Women Who Fly

Portraits of female pilots

marty goppert flying circus
(Carolyn Russo)

Everyone’s heard of Amelia Earhart. But how about Patricia Jenkins, a pilot who uses her helicopter to herd cattle? Or Suzanne Asbury-Oliver, a skywriter for the Pepsi-Cola Company? Or Florence Parlett, an airport operator in tiny Edgewater, Maryland?

“As a photographer working at the National Air and Space Museum,” writes Carolyn Russo in her book
 Women and Flight“I pass by Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega almost every day. So when a friend suggested I photograph [modern-day] women aviators, it seemed only natural.”

In 1992 Russo began her search for subjects. Rather than focus on “the fastest and most famous,” she decided to document a range of pilots, letting each woman tell her own story in the accompanying text. Russo’s book, 
Women and Flight: Portraits of Contemporary Women Pilots (1997, Smithsonian Institution), offers a delightful array of female pilots and their stories of flying. Click on the images below to see a selection.

Text and images reprinted with permission.

Pictured above: Marty Goppert, Flying Circus Pilot

Dressed in her flying uniform for The Flying Circus, Bealeton, Virginia, 1992.

“The Flying Circus got started by these fellows who had a love of old airplanes. It’s a takeoff on the 1930s barnstorming show, placed between Warrenton and Fredericksburg, Virginia, off a country road….

I really never had a great interest in flying. I’m a nurse, and when I would go up with my husband, who was flying for United Airlines, and me being practical and thinking about the whole situation, I wanted to know how to land this airplane if he ever had a heart attack…. So he said, ‘Well, if you’re going to learn to land it, you might as well get your license, because landing is the hardest part.’

I got my license so that I could land the aircraft, and from there my love for flying grew. I just really enjoyed going up and flying around and getting away from everything, especially if you’ve had a hectic day at work, and enjoying the beauty of the country from up above. You don’t have the traffic, the hassle, and the busyness of our society that we live in day to day.”

Madge Rutherford Minton, Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP)

(Carolyn Russo)

Standing in her living room with objects she has collected from around the world. Indianapolis, Indiana, 1995.

“My parents were always saying, ‘Control yourself, Madge, control yourself.’ The first really strong wish as to the future came to me the first time I saw an airplane. I was sitting on the curb eating a piece of my grandmother’s pie and this little plane was up maybe a couple or three thousand feet. It looked like a toy. I went in and I said, ‘Mother, there’s something up there and I want you to get it for me so I can play with it.’…

I guess aviation sort of became part of my subconscious. I was a student in college and I signed up for this civilian pilot training program and I was accepted, and my very first time in an airplane was my first flight lesson….

In January of 1943, I had a telegram asking me if I was interested in being a WASP, and that’s the way it began. I was twenty-two years old, and had to report to Sweetwater, Texas, to the Avenger Air Field, for training….

I said I wanted to be in the Air Transport Command ferrying division. I would like to ferry hot planes and big planes, and I wanted to be assigned to Long Beach, California, because my fiancé was stationed at the naval hospital in San Diego….

I would have flown combat. I think this is the reason I’ve been so sympathetic to the contemporary women pilots about their problems. During that period of time, it was exactly the same point of justice I fought for in college. If they wanted to do it, let them do it. They earned it. I think women should have that privilege.”

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