Texas, before moving to Chicago to become a manicurist. It was here she grew interested in flying, but despite backing from two influential businessmen, as a black woman in the US she was unable to study. She travelled to France where she became the first African-American woman to hold a pilot's licence, on her return to the US, she attracted huge crowds as a stunt flier, performing loop the loops and figure eights. She was widely known as "Queen Bess".
Hull-born Amy Johnson was determined to find out all she could about flight engineering, and became the first British woman to obtain an aeroplane mechanic's licence. She was also the first woman to fly from Britain to Australia – after only 85 hours of flying practise. Then she broke the light aircraft speed record for flying between London and Tokyo. An incredible future seemed assured. But, as with many of her contemporaries, Johnson's success was cut short. In 1941, while transporting a plane for the RAF, she ran into trouble and bailed out into the Thames Estuary. Her body was never found. Neither was Earhart's, after her plane disappeared in 1937 during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Coleman died in 1926, when her mechanic, William Wills, crashed their plane. Deroche perished in a crash in 1919; Quimby suffered the same fate in 1912. The risks they'd taken were horribly, inescapably real. But what extraordinary, pioneering lives they led.