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The San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives
The San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives

Those Magnificent Ladies in Their Flying Machines

The San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives
The San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives

In the early days of human flight, a new word entered our lexicon: "aviatrix," the female version of "aviator." These women were true pioneers, although if you asked them, they would probably tell you they were just adventurous and loved flying -same as the men who took to the air in those days. Or even today, for that matter. But for a woman to drive one of the newfangled flying machines in the early 20th century took a can-do attitude that wasn't normally encouraged in women.

Baroness Raymonde de Laroche

Elise Raymonde Deroche was the first woman to receive a pilot's license. She was not a baroness, but a French plumber's daughter who became a stage actress under the name Raymonde de Laroche. In 1908, she was smitten with the idea of flying when she saw an exhibition by the Wright Brothers. Immediately, de Laroche began taking flying lessons from airplane builder Charles Voisin. His plane could only hold one person, so her first actual flying lesson was a solo flight, on October 22, 1909. There is some evidence that she was not the first female to fly solo, but she is definitely the first to earn a license. The newsletter of the Royal Aero Club referred to her as a "Baroness" in its report of her feat. Raymonde de Laroche never objected to the title, which stuck to her for life.

Raymonde de Laroche flew in exhibitions and races, but was denied the opportunity to fly in World War I. After the war, she was determined to become a test pilot. She got the job in 1919. In her first test flight, in which she was co-pilot, the plane took a nose dive and both Raymonde de Laroche and the pilot were killed instantly.

Blanche Stuart Scott

Born in 1885, Blanche Scott was an adventurer before she became a pilot. Scott was the second woman ever to drive an automobile coast to coat, from California to New York, in 1910. At the end of her stunt, she took her first flying lesson from pilot Jerome Fanciulli.

To prevent her aircraft from gaining enough speed to become airborne while taxiing on her own, Curtiss inserted block of wood behind the throttle pedal. However, "something happened" on September 2, and Scott managed to fly to an altitude of forty feet in the air.

The Aeronautical Society of America denied Scott the title of "first U.S. female aviator" because her solo flight was not intentional. However, Scott went on to become an accomplished pilot. She joined an exhibition team and performed daredevil stunts, and also went on to work as a test pilot for Glenn Martin aircraft (which eventually became Lockheed-Martin). Scott retired from professional flying in 1916, and became a Hollywood script writer.

Bessica Raiche

Bessica Raiche stood out from the crowd. Born in 1875, she entered the 20th century driving an automobile, wearing bloomers, and eventually practicing medicine as both a dentist and an obstetrician. She and her husband, Frenchman Francois Raiche, were fascinated by aviation and decided to build their own airplane in their backyard in Mineola, New York. They designated Bessica to be the test pilot, because she weighed less than Francois. With no training or experience, she took off for the plane's first short flight on September 16, 1910. In fact, Raiche made five flights that day -and would have flown more, if the plane hadn't crashed. Since she is the first documented woman to fly solo deliberately, Raiche was certified by the Aeronautical Society of America as the first U.S. female aviator. She and Francois went on to build more airplanes, making improvements on each one.

Hélène Dutrieu

Hélène Dutrieu was born in 1877 in Belgium, and by age 20 she was a professional stunt cyclist and champion racer on both automobiles and motorcycles. But that wasn't enough- Dutrieu also learned to fly, and was the fourth woman in the world to earn a license, in 1910. She became one of the first female professional pilots, breaking records and performing in air shows. To put her accomplishment in perspective, she caused a bit of a scandal when it became known that she did not wear a corset while flying. But that still wasn't enough. During World War I, Dutrieu drove an ambulance and worked her way up to director of a military hospital. After the war, she went into journalism and worked to promote the role of women in aviation.

Ruth Law

Born in 1887, Ruth Bancroft Law received her pilot's license in 1912 and began a career as a stunt pilot. Law was very competitive, always trying to outrace, outfly, or do a more dangerous stunt than the next pilot. In 1916, she announced her intention to break the distance record by flying from Chicago to the New York state line, a distance of 590 miles. Few took her seriously. When she tried to buy a plane large enough to carry the necessary fuel, the manufacturer refused, saying a woman couldn't do it (and besides, they were busy building planes for the war). So Law had to make do with a smaller, older Curtis biplane. She outfitted it with an extra gas tank, but she still had to use both her hands for controls, which meant juggling navigation maps as best as she could.

On November 19, 1916, Law took off from Chicago in very cold weather, fighting high winds. There were a couple of close calls along the way, as she encountered fog and high mountains. Law ran out of gas before reaching New York state, and glided in powerless for the last few miles. But she made it, and set a new world non-stop distance record.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was born the tenth of thirteen children to sharecroppers in the tiny town of Atlanta, Texas. She had to move away from the family to attend high school, but could only afford one year of tuition. At 23, she went to Chicago and became a manicurist. But as she followed the progress of World War I, she dreamed of flying an airplane. No one would teach a black woman to fly, so she went to France in 1920 to take an aviation course at the Somme, sponsored by the Chicago weekly newspaper The Defender. She was the only woman in her class to receive a pilot's license, but even more, she was the first black American woman to gain a license, and the first person of African American descent to hold an international pilot's license.

Coleman's dream was to open her own school for aviators, but first she had to establish her own flying career. Back in the U.S., she still could not find anyone to train her in the skills she would need for barnstorming shows, the most lucrative of civilian aviation careers at the time. So she returned to Europe for more training in 1922. When she began headlining air shows with her daredevil maneuvers, she gained the respect of men and women, black and white. Coleman became know as "Queen Bess." In addition to flying, she gave lectures on aviation and performed educational exhibition flights. And she saved her money for her school. But it was not to be. On April 30, 1926, she was testing out a plane she had recently purchased, with mechanic William Wills piloting. Coleman was not wearing a seatbelt, as she wanted to check out the vantage point from which she was scheduled to parachute the next day. The engine jammed, the plane shook, and Coleman fell out, plummeting to her death. She was 34 years old.

Pancho Barnes


Photograph: The San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives.

Florence Leontine Lowe was born in 1901 to a wealthy family who raised her in high society. She took riding and ballet lessons, but she was particularly drawn to the interests of her grandfather, legendary Civil War balloonist Thaddeus Lowe. He took Florence to her first aviation show in 1910, and told her one day she would have her own flying machine.

Florence's family arranged her marriage to minister C. Ranken Barnes in 1921. She had a son, but was never happy as a housewife, and felt that she had to compete for the minister's attention. She and the minister separated and were divorced a few years later. This freed Florence, nicknamed "Pancho" by her friends, for the adventures she craved. In 1928, Pancho took flying lessons and passed her solo test after only six hours of instruction. Very few women achieved pilot's licenses at the time, and Pancho's was signed by Orville Wright. She immediately took to barnstorming, performing in air shows and competing in air races. In 1930, she broke Amelia Earhart's world women's speed record by flying at over 196 miles per hour! Pancho then turned to Hollywood, where she became a stunt pilot in several movies. She also founded a union for stunt pilots, the Associated Motion Picture Pilots

In 1935, Barnes bought 180 acres of land in the Mojave Desert, near Muroc Field, now a part of Edwards Air Force Base. She opened The Happy Bottom Riding Club, a dude ranch with a hotel, restaurant, nightclub, and a working farm. Barnes arranged for the expanding air base to give her leftover food which she fed to her pigs, which she would then sell to the Air Force. The nightclub became a favorite hangout for pilots, including Chuck Yeager, Buzz Aldrin, and the test pilots who went on to become the Mercury astronauts. You might recall Pancho and her nightclub as it was portrayed in the 1983 film The Right Stuff. She was also the subject of a 2009 PBS documentary, The Legend of Pancho Barnes and The Happy Bottom Riding Club. Pancho Barnes died of breast cancer in 1975.

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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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presidents
George Washington’s Incredible Hair Routine

America's Founding Fathers had some truly defining locks, but we tend to think of those well-coiffed white curls—with their black ribbon hair ties and perfectly-managed frizz—as being wigs. Not so in the case of the main man himself, George Washington.

As Robert Krulwich reported at National Geographic, a 2010 biography on our first president—Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow—reveals that the man “never wore a wig.” In fact, his signature style was simply the result of an elaborately constructed coiffure that far surpasses most morning hair routines, and even some “fancy” hair routines.

The style Washington was sporting was actually a tough look for his day. In the late 18th century, such a hairdo would have been worn by military men.

While the hair itself was all real, the color was not. Washington’s true hue was a reddish brown color, which he powdered in a fashion that’s truly delightful to imagine. George would (likely) don a powdering robe, dip a puff made of silk strips into his powder of choice (there are a few options for what he might have used), bend his head over, and shake the puff out over his scalp in a big cloud.

To achieve the actual ‘do, Washington kept his hair long and would then pull it back into a tight braid or simply tie it at the back. This helped to showcase the forehead, which was very in vogue at the time. On occasion, he—or an attendant—would bunch the slack into a black silk bag at the nape of the neck, perhaps to help protect his clothing from the powder. Then he would fluff the hair on each side of his head to make “wings” and secure the look with pomade or good old natural oils.

To get a better sense of the play-by-play, check out the awesome illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton that accompany Krulwich’s post.

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