I love books. I love learning from books. I love how you can learn something without meaning to from seemingly unrelated sources. Reading books, you can accidentally learn about the early years of aviation and women’s contributions, as I now know.
I read Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl’s Filling Station’s Last Reunion two years ago because I was looking for a funny Southern book. I found it. Then this year, I picked up a biography of Anne Morrow Lindbergh on a whim and then one of her early non-fictions, North to the Orient. I now have a small insight into a part of American history I was previously unaware of without even trying. To be fair, I’m pretty unaware of most of American history, but that is neither here nor there.
I knew of course the Wright brothers, Kitty Hawk, Charles Lindbergh, Spirit of St. Louis, Amelia Earhart, all those things that have made it to postage stamps. But what I didn’t fully understand was the adrenaline-seeking that came in the early years of aviation technology or women’s role in it’s advancement.
Planes were first used en masse in WWI. Men trained to fly had a hard time staying on the ground after the war ended. Some of them started flying schools. Many took to circus flying, traveling the country putting on death defying shows, wing walking and barrel rolling. Crowds were mesmerized by the men and women making a mockery of gravity, dancing in space hitherto restricted to man.
The public face of aviation was rogue cowboys doing stunts for the adrenaline rush but major advancements were happening at the same time. There was a world-wide race to make planes commercially useful during peacetime. The people who could make that happen would became instant celebrities, not without merit. Flying was still a new science; many, many people died in every stage of flight. Enter Charles Lindbergh. His successful flight across the Atlantic catapulted him into a level of world wide celebrity unheard of before. He not only made America proud, he excited the world showing just what was possible and what the future held for airplanes.
The trans-Atlantic flight was just the beginning of Lindbergh’s career. He spent years connecting cities by air, creating flight courses to be used by commercial planes, including a route to the Orient. His contributions are enormous, and he is rightly held in high esteem. What history has not remembered very well is his modest wife’s involvement.
Early flyers were fly boys, rogue explorers on the exciting forefront of adventure. So was Anne Morrow Lindbergh. She was the first female to be given a glider’s license, she was co-pilot to nearly all of Lindbergh’s post-Atlantic flights, and she was among the first airplane radio operators in the world. In their trip to the Orient, Anne was the first white woman to see many of the Canadian and Alaskan out-posts. Charles got the reputation of being an aviation bad-ass, but his wife was with him nearly step for step, and oftentimes, while pregnant.
Anne Lindbergh was also able to bring a female’s perspective to flying. She knew how to fly, she could operate a radio in flight, she could crash land on a deserted lagoon and set up camp. She appreciated flying in a different way than her scientifically-minded husband. She saw the beauty in it; she could capture what it was to leave the earth’s surface and see the world. She could impart not only the thrill and the adventure of flying, but also the magic and wonder of it all.
At the onset of WWII, America, like much of Europe, rushed to build air forces. Planes were needed fast, as well as flyers. With the men overseas fighting, women took to the tasks of running the country and the war machine. This meant the aviation jobs that were previously just for rugged cowboy types, were now done, and quite successfully I may add, by women just off the farm. These women took on the training and the risk of fixing and flying planes to air bases. They took the thrill and the pressure of flying in stride and did more than their share to help the Allies.
Unfortunately, like many of the women who proved themselves as capable as the men who left their jobs to fight, female flyers took a back seat when soldiers came home. Aviation is still a pretty male-dominated field, but thanks to the likes of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Sally Ride, it’s not so surprising to see a woman in the cockpit.
Are you fascinated by the early days of aviation? What books do you recommend?
Is there a part of history you stumbled upon unexpectedly, or accidentally learned something you didn’t mean to by reading?