With the rise in popularity of civil and commercial aviation in the 1920s and 1930s, which has been covered elsewhere in this blog, there was naturally also an increase in the number of people who got a pilot’s license. What is perhaps more surprising to the casual observer is the number of women who became (amateur) pilots. During a time when women were increasingly able to participate in public life, changing social norms made it more acceptable for women to engage with new modes of mobility.
As with the introduction of cars, learning how to fly was mostly open to women from wealthy and privileged backgrounds. Nonetheless, some women from working- and lower-middle class backgrounds were also able to gain a pilot’s license. Unlike today, the training requirements for new pilots were minimal, with some clocking fewer than 10 hours in the cockpit before deciding to set off on long solo adventures. This, too, lowered the threshold to becoming a pilot, although the other big expense required was of course the purchase of a plane.
The most famous female pilot in interwar Britain was Amy Johnson. ‘Amy, Wonderful Amy’ as the song written in her honour called her, became hugely famous when she flew on her own to Australia in May 1930. The journey took her 19.5 days – it was not an outright record but she was the first female pilot to undertake the route as a solo pilot. Johnson had grown up in a middle-class family, attending university and working as a legal secretary before re-training as an engineer and realising her aviation dreams.
Also in 1930, Mildred Mary Petre (usually known as Mrs Victor Bruce) completed a solo flight to Tokyo in 25 days. Unlike Johnson, Petre’s passion was not solely for flight – she had previously been a record-breaking motor racer. When she undertook her long-distance flight in 1930 she’d only had 40 hours of flight experience. The feats of female pilots caught the popular imagination in 1930, leading the Daily Mirror to enthuse in a bold headline that 1930 was ‘The most wonderful year in the history for women’ and that the year had seen ‘months of triumph over male rivals in almost every sphere.’
Most female pilots either flew as amateurs for private enjoyment, or sought to gain publicity and income by completing record-breaking flights. The commercial airlines were extremely resistant to hiring female pilots. In 1928, amateur pilot Lady Heath was briefly employed by KLM as a pilot on their Amsterdam to London route, but this did not result in a permanent appointment. Lady Heath had grown up in Ireland where she had obtained a degree in science. During the First World War she served as a despatch rider, and in the 1920s she was a champion javelin thrower and one of the founders of England’s Women’s Amateur Athletics Association. Rather than trying to break distance records, Lady Heath focused on height records in her plane, becoming the first pilot to fly a light plane to an altitude of 16,000ft in 1927, and to 23,000ft the following year.
Mary Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, came to flying later in life. As a young woman in the Victorian era she spent a significant part of her life setting up and managing hospitals. She also trained in jiu-jitsu. The Duchess’s interest in flight came late in her life; she took her first flight from Croydon Airport to Woburn in 1926, when she was 60 years old. In 1929, she conducted a record-breaking flight from Lympne Airport to Karachi (India) and back to Croydon. She completed this round-trip in eight days, in her single-engine Fokker plane which she nicknamed ‘The Spider’. Her trip and return in Croydon were widely reported in the press. The following year, she flew The Spider from Lympne to Cape Town in a record breaking 91 hours and 20 minutes of flight time over 10 days.
An example of a female pilot from a less moneyed background is Winifred Spooner, who was born in Woolwich. Spooner was the 16th woman in Britain to gain her pilot’s license when she obtained it in 1927. The following year, she was the first female pilot to participate in the prestigious King’s Cup, a long-distance race over the British Isles that was first established in 1922. At this first attempt at the race, Spooner came third. In 1931, she became the first woman in Britain to make a living as a private pilot, working for Sir William Everard MP. This highlights how for someone with more limited financial means such as Spooner, flying could never just be a hobby but had to constitute a source of income if she was to continue with it.
Unfortunately, many of these illustrious women had their lives cut tragically short. Amy Johnson disappeared over the North Sea in 1941, age 38. Winifred Spooner caught pneumonia whilst flying and died in 1933, when she was just 32. Mary Russell, although living to the ripe old age of 70, disappeared during a solo flight around her family’s private estate in 1937. Lady Heath developed an alcohol dependency and in 1939 fell from the stairs in a double-decker tram; she later died of her injuries. Notwithstanding the glamourous treatment female pilots received in popular culture, in reality their flying exposed them to significant dangers which were generally not foregrounded in press narratives.
 Allain Pelletier, High-Flying Women: A world history of female pilots (Yeovil: Haynes Publishing, 2012), p. 101
 Ibid. p. 92
 ‘1930 the most wonderful year in history for women’, Daily Mirror, 29 December 1930, p. 3