Early aircraft were often finicky, leading to mechanical and navigation problems for otherwise excellent pilots. The technology was new, which meant that even under the best of circumstances a pilot was operating either a primitive plane or an experimental one. This means that even very gifted aviators lost their lives in the pursuit of flight.
Since flying was considered a man’s profession, the first women to fly were breaking records not only for flight, but for women in flight. Here are 6 early female aviators that you might never have heard of who died flying.
6) Frances Grayson
She was the niece of President Woodrow Wilson and had developed a keen interest in flying during the 1920s. After Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in his plane in early 1927 she became fixated on achieving the same flight. On December 23rd, 1927, she and three others set off on the flight from New York to cross the Atlantic (one passenger was to be dropped off in Newfoundland).
The plane would have had about 20 hours worth of fuel, but it is possible that the crew had to dump most of it due to exceptional headwinds. A message in a bottle that washed ashore in 1929 indicated that the group had done just that and the note was signed by Grayson. No other traces of the crew or the ship were ever found.
5) Elsie McKay
Born to an English earl, Elsie Mackay also went by the name Poppy Wyndham when she pursued her acting career so as to spare her relatives from the disgrace of having an actress in the family. But, this free-spirited woman was also interested in flying and received her pilot’s license in 1923. Mackay was also a nurse during World War I and was a successful interior decorator as well.
A fan of doing flying stunts, Mackay attempted to cross the Atlantic with her co-pilot, Walter Hinchliffe, in March of 1928. The two departed in secret and were reportedly seen several times on their journey. After 8 months of no clues, a single piece of their plane wreckage (with a serial number) washed ashore in Ireland. What exactly happened to the pair was never discovered.
4) Amy Johnson
As the first woman to fly from England to Australia 1930, Amy Johnson was was revered by adoring crowds. While English women were not permitted to be fighter pilots during World War II, they were allowed to deliver Royal Air Force planes to various bases and airfields across England.
It was during one of these trips in 1941 that Johnson lost control of her plane over the waters around Kent, and despite witnesses seeing her plane crash, her body was never found. New evidence now suggests that she did not drown, but was morbidly dissected by a propeller of the boat sent to rescue her.
One of the crew members of the ship, Walter Fletcher, had dived into the icy waters with a rope around his waist to try and save her, but she was killed before he could do so. Fletcher died from hypothermia later that same day.
3) Harriet Quimby
Like many early female pilots, Harriet Quimby had an excellent sense of style and taste. She was known to fly dressed to the nines in elegant boots and a satin jumpsuit. Her other talents included writing, acting, and photography.
Quimby was the first woman to obtain her flying license in the U.S. in 1911 and she chronicled her experience in Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, the magazine for which she was a writer. Just one month after earning her license, Quimby was competing (and winning) in air races. Quimby was the first women to fly at night and the first woman to cross the English Channel in a plane. All these firsts were quite impressive to audiences which lined up to see her fly.
She was known as a very safety-conscious pilot, one of the first to advocate for seat belts within aircraft. Despite her precautions, her plane crashed the day before an airshow in 1912 while she practicing for the next day’s events for one of the organizers who was a passenger in her plane. The plane and both passengers were hurtled into the Boston harbor when a gust of wind caught the plane and sent it down.
2) Raymonde La Roche
Known by several names, including her given name of Élise Deroche, this spirited aviator operated in France long before Earhart flew, obtaining her pilot’s license in 1910. In fact, she was the first woman in the world to ever do so. She was also the first woman to ever fly solo! The title Baroness was an error printed in newspapers and the name just stuck.
Despite severe injury due to a crash, she went on to win the Coupe de Femina in 1913, but the flying ban during World War I stalled her further progress as a pilot. In 1919, when the ban was lifted she again set records as the highest flying woman (155,300 feet). Ironically, she died in a plane crash as a copilot later that year at the young age of 36.
1) Marvel Crosson
Both Marvel and her husband Joseph were pilots and both made strides in the field of flight. Marvel was the first woman in Alaska to earn her pilot’s license, while Joseph was the first person to land his plane on a glacier.
Marvel’s plane crashed during an exposition at the Women’s Air Derby (also known as the Powder Puff Derby) in 1929 in Arizona. Her body was found not far from the plane, the parachute sadly unopened. Marvel had completed a transcontinental flight in two days during the year preceding her death.