Sisters, Mothers, Daughters and Wives - Women in Aviation History
Each March, Americans pause to celebrate “Women in History.” It is the perfect opportunity to seek unusual, sometimes remarkable stories about women in early aviation.
From balloons to monoplanes and biplanes before WWI, many women were curious and inspired to fly. Others were drawn in to aviation through the love of a son, brother, or husband.
Katharine Wright could easily have been the first woman passenger in an aeroplane built by her brothers, Orville and Wilbur. Instead, she was their constant companion, financial supporter, and public relations agent. The honor of the first female passenger goes to Mrs. Edith O. Hart Berg, who flew with Wilbur during September, 1908, at La Mans, France. To avoid entanglement with wires and cables, Wilbur tied a rope around the long hem of Mrs. Berg’s skirt. When newspaper photographs appeared French women embraced it as a fashion statement, inventing the”hobble skirt.” The following February, Katharine flew for the first time with Wilbur at Pau, France.
In 1910, brothers Alfred and John Moisant formed the Moisant School of Aviation at Long Island, NY. John was already famous for being the first person to fly across the English Channel carrying a passenger, his mechanic, plus a cat. At the Belmont Air Meet of 1910, he won a race around the Statue of Liberty — later disputed by his competitors. In January John was killed attempting a world’s altitude record flying a Bleriot in New Orleans, LA. Alfred, and sisters, Louise and Matilde, were grief stricken. Nevertheless, the Moisant School opened that spring with its first class including Matilde. She learned how to take apart a monoplane, and easily mastered flight. In September, 1911, she became the second licensed female in the US. (Harriet Quimby was the first, just a few weeks earlier.) Matilde was considered a “natural flyer,” performing at air meets in the US and Mexico. She won the 1911 Rodman Wanamaker Trophy for a women’s altitude record of 1200 feet.
A. Rodman Law, and his sister, Ruth, also became “air-minded.” Rodman made several of the first parachute jumps in the US, some from bridges and sky-scrapers in New York. Perhaps his most spectacular stunt was a (successful) leap from the arm of the Statue of Liberty in 1912. That same year Ruth had earned her aviator’s license from the Burgess Flying School. To perform at air meets she purchased a Curtiss and had the hand and shoulder controls switched to the Wright style with which she was familiar.
A few years later, siblings, Katherine, Marjorie, Eddie and Jack Stinson, entered the “aviation game .” Katherine earned her license at Chicago in 1912. Flying a Wright, she made exhibition flights in the US, Japan and China. Marjorie, Jack, and Eddie were soon in the air, doubling as instructors at their Texas flying school, or as aircraft mechanics. In 1920, Eddie founded The Stinson Aircraft Company in Ohio, which made several successful single and multi-engine aircraft up to the 1950s.
There were probably hundreds of anxious, long-suffering mothers who contributed funding, sewed fabric onto fragile wooden airframes, or made “test flights” with their children. Among them was Mrs. Annie Wooten Dixon, mother to Lulu and Cromwell Dixon.
During 1907, at age 14, Cromwell designed a small dirigible, which he called the “SkyCycle.” From the sale of her short stories, Annie purchased $300 worth of silk to make a gas-filled envelope. She and LuLu sewed the fabric into a 20-foot long cigar shape, according to the pattern drawn by Cromwell. In the family’s back yard, Cromwell hammered together the SkyCycle’s wooden frame upon which he would sit to control movement using a rudder and bicycle pedals. Remarkably, the home-made contraption ascended, but on Annie’s insistence, Cromwell’s early “flights” were tethered safely to the ground. Throughout 1910, Cromwell made several exhibition flights in his various dirigibles. He switched to fixed-wing aircraft, and became the first to fly over the Continental Divide in September, 1911.
Among the freedom-seeking “Flappers” of the 1920s was aviatrix, Florence “Pancho” Barnes. Her aviation heritage can be traced to her famous grandfather, Thaddeus Lowe (1832-1913). Lowe was an inventor and created the first observation balloons for the Union Army during the Civil War. After moving to California, Lowe gained and lost a fortune, living the remainder of his life with his family in Pasadena. His son, Thaddeus Lowe II, and his wife, were refined members of a wealthy community. The senior Lowe lived long enough to know is granddaughter, Florence, born in 1901.
From childhood to her arranged marriage to Reverend C. Rankin Barns, Florence defied rules, manners and tradition. She abandoned her family and struck out on her own. In 1928 she found her passion in flying. As soon as she earned her pilot’s license, she purchased a succession of aircraft, including a Travel Air she called “The Mystery Ship.” Known as “Pancho Barns,” she competed in air meets and races, and was one of the first professional movie stunt pilots. She later purchased land in the California desert and opened a dude ranch for the rich and famous. She called it the “Happy Bottom Riding Club.” Her motto was “If you have a choice — be happy.”
When “Carlotta, the Lady Aeronaut,” made her solo balloon flights during the 1880s, she was confident her equipment would not fail. “Carlotta” was actually Mary H. Myers, the wife of New York balloon inventor, Carl Myers. For thirty years, “Carlotta” made ascensions at special events, and helped test new balloon designs with her husband on their “Balloon Farm” in New York. The same confidence infused Hilder Smith, during 1914, when she made a parachute jump from a Martin biplane. She and her husband, Floyd Smith, had been circus trapeze performers before Floyd became a mechanic for aircraft designer, Glenn Martin, then encamped at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. Floyd also designed parachutes. As a stunt for the grand opening of the Los Angeles Harbor in 1914, Hilder agreed to make a parachute jump out of a Martin biplane from 600 feet over the water. Because she had never jumped before, Floyd instructed her on how to use of the manually operated parachute, and strapped a bicycle tube around her chest in case of a landing in water. Knowing that Floyd had made her equipment, Hilder jumped with confidence. There were anxious moments involving a tangled parachute line but Hilder resolved the problem, and drifted down toward Floyd’s waiting arms on shore. It was her first and last parachute jump. Hilder learned to fly soon thereafter, and often sat beside Floyd in his experimental aircraft during flight tests before and during WWI.
Cromwell Dixon’s “SkyCycle” was inspired by dirigibles designed and flown by A. Roy Knabenshue of Ohio. Knabenshue earned instant recognition at the St. Louis Fair in 1904 when he was chosen to pilot the “California Arrow,” a huge dirigible owned by “Captain” Thomas Scott Baldwin (1854-1923). For the next decade, Knabenshue built his own balloons and dirigibles, and briefly managed the Wright Exhibition Flying Team. By his side was his wife, Mabel. In 1912 he offered air tours over Pasadena, CA to passengers sitting in the open gondola of his giant dirigible, “The Knabenshue.”
There were lean some times for young Knabenshues while traveling the aviation exhibition circuit. At one point they subsisted on a diet of free popcorn. For much-needed cash, the couple sold rides in a tethered balloon gondola fashioned from Mabel’s laundry basket.
You can’t make up stories like this. There are many more tales to tell, which I’ll save for next year’s celebration of Women in Aviation History.
Giacinta Bradley Koontz is an aviation historian, magazine columnist and author. In 2008, she was awarded the National DAR History Medal and has appeared in ocumentaries on PBS and The History Channel. Learn more about her aviation history projects on her web site: www.harrietquimby.org.