Daring women in their planes: how female aviation pioneers conquered the sky

Melli Beese in front of an aircraft

Elly Beinhorn, Melli Beese and Marga von Etzdorf: three women after whom three streets in the immediate vicinity of the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport have been named. But who are these women who have been commemorated in this way? Together with numerous other female pilots, they were pioneers in aviation when it was still in its infancy. The first female pilots in aviation history were not only fearless adventurers, they also had to assert themselves as women in a male-dominated field. They frequently paid for their passion for flying with their lives. Today's International Women's Day will commemorate them and many other women who conquered the skies.

Pilot licence no. 115: Germany’s first female pilot

Pilotin Elly Beinhorn working at her plan on cape Juby

In 1910, a “Berliner Zeitung” newspaper headline read: “Flying requires the psychological powers of a man”; however, a female pilot proved the opposite just one year later. Melli Beese was the first woman in Germany to acquire a private pilot’s licence. To do so she had to overcome a number of obstacles. The men, whose domain the young woman broke into with her desire to fly, put a lot of obstacles in her way on the path to her getting her pilot's licence. They put their soot-covered spark plugs into the plane or let petrol out of her tank. But Melli Beese did not let herself be discouraged by this: on 13 September 1911, her 25th birthday, she took advantage of her male colleagues being away at foreign air shows. She organised external witnesses and passed her pilot's licence test unnoticed in the early hours of the morning. The licence bore the number 115, meaning she was the 115th person in Germany who was allowed to fly a plane. She went on to win numerous aviation competitions and in 1912, she founded a flight school and developed her own plane: the “Melli-Beese-Taube”. Despite these successes, her life ended tragically: after her pilot licence was revoked during the First World War, she was unable to continue her previous career and in 1925 she took her own life in Berlin, leaving a note on which she had written: “Flying is necessary. Life is not”.

“I have experienced these wonderful, independent times, being completely alone in the sky!” Elly Beinhorn.

Fraulein Elli Beinhorn at the opening of the William Jolly Bridge in 1932

Just a few years later, probably the most famous German female aviation pioneer conquered the skies. After attending a lecture by the pilot Hermann Köhl in 1928, Elly Beinhorn, at just 21 years old, decided to take the pilot's licence test. Just a few years later in December 1931, she started out on her biggest adventure: she became the first woman to fly around the world on her own. She was frenetically celebrated upon her return in July 1932 and immediately became a star. Her marriage to racing driver Bernd Rosemeyer in 1936 made her even more popular. She set numerous other records, such as flying over three continents within 24 hours in 1935. After the Second World War she was a successful stunt pilot for many years. Elly Beinhorn finished her flying career at the age of 72: “It was time. But until then, I had flown decently for 51 years without any problems”. The aviation pioneer died near Munich on 28 November 2007 at the age of 100.

First co-pilot at Lufthansa

At the same time, another German pilot claimed her place in aviation history: At just 20 years old, Marga von Etzdorf became the first female co-pilot at Lufthansa in 1928 and shortly afterwards took off on numerous solo flights in her own aircraft, a Junkers A50 Junior, which she had sprayed bright yellow and named “Kiek in die Welt”. In 1931 she used it to become the first woman from Germany to fly to Japan. On the return flight she crashed near Bangkok from a height of 80 meters; she survived but was badly injured and “Kiek in die Welt” could not be saved. After months of hospitalisation in the capital of Siam, she finally flew back to Germany in July 1932 on a commercial aircraft. On her return she was also received by fellow aviatrix Elly Beinhorn. The following year she took off using a light aircraft, a Klemm Kl 32, on a flight to Australia. But the next day, the aircraft was severely damaged during the approach in Aleppo, Syria. Marga von Etzdorf took her own life while still at the airfield. The inscription on her tombstone can be read in Berlin’s Invalidenfriedhof cemetery: “Flying is worth life”.

From aviation pioneer to eroticism pioneer, the world's first female flight captain and a “Flying Fräulein”: other German female aviation pioneers

Beate Uhse, b. Köstlin, in front of a Bücker Bü 131 biplane

In addition to the three female pilots who have streets dedicated to them at the capital’s future airport, numerous other women have also conquered the sky. For example, Thea Rasche gained international fame; she was the first German female stunt pilot, took part in air shows from the mid-1920s onwards and won numerous awards. At the invitation of American journalists, she flew to New York in 1927 and performed aerobatics over and around the Statue of Liberty on approach. As a result, she became famous under the nickname “The Flying Fräulein”.

Her name is primarily associated with pioneering work in other fields: before becoming famous as a successful eroticism entrepreneur, Beate Uhse was Germany's first female stunt pilot. In 1937, she acquired her pilot’s licence, just in time for her 18th birthday. Only a short time later, she passed her aerobatics test and was hired as a stunt pilot as she was small enough to hide in the front seat and pilot the plane. In the final years of the Second World War, Beate Uhse was employed as a transport pilot; after the war she gave up her professional aviation career but still stuck with flying.

Hanna Reitsch is one of the best known, but at the same time most controversial female German pilots from that time. She went down in history as the world's first female flight captain and set numerous aviation records in the 1930s. In 1937 she was drafted into the air force and served as a test pilot until the end of the Second World War. Even after the war Hanna Reitsch did not give up flying: from 1954 she again worked as a test pilot and brought gliding to India and Ghana. Her achievements in aviation are overshadowed by the fact that she never clearly distanced herself from the Nazis up to her death in 1979

Daughters of the sky: aviation pioneers around the world

Amelia Earhart in an aircraft, 1936

Flying women also made a name for themselves internationally. For example, Harriet Quimby was the first important US female pilot and was the first woman to fly across the English Channel in 1912. Or the Frenchwoman Maryse Bastié, who was the first woman in France to acquire a commercial pilot’s licence, setting eight aviation world records in the 1920s. Another important aviation pioneer is Amy Johnson, a British woman who in 1930 was the first woman to embark on a solo flight from England to Australia.

The American Amelia Earhart is considered the world's most famous and legendary aviation pioneer: in 1932, she was the first woman to make a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. She became world famous as the “Daughter of the Sky”. A few years later she embarked on another great adventure; she wanted to be the first person fly around the world along the equator. After having covered three quarters of the distance within a month, she landed in New Guinea on 29 June 1937 for a stopover. On the onward flight, radio contact with her plane broke down and the US government launched the largest search operation in aviation history to date. 64 aircraft and eight battleships searched more than 400,000 km² of sea. But both the plane and Amelia Earhart and her navigator were lost. To this day, there are many legends and speculations about Earhart's disappearance.

The hard road to equality: are you a madam, sir?

Amelia Earhart, who not only made outstanding contributions to aviation, but also worked hard to promote gender equality, once said: “Please know that I am aware of the hazards [of flying]. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others”.
Despite the pioneering work of Amelia Earhart and her fellow female pilots, a female pilot is still by no means a matter of course. The proportion of female pilots worldwide is less than 6%. However, numerous initiatives by airlines or organisations such as “Women in Aviation” are now trying to promote the next generation of women in aviation. As a result, incidents like the quote from a controller just few years ago, asking Lufthansa pilot Evi Hetzmannseder via radio: “Are you a madam, sir?” might soon be history.

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