The earliest angel was Marie Antoinette (yes, the one who said, “Let them eat bread.” and was subsequently beheaded). She was a patron of many scientific endeavors which included ballooning. When the Montgolfier brothers launched the first pilot ascent in a balloon in 1796, Marie Antoinette was there to congratulate them This support for balloonists resulted in an airplane named after her – the Antoinette.
Katharine Wright, sister of the Wright Brothers, was her brothers’ closest confidante and comrade. She traveled the world with them to become one of their first woman passenger. In Europe, she flew in her brothers’ plane as the King of Spain and King of England enthusiastically watched their first airplane demonstration. Katherine used to say, humorously, that she had flown before the crowned heads of Europe. This angel who never flew, except as a passenger with the brothers she loved and admired, stood by them through successes and failures to eventually achieve world-wide fame as pioneers in aircraft design.
Mrs. Alexander Graham Mabel Bell was certain that a heavier-than-air vehicle could be designed and flown. As a result, she sold some of her property to obtain the money needed to organize the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) which served to implement her husband’s interest in aviation. The underlying intent was the construction of “a practical flying aerodrome.” By the end of 1908, the AEA had built four aircraft which incorporated several technical innovations not previously invented for flight, including lateral control by means of ailerons. The June Bug and Silver Dart were two results of the association’s scientific experiments. It was $25 a day expense money out of the AEA fund that finally brought Curtiss out of his motor shop and close enough to a flying machine to touch it.
Glenn Martin’s mother, Minta, was his angel. She encouraged every step which he took toward his career in aviation. This required shielding him from a stern father who called him a visionary. During late nights, Minta often assisted her son by holding a lamp as he constructed his first few airplanes. Glenn Curtiss’ wife, Lena Pearl, worked closely with her husband and the family business throughout their marriage.
Louis Blériot’s wife may be considered a convenient angel. By 1908, Blériot was bankrupt, having even spent the last of his wife’s inheritance on designing, constructing, and flying his aircraft. This meant that his hope of competing for the London Daily Mail’s cash prize offered for the first person to cross the English Channel was pointless. Luck was on his side, however. Blériot’s wife saved a boy from falling off a Paris apartment which resulted in the young boy’s appreciative father funding Blériot’s Type XI. On July 25, 1909, Blériot took off from Calais, landed at Dover, and collected his prize of 1,000 pounds.
A most interesting angel was C. A. Mother Tusch. Her Berkeley, California home could easily be referred to as The Shrine of the Air or The Hangar. It was a house full of memories of flying men and women who contributed to her ever-expanding exhibit. During WWI, she welcomed motherless flying cadets from a nearby military camp. They showed up at her door for a home-cooked meal and, more than that, to escape feelings of homesickness. Two of these Army cadets were later forced down in a Mexican desert. While they waited for rescue, which never came, they kept a diary on the wing of their plane and dedicated it to Mother Tusch. After they were killed by bandits, the wing of the plane miraculously found its way to Tusch’s little Berkeley house. Over the years, autographs of the pilots decorated her “Hangar” walls. Pictures, mementos, cartoons, good luck pieces, broken propellers – all the storytelling little items that flying men and women sent her from all over the world made the house a volume worth reading.
Elizabeth Ulysses Grant McQueen has received little credit for the tremendous contributions she made to aviation and women. Her motto – Wings around the world for peace, prosperity, and world friendship. She truly was an aviation angel.
In 1928, Beth attended the National Air Races along with thousands of other spectators gathered on the grounds of Los Angeles’ Mines Field. She found the skills of the pilots and the maneuverability of their aircraft impressive. The only element of the races that gave Beth concern was the notable absence of women on the field. She discovered that they were considered too frail and unsuitable for an event of this nature. In fact, the idea of women flying airplanes was considered preposterous by most. Beth, as dedicated to women’s rights as she was to world peace, lost little time finding a way to support women in their endeavor to be accepted as safe and capable pilots. The Women’s Aeronautic Association of California was soon founded by her. Its purpose was two- fold. The organization would provide support for women pilots in all aspects of aviation and aid in the recognition of women’s air records, recognition never afforded them by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, a non-profit, record-keeping organization founded in 1905.
Feeling that more than a national group was necessary to accomplish her goals, Beth established the Women’s International Association of Aeronautics (WIAA) in May 1928. The purpose of the WIAA was to stimulate interest and encourage the various forms of air traffic, carrying of mail, passenger transportation, international races, scholarships, and the making of world records. Invitations to join the premier aviation organization were sent throughout the United States and around the world. The only requirement to join was an enthusiasm for aviation. A member did not need to be a pilot. Beth believed that just talking aviation, traveling by air, visiting airports, and using the airmail was sufficient to educate the general public on the merits and safety of the airplane. This included encouraging husbands to seek a career in aviation and educating their children in the benefits of flight.
The initial focus of the WIAA promoted the use of the airplane to deliver mail and supported the emerging airline industry. Beth opened a travel bureau in Beverly Hills to book travel by air, championing the joys of flying and the advantages in created for the businessman by expediting travel. She also flew on the airlines whenever possible. She made numerous transcontinental flights in the United States and every major country in the world. In 1930, she became the first woman passenger to take an airliner from Mexico City to Juneau, Alaska. Her message was enthusiastic and contagious; her commitment to establishing world peace by being airminded never wavered.
Beth’s most historically significant accomplishment was organizing the First Women’s National Air Race in 1929. She saw an all-women’s race as an opportunity to bolster the public’s awareness of the competency of women pilots. According to Beth, “The public press generally censured this outburst of ‘feminism’ in a man’s world. I encountered derision and criticism as did the earlier trail blazers, but happily, a comparative short time later, the wisdom and judgment of my idea was vindicated, which the general public had considered ‘unthinkable’ only a few years ago.” The race became a permanent fixture at the National Air Races.
Planning an event of this magnitude required support, both financially and politically. This seemed to be of little consequence to Beth for she was well-connected and extremely influential. Air race promoter Cliff Henderson appointed Beth to chair the Pilots and Trophies Committee. As part of her duties, she sent letters and telegrams to potential women pilots inviting them to participate in the inaugural event. By April, nine women were signed up. This included Amelia Earhart, Louise Thaden, Marvel Crosson, and Bobbi Trout. And the rest is history!
Aviation and peace played a critical role in Beth’s life. She established several more aviation groups, wrote articles and columns for newspapers and magazine, and actively participated in during WWII by providing entertainment and first aid supplies to the troops at March Air Force Base. Never wavering in enthusiasm, she supported her causes until her death in the late 1950s.
One of the most pivotal aviation angels was Eleanor Roosevelt. Her position as First Lady earned her more attention for her causes than most. She was a strong supporter of women’s rights within the field of aviation and flew often to demonstrate the safety of flying. This included in her husband’s reconfigured bomber called the Guess Where II, considered too dangerous for the President but not for the First Lady. She also flew with her friend Amelia Earhart, the First Lady of the Air on a crisp, star-filled night in April 1933. The flight took them from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore as they took turns at the controls of the Eastern Air Transport Curtiss Condor. The two shared strong commitments to the women’s and world peace movements just as Elizabeth McQueen did.
During WII, Eleanor encouraged women to join the war effort in roles considered men-only. This support came after Jacqueline Cochran contacted Eleanor, a close friend, to present the idea of a women’s flying division in the Air Force in September 1940. Cochran felt qualified female pilots could do the domestic, non-combat aviation jobs which would allow more men to fly combat or reconnaissance missions. Eleanor’s response, “This is not a time when women should be patient. We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and ever weapon possible. Women pilots, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used.”
As a result, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) were formed. The WASPs were the first American women trained to fly for the United States. The WAVES entered the war as members of the U.S Navy in 1942 and the WAAC were the first women, other than nurses, to serve within the ranks of the U. S. Army. Their assignment was to make available the knowledge, skill, and special training of women to the public.
Eleanor also supported the work at the Tuskegee Institute’s aeronautical school focused on training black pilots for inclusion in service to their country. This was a time of segregation throughout the nation. African Americans were limited in their choice of jobs in the military. When President Roosevelt approved Public Law 18, training programs to prepare blacks for service in a variety of areas in the Air Corps support services were implemented. On January 16th, 1941, the War Department created the 99th Pursuit Squadron, an all-black flying unit to be trained at the Tuskegee Institute founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881. The first civilian pilot training program began in 1939 with Charles A. Anderson, a self-taught African American pilot, in charge of flight instruction. In 1941, the First Lady visited the Tuskegee Army Air Field, asking to take a flight with one of the Tuskegee pilots. The hour flight and subsequent press coverage helped advocate for the black pilots and boost the Institute’s visibility. Elinore was clearly impressed with the program and maintained a long-term correspondence with some of the airmen.
Although the First Lady applied for a student pilot’s license, she never became a pilot. Her husband felt it was too risky and that they really couldn’t afford their own plane
It’s a certainty that there were more angels that never became pilots; individuals that were passionate about aviation and supported those who did soar ‘close to the heavens. I look forward to whatever input my readers have on this subject!