History’s Hidden Heroes: “Wings of Their Own” and Female Aviators

Photo of Julie ClarkEvery month we take a look at “History’s Hidden Heroes” people (usually scientists, because that’s how I roll) who are women, people of color, LGBTQIA, or who otherwise don’t fit the common stereotype of what a scientist looks like.  I try to find people who, while they may be well-known in their field or in their country of origin, are not well-known among laypeople in the USA.

This month, we are shifting from the sciences a bit to talk about women in aviation.  I just got to see the documentary Wings of Their Own, and it is a fascinating and inspiring overview of women in  aviation.  The filmmakers interviewed (or otherwise discuss) 210 women, providing a fascinating overview of women in aviation from “Kitty Hawk to Cape Canaveral.

As a documentary, “Wings of Their Own” suffers from a lack of captions identifying women who are speaking (there are some but I could have used more), no option for subtitles, and generally low production values.  This is a low-budget labor of love, so the photography and music is poor (by film standards).  But the movie is absolutely electric when the women who are profiled are speaking – which is for most of the documentary.  Because so many women are talking, there’s no in-depth coverage.  This is the kind of documentary in which it’s casually mentioned that the Wright Brother’s had a sister who flew – and off I go to Google.  In case you’re wondering, Katherine Wright served as the brothers’ executive assistant/social manager/business manager and flew while touring Europe with her brothers.  She was the third woman to fly – the first two were Theresa Peltier and Edith Berg.  In addition to going up in a plane, she went up in a balloon.  But I digress.

Here’s just a few things the documentary mentioned that will have you googling for hours:

  • Bessie Coleman, the first female African-American pilot, had to learn French because in 1920 she could not get a pilot’s license in America
  • Jacqueline Cochrane, founder of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots group (WASP) had some special requirements for WASP members.  In order to promote the best possible public image, she looked for women who were pretty, athletic, and white.  No African-Americans were allowed in the group.
  • Mercury 13 refers to a group of women who passed their tests to qualify as astronauts in the Mercury spaceflight program in the early 1060s.  The testing was abruptly suspended and the women never flew.
  • When Julie Clark, one of the first female commercial airline pilots, was hassled by a male co-pilot, she finally told him, “Hey!  I’ve flown more hours inverted than you’ve flown upright!”

I mention Julie Clark because I used to see her fly at air shows and when she appeared on-screen I gave this little yelp of glee.  My dad used to take me to air shows and Julie Clark was my favorite performer because, year after year, she was the only woman.  I worshipped the ground that woman walked on when she wasn’t flying.  One of the things the documentary talks about is how many women were introduced to flying by supportive men – and how much women value the support and mentorship of other women.  The networking of women is placed front and center at the beginning of the documentary, which talks about women’s air races, some of which are flow by mother-daughter teams.

One of the traps of history is that of the token hero.  In science, if there’s a picture of great scientists, they will usually be male with the exception of Marie Curie.  Marie Curie was great, and we should all know about her, but she’s one of just thousands of women who have been scientists historically.  In aviation, we get Amelia Earnhardt – again, a great, but not the only woman out there.  The problem with this is not only the factual error but the physiological impact.  If all we see is one image of ourselves in a sea of others, than we think that to succeed in a given field we must be very special and very alone.

My favorite thing about Wings of her Own was that it shatters the myth that female pilots are few in umber (and always white).  The women are young (the youngest is nineteen) and old (some women are still flying well into their eighties!).  They are black and white and Indian and Asian and Latina.  They flew in every possible capacity – Coast Guard, commercial jet, stunt pilots, medevac, police helicopters, fighter planes – you name it.  Then there’s the women who fly purely for fun – kindergarten teachers, therapists, moms, anyone.  They light up when they talk about their first solo flights.  They encourage each other and the urge the viewer to “just try it!”  Even though I wish the film had gone more in-depth about some things, as an overview this was inspiring and exciting and fun, and it makes me want to go through the attic and see if I can still find my “Julie Clark” metallic sticker.