This Week In Aviation History: The First Female Airline Captain

Fewer than ten percent of licensed pilots are women and this week we look at one of the pioneers — as a success and a tragedy. Our story begins with Central Airlines of Pennsylvania. Central later became part of Capitol, which then became part of United — now, the largest airline in the world — but in 1934, Central was new and growing. With the responsibilities of a Detroit to Washington, DC airmail route and a fleet of Ford Trimotors, Central was looking for flight crews. Among the applicants was Pennsylvania native Helen Richey. Richey, from McKeesport, Pennsylvania had taken her first flight in 1929 as a passenger in a Waco 9 operated by Clifford Ball Airlines. She had soon become a ramp rat and was taking ground school. In the spring of 1930 she was enrolled at the Curtiss-Wright flying school at Bettis Field in McKeesport, PA. She soloed in April and earned her license in June of 1930.

As one of the few female pilots in the area, Richey was soon at work giving demonstrations and exhibitions, and flying at air shows and meets. But she was still learning, for she had set her sights on becoming a commercial pilot. The commercial rating she gained in December of 1930. Her father, the school superintendent in McKeesport was by this time supporting his daughter’s dream, and he bought her a four-place Bird CK biplane powered by a Kinner B5 radial engine.

As Richey’s skill and experience grew, she became popular among the other women flying at the time. One of them, Frances Marsalis, had set an endurance record and wanted to best it a second time. She asked Helen to fly with her. Using a Curtiss Thrush and refueled — in the air — by a Curtiss Robin, the pair stayed aloft over Miami, Florida for nine days, 21 hours and 42 minutes to shatter the record. No doubt, their main sponsor, Outdoor Girl Cosmetics were happy, as their name was boldly painted across the rear fuselage of the Thrush.

Richey, like many pilots, was involved in the air races of the day, including one in Dayton, Ohio for women. She won the first National Air Meet for Women 50 Mile handicap Race — but her joy came with a price. Her friend Frances Marsalis was killed in the same race. Richey decided that racing and stunting were not a real aviation career, and she set her sights on the airlines.

Central Airlines was up against Pennsylvania Airlines in the same markets and routes, and when the time came to hire a new pilot, Central saw an opportunity for some publicity. Helen Richey was hired by Central in December of 1934. She flew her first scheduled commercial flight on Dec 31, 1934. The Ford Tri-motor flight was Washington DC to Detroit via Pittsburgh. On that flight, she became not only the first female pilot for a regularly scheduled airline, but the first woman sworn in as a duly appointed pilot flying the U.S. Mail, as well.

Unfortunately, things were not so simple. As an airline pilot, she forwarded her name to the Airline Pilots Union. She was denied membership, and the union raised such opposition to her capabilities with the Department of Commerce that the officials recommended that Richey not be allowed to fly when weather conditions might require two men at the controls (rather than two pilots.) Richey was being put to good use by Central however — not as a pilot, but as a spokesman. She talked to various groups, posed for photos and conducted airport tours. But this was not what she wanted. Due in large part to the discrimination she faced, Richey resigned in October 1935.

Helen Richey’s Legacy
Women’s groups and women aviation groups (particularly the Ninety-Nines) in were very vocal in their dissatisfaction with the turn of events. Richey was asked to join the Bureau of Air Commerce and take a position in the Air Marking Program. Richey accepted, and traveled from town to town, sometimes by car, sometimes by plane, meeting with small town officials. The program urged small towns and cities to mark broad expanses of rooftops with town names, and indicators to local airfields.

During World War Two, Richey flew with the Royal Air Force Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), and was tasked with ferrying aircraft from the factories to the RAF squadrons. Helen Richey ferried Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes during her years with the ATA. The ATA pilots wore RAF uniforms; distinguished with ATA wings — a shoulder flash for the Americans spelled out ‘U.S.A.’

After the United States entered the War and the Army Air Forces adopted the Women Air Service Pilots ( WASPs ) behind the lead of Aviation Hall of Famer Jackie Cochran, Richey returned to the United States and became a WASP. In so doing, she joined many friends she had flown with and competed against. Richey delivered factory fresh North American B-25 Mitchell bombers to the squadrons.

When peace came to the world, it did not rest with Richey. She was an accomplished woman who was both highly trained and skilled at her craft. Sadly, the end of the war left her looking for a meaningful flying job amongst the competition from a fresh pool of seasoned male pilots — many with combat experience. Richey was a good pilot and an accomplished pilot — perhaps, better than most — but to the rest of the world she was a woman pilot, and she lived in society not ready to embrace that. After restlessly visiting family in McKeesport, she returned to New York City where she grew increasingly despondent of her situation and the constraints it put on her life and her talents. Finally, on January 7, 1947, she took her own life.