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  • Writer's pictureSimon Golstein

International Women's Day 2024: Paying tribute to female pioneers of aviation

Today is International Women’s Day, so we decided to pay tribute to a few of the brave and talented women who made their mark on the world of aviation. 


Bessie Coleman

Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892. One of thirteen siblings, she walked four miles every day to get to her one-room school, while helping support her family by washing laundry and picking cotton every harvest.  

“The air is the only place free from prejudices.”


She first became interested in flying in her early twenties while working as a manicurist in Chicago. Her brothers had returned from Europe with stories of the Great War and how French women were allowed to become pilots. Bessie Coleman was determined that she would fly too - but no flying school in the US would take an African American woman.


So she enrolled in a language school to learn French, sailed to Paris and achieved an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She then passed an advanced aviation course and spent time training with French aces and Anthony Fokker.


Coleman returned to the US and over the next five years became a celebrity. Touring the country, she would perform daring stunts at air shows, becoming known for loops, figure eights and near-ground dips. When not flying, she would show videos of her stunts to sold-out crowds and educate them about aviation - and she absolutely refused to participate at events where African Americans were not allowed to attend. 


In 1925, Coleman finally saved enough money to buy her own plane, a Curtiss JN-4. Tragically, she was killed in an air accident in that same plane before she could achieve her dream of opening her own flying school. But her name lives on. In both the US and France there are aviation clubs, scholarships, schools and streets named after her, and every year, a local aviation club does a flyover of her grave at Lincoln Cemetery, Chicago. Bessie Coleman has been featured on a postage stamp and a special edition quarter, and in 2006 was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart was born in Kansas and became interested in flying in 1917 while treating injured aviators at a Canadian military hospital. In 1920, she paid $10 for a ten-minute ride in an airplane and said of the experience: “By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly." Earhart took various jobs and saved enough money for lessons, and purchased her first plane six months after her first lesson.

“By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly."


Earhart went on to set an altitude record for female pilots (14,000 ft), and in 1928 became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean as a passenger. This brought her a measure of fame and fortune, which she used to further her flying career - setting new speed records in 1929 and 1930, becoming the first woman to fly an autogyro in 1931, and then breaking the autogyro altitude record, and then becoming the first woman to cross the US in an autogyro. In 1932 she became the first woman, and second person, to execute a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. That same year she became the first woman to fly across the continental US. In 1935, she became the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to the US mainland, and then broke the speed record between Washington DC and Mexico City.


Her final flight ended in tragedy. On one of the final legs of her attempted round-the-world trip, she attempting to locate and land on a tiny, isolated island in the Pacific Ocean. Earhart and her navigator disappeared, presumed to have run out of fuel and drowned - the plane has not been found to this day.


Amelia Earhart died before the age of 40, but she left an indelible mark on the world, earning the American Distinguished Flying Cross and the Cross of the French Legion of Honor. Her name lives on in countless places around the world, including airports, roads, schools, scholarships, awards, statues, and even a crater on the moon. She was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1968.

Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton was born in Indiana and studied mathematics at the University of Michigan. Later she pursued abstract mathematics and intended to become a professor, but fate stepped in.

“Looking back, we were the luckiest people in the world. There was no choice but to be pioneers; no time to be beginners.”


She began working at the meteorology department at MIT in 1959 where she developed software for predicting the weather. She then moved on to a new computerized air defense system called the AN/FSQ-7 Combat Direction Central, as well as a satellite tracking project. Her ability to get difficult code to work, code that nobody had succeeded with before, got the Apollo project organizers’ attention. 


Hamilton wasn’t just the first female programmer hired for the Apollo program – she was the first programmer, period. Later, she became Director of the Software Engineering Division. Coding was not considered an engineering discipline before Hamilton – she was the person who popularized the phrase ‘software engineering’. During her work at NASA, Hamilton lead the team that wrote and tested the software that guided the Apollo space missions - including Apollo 11 - creating interfaces like Display Interface Routines and vitally important mechanisms for error detection and recovery.


An innovation in Hamilton's software also saved Apollo 11 moon landing from an early abort. Three minutes before touchdown, program alarms that the astronauts didn’t recognize began sounding due to a minor overload caused by Buzz Aldrin requesting too many tasks from the onboard computer. Thanks to Hamilton’s programming, the computer was able to prioritize its tasks, eliminate the low priority ones, and successfully complete the mission.


Hamilton holds a long list of honors and awards, including the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Computer History Museum Fellow Award, the Washington Award and the Intrepid Lifetime Achievement Award. Margaret Hamilton was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2022.

These incredible woman all helped lay the foundations of aviation as we know it today. At High Lander, we’re working hard to build on what they achieved by guiding aviation to exciting new places. And of course, we couldn’t do any of this without the talented women on our team.

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