Equality in the skies and the story of Amelia Earhart
Including New Forest tales of Derring Do
For the Bank Holiday Weeked writer and crafter Mark and cartoon magician Hugh cover one of our favourite subjects: the amazing and little known role played by women in the history of aviation.
Equality in the skies; must we be male born to be air borne?
There is a long and sad history of prejudice against women. I’m sure that this baffles you as much as it baffles me.
I’m painfully aware that, as a young and immature boy, I misbehaved in school. I failed to achieve anything close to my potential and ended up at just a technical level. I must be blind in terms of human origin because, to me, a person is simply a person. Their gender or country of origin is irrelevant. What really matters to me is what’s beneath the skin and between the ears. In my previous technical role when I needed guidance from an engineer, I didn’t care a jot whether the person sat opposite was male or female. The person I was facing had passed many examinations and, ultimately, through perseverance and hard work, become an engineer and I respected that enormously.
Unfortunately, a great deal of blame for any kind of prejudice must be laid at the feet of parents. Children are largely a product of them and are easily influenced. Ignorant ideas implanted at a young age can take some time to be erased.
The history of flight has been overwhelmingly dominated by men but, just occasionally, we have enjoyed learning about the bravery of some very special women indeed. The word bravery is valid here because at the time of early aviation flyers learned by their mistakes which were often fatal. For those of you that know a little about the WW1 airfield at East Boldre it should come as no surprise that the vast majority of Royal Flying Corps pilots killed were those learning to fly over our Forest; not those flying in action over trenches in Northern France. These pioneers were brave, death was a very real possibility. Think of that when you next board a modern passenger jet. In the thirties, pilots flirted with death at every flight. Today, flight is just a commute, an airborne taxi. In the thirties we had genuine heroes, flyers fully aware that the next flight could be their last, flyers that went back for more time and again. Today we hear of certain sportsmen described as heroes. Seriously? I know what my vision of a hero is and he or she won’t be kicking a bag of wind around a pitch.
Probably the most well-known female pilot is Amelia Earhart who was born in Kansas. She became infected with what was the Covid of its day. In 1918 she was working as a nurse in a Spanish Flu ward when, unsurprisingly, she contracted the virus. After two months, she was in the clear but the virus had badly affected her sinuses which, with antibiotics still in their infancy, required painful and initially ineffective surgery.
Her fame began when, in 1928 she was invited to crew on a trip across the Atlantic, the other two participants were a pilot and an engineer/co-pilot. Earhart was not trained to fly using instruments and, as the majority of the trip was completed under instrument flying rules, all Amelia did was fill in the flight log. When she was interviewed about the flight afterwards, she referred to herself as ‘just a sack of potatoes’ adding prophetically that she ‘might try it solo in the future’. Oh, did she ever.
An airborne suffragette
Her return from the 1928 flight was greeted with a ticker-tape parade, suddenly she was famous. Amelia was a strong promoter of women’s rights and she used her fame to attack anything to the contrary. After her joint trans-Atlantic flight, she set about making her own flying reputation and she began to get involved with air racing. When she heard that the organisers of the 1934 Bendex Trophy race had banned women competitors, she openly refused to fly the world-famous screen actress Mary Pickford to the event. On marrying George Putman, she wouldn’t follow the norm in taking his name and sometimes even referred to him as Mr Earhart. Today this is accepted but back then it was rather shocking. She insisted that each of them shared the household duties. What she was actually insisting on was that the husband did his fair share, no bad thing.
Worldwide fame, and deservedly so
In 1932 at the age of 34 Amelia took off from Newfoundland and headed for Paris. After a fifteen-hour solo flight she landed in a field in Northern Ireland. An inquisitive farm hand asked if she had come far and she replied, America. What a woman. What determination and bravery. Being the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo she was showered with awards and quickly developed friends in high places, all the way up to the White House in fact. We can be sure that her attitude regarding women’s rights were heard by some rather senior people, certainly Eleanor Roosevelt. The success of her cross-channel flight led on to more record breaking flights, further racing, including competing in the 1935 Bendex Trophy (how quickly they changed their minds about women) and the setting of many distance records. Then Amelia decided to go for something really big. She wanted to fly around the world. Sadly, during the attempt, her life was taken from her somewhere over Pacific Ocean and despite a huge search operation, no trace was found. The world was a poorer place without her.
The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Equal pay for women and in some ways, for a tougher job.
During WW2 the ATA was formed in order to move finished aircraft from the factory to active squadrons and also to carry out air ambulance work. The women flyers were enormously popular in the public eye and were, incredibly for the time, paid the same as men. Incidentally, at the same time, US female pilots were being paid as little as 65% of the male rates.
I’m sure that at some time or other you have jumped into a strange car, struggled with unfamiliar controls and generally taken a while to familiarise yourself. These young women jumped into unfamiliar aircraft! One flight might be a light, nimble, single engine Spitfire, the next a four-engine lumbering giant of a Lancaster! Naturally the women received thorough training before qualifying on each aircraft. There was no rigid schedule, they were allowed to learn at their own pace However there was risk, fifteen young women died during these delivery trips.
One pilot, Helen Kerly, was awarded a commendation for successfully delivering a Spitfire which had developed technical difficulties during the trip. Jackie Cochrane was an American ATA pilot who started the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots organisation or WASP which controlled over a thousand women who carried out the same duties as the ATA but in the US.
It has been said many times that ‘Any fool can go on doing what’s been done before, but it takes real guts and determination to do something different.’
Women that ‘did something different’ improved the rights of women across the globe. We still have a long way to go but the early aviators showed men that women are every bit as equal and often better. If you’re in any doubt take a look at the roll call of women who have travelled into space, Helen Sharman for example who was born in Sheffield and went to a comprehensive school. There are some who, tragically, have paid the ultimate sacrifice for space exploration but the example of women aviators and astronauts has given inspiration to many others. Others who now look at the idea of flight and of space exploration as a real possibility. Sixty years ago, these ideas would have been seen as fantasy.
Way to go ladies!
More tales and cartoons from Mark and Hugh
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Meanwhile if you'd like to read previous articles on diverse subjects written by Mark and illustrated by Hugh's cartoons here they are, click the links embedded in the titles:
Bees pollinators par excellence
Cordless home entertainment
The joy of sheds
When the Isle of Wight was just Wight
Pond Life in our Forests
Rufus Stone and Sir Walter Tyrrell
Graffiti through the ages
Freedom of the roads
Watch the birdie
Unstoppable momentum of nature
Socially distanced socialising
Calshot Spit, a curse for mariners...