International Women’s Day, a global celebration of the economic, political and social achievements of women, began on March 8, 1911. Women’s History Month is a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture and society and has been observed annually in March in the United States since 1987.
To help celebrate Women’s History Month, FreightWaves Classics will continue to profile a number of women who made contributions to transportation during the month of March.
Women have made history across all transportation modes. In this multi-part article, short vignettes of women who helped advance aviation are featured. What is remarkable about most of the women profiled by FreightWaves Classics is that they accomplished many other things beyond their aviation exploits.
Mary Wallace “Wally” wanted to take courses in mechanical drawing and auto mechanics in high school. Because girls were not allowed to take those courses, Funk left high school at the age of 16 and entered Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. She became a member of the “Flying Susies” and rated highest in her class of 24 fliers. She graduated in 1958 with a pilot’s license and an Associate of Arts degree. Funk earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Secondary Education at Oklahoma State University. While in college she also earned a large number of aviation certificates and ratings, including her Commercial, Single-engine Land, Multi-engine Land, Single-engine Sea, Instrument, Flight Instructor’s, and all Ground Instructor’s ratings. Funk was elected an officer of the university’s “Flying Aggies” and represented the university in the International Collegiate Air Meets. She earned the Outstanding Female Pilot trophy, the Flying Aggie Top Pilot and the Alfred Alder Memorial Trophy two years in a row.
At the age of 20, Funk became a professional aviator. Her first position was at Fort Sill, Oklahoma; she served as a Civilian Flight Instructor of non-commissioned and commissioned officers of the U.S. Army – and the first female flight instructor at a U.S. military base.
Funk earned her Airline Transport Rating in 1968, the 58th woman in the U.S. to accomplish this. Along with other qualified female pilots, she applied to three commercial airlines but was turned away because of her sex.
Funk earned her flight inspector rating from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 1971 – the first woman to complete the FAA’s General Aviation Operations Inspector Academy course, “which includes Pilot Certification and Flight Testing procedures, handling accidents and violations.” She worked for four years as the first female field examiner at the FAA. That was followed in 1973 by her promotion to a specialist with the FAA’s Systems Worthiness Analysis Program; she was the first woman in the U.S. to hold this position as well.
Funk became the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) first female Air Safety Investigator in 1974. She investigated over 450 accidents on behalf of the NTSB.
While at the NTSB, Funk also participated in numerous air races, including the Powder Puff Derby’s 25th Annual Race. On August 16, 1975, she was second in the Palms to Pines All Women Air Race (participants raced from Santa Monica, California, to Independence, Oregon). Less than two months later (October 4, 1975) she won the Pacific Air Race from San Diego to Santa Rosa, California, beating 80 other competitors.
After 11 years, Funk retired from the NTSB in 1985. She was then appointed an FAA Safety Counselor, becoming a well-known pilot trainer and speaker on aviation safety. She represented the U.S. and was a key speaker at the 1986 World Aviation Education and Safety Congress. The following year Funk was appointed Chief Pilot at Emery Aviation College in Greeley, Colorado, overseeing the flight programs for 100 students from private to multi-engine flight instructor and helicopter ratings. She went on to be the chief pilot for five aviation schools across the country.
On July 20, 2021, at the age of 82, Funk became the oldest person to go into space. She flew on Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft during its suborbital flight, breaking John Glenn’s record.
Emily Howell Warner
In 1973 Emily Howell Warner became the first woman hired as an air transport pilot for a modern, jet-equipped scheduled airline (Frontier Airlines).
In 1958 Warner booked her first-ever flight aboard a Frontier Douglas DC-3. Curious about aviation (and thinking she might want to become a stewardess), she was the only passenger on the return flight on February 3. She asked to see the cockpit and speak briefly with the flight crew. Her excitement was visible, and the copilot suggested she take flying lessons. “His words changed my life,” Warner later recalled. By February 18, 1958, Warner had her student pilot’s license.
Warner earned her private pilot’s license and then earned commercial, instrument, multi-engine and instructor ratings. She worked as a certified flight instructor in the Cessna 150 from 1961 to 1967. During this period, Warner had also been the Air Taxi and Flight School Manager, an FAA Pilot Examiner and Chief Pilot at Clinton Aviation, as well as being responsible for the United Airlines Contract Training Program at Clinton. Many of her (primarily male) students pursued airline careers. From 1968 to 1973 she applied for airline pilot positions at multiple airlines.
Warner received an opportunity to interview with Frontier Airlines’ Vice President of Flight Operations in early 1973. When Frontier hired Warner, she had logged over 7,000 hours (more than four times the minimum hours required to apply to be an airline pilot). Warner flew for Frontier from 1973 until the airline ended operations in 1986. She then flew for Continental Airlines and as a captain for UPS in Boeing 737s from 1988 to 1990.
During the last decade of her career, Warner worked for the FAA as an air carrier inspector, Aircrew Program Manager assigned to United Airlines’ Boeing 737 fleet, and the FAA representative for United’s Flight Safety Action Program.
After 42 years in aviation and over 21,000 hours of flight time, Warner retired in 2002. During her career, she accomplished many extraordinary achievements. In 1974 she was the first woman inducted into the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). Helen Richey, who was profiled in Part 2 of this series, flew briefly for Central Airlines in 1934, but was denied an ALPA membership in 1935. Warner also was the first woman to achieve the rank of captain for a U.S. airline in 1976, and she was charter member of the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISA+21). At Continental, she was the leader of the airline’s first all-female flight crew in 1986.
Among her recognition and awards were:
- Recipient of the Amelia Earhart Award as the Outstanding Woman in U.S. Aviation
- Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame
- Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame
- National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2001
- Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2002
- National Aviation Hall of Fame
Also in 1973, Bonnie Tiburzi became the first woman pilot for American Airlines and the first woman pilot for a major U.S. commercial airline. Concurrently, she also became the first woman in the world to earn a Flight Engineer rating on a turbo-jet aircraft. She accomplished these things at the age of 24…
Bonnie Tiburzi grew up “in the cockpit.” Her father was a pilot for Scandinavian Airlines and later with Trans World Airlines. After leaving the airline industry, her father owned and operated Tiburzi Airways – a flight school and charter company in Danbury, Connecticut. Bonnie learned to fly there, beginning her career in aviation as a flight instructor and charter pilot.
At American Airlines she flew as a captain on Boeing 727s, 757s and 767s. She retired from American in 1999 after 26 years.
Among her professional activities were:
- Trustee for the College of Aeronautics from 1990-2000
- Created and produced three “Women of Accomplishment” Award Luncheons for the Wings Club, Inc. in New York City from 1981 to 1983
- Created the “Information Bank” – a networking system for the International Society Of Women Airline Pilots to help further the career of future female pilots
U.S. Navy trains women pilots
On March 2, 1973, the first four females seeking to become U.S. Navy pilots began training. They were: Lt. j.g. Barbara A. Allen; Lt. j.g Judith A. Neuffer; Ensign Jane M. Skiles and Ensign Kathleen L. McNary.
Mary Barr wanted to help build aircraft for the U.S. during World War II, so she moved to New York City and joined an aircraft mechanic school. She also worked with members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), which transported aircraft and war materiel across the U.S. and to Europe.
She first learned how to fly an airplane in 1946 as part of a Piper “club.” At the time, she was working in a factory in Lorain, Ohio. She had dropped out of Oberlin College to earn money to pay for flying lessons. After completing her training, she obtained a job training others to be commercial pilots.
After marrying, she and her husband moved to Susanville, California in 1949. They ran the local airport. After obtaining certification in 1957, Barr became the FAA Pilot Examiner for Lassen County.
In 1964, Barr became one of the first four women to take part in the Reno Air Races. Flying a Piper Cherokee, she placed second in the Stock Plane Class at the Reno National Championships. In 1971 she became an FAA accident prevention counselor, part of a new FAA program that involved Barr counseling pilots alongside 19 other experienced instructors spread across five states in the western U.S. Their job was to help reduce the risk-taking activities of new or long inactive pilots throughout the region.
Beginning a career with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in July 1974, Barr was the agency’s first female pilot. She was promoted to official staff after having worked with the USFS as a contract pilot for several years. She was lead airplane pilot for the California North Zone Air Unit. After several years Barr moved to San Francisco as an Aviation Safety Officer for the USFS, and then was promoted to National Aviation Safety Officer in Washington, D. C. Her final position with the USFS began in 1985 when she moved to Sacramento, California to serve as the Regional Safety Officer until she retired.
Barr was given a special recognition award in 1988 by the Lassen Experimental Aviation Association for her years of service helping pilots and using the Susanville airport to relay weather information to the public. She also received the “Cooperator of the Year” award in 1993 by the Honey Lake Valley Resource Conservation District for her efforts to improve irrigation and build stabilization structures for the region’s rivers and stream banks. She was named to the 2001 Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame for Women in Aviation, International and was also honored by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Recognition for World War II WASP pilots
As profiled in Part 2 of this series, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was a civilian women pilots organization. WASP members were U.S. federal civil service employees. Despite its role and members of the armed forces being involved in the creation of WASPs, its members had no military standing and did not qualify for military benefits.
On June 21, 1944, legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to provide the WASP with military status was narrowly defeated. An effort was made to resolve the issue by either commissioning the WASP as members of the military or disbanding the program. General Henry H. Arnold, (who had helped to create the WASP and was a proponent of the organization’s militarization) was forced to disband the organization on December 20, 1944.
In a December 7, 1944 speech, Arnold stated, “The WASP has completed its mission. Their job has been successful. But as is usual in war, the cost has been heavy. Thirty-eight WASP have died while helping their country move toward the moment of final victory. The Air Forces will long remember their service and their final sacrifice.”
Before the WASP was disbanded, Arnold ordered all commanding officers at bases where WASPs served to issue the women pilots “a certificate similar to an honorable discharge.”
At the conclusion of the WASP program, 915 women pilots were on duty with the the U.S. Army Air Forces. During its tenure, WASP members ferried 50% of the combat aircraft during the war to 126 bases across the United States. Because of the expertise they demonstrated, women pilots, when given the same training as men pilots, proved they were as capable as men in non-combat flying.
In 1949 (after the U.S. Army Air Forces became a separate military branch – the United States Air Force), former WASP members were offered USAF commissions. There were 121 women who accepted the commissions; however none were allowed to fly and they were assigned support and administrative duties.
Like nearly all files from World War II, the WASP program records were classified and sealed for 35 years. This meant that the WASP contributions to the war effort were not well-known and were inaccessible to historians.
Efforts to gain recognition for the WASP continued, however. In the 1970s U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, who had been a ferry pilot in the 27th Ferrying Squadron during the war, supported the measure. However, the effort to award members of WASP veterans’ status was generally met with Congressional prejudice and disdain. According to Goldwater’s legislative assistant, “Women were treated as non-persons.”
Under the leadership of Col. Bruce Arnold (General Arnold’s son) and surviving WASP members, the “Battle of Congress” began. Their goal was to gain public support and have the WASP officially recognized as World War II veterans.
In 1976 legislation was introduced to give the WASPs military status and allow WASP pilots to use veterans’ services. In 1977, WASP records were unsealed after a USAF press release erroneously stated the military branch was training the first women to fly military aircraft for the U.S.
Documents were found that showed that during their service WASP members were subject to military discipline, assigned top secret missions and many members were awarded service ribbons after their units were disbanded. The WASPs lobbied Congress with the important support of Goldwater. Opposition to the WASP members being given military recognition came from the Veterans Administration, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Nonetheless, the legislation passed Congress, and President Jimmy Carter signed the G.I. Bill Improvement Act of 1977, which stated that service as a WASP would be considered “active duty” for the purposes of programs administered by the Veterans Administration. Honorable Discharge certificates were issued to the former WASP members in 1979. Each WASP was awarded the World War II Victory Medal in 1984. Those who served for more than one year were also awarded American Theater Ribbon/American Campaign Medal for their service.
In 2009, the WASPs were inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Then, on July 1, 2009, President Barack Obama and the United States Congress awarded the WASP the Congressional Gold Medal.
During the ceremony President Obama said, “The Women Airforce Service Pilots courageously answered their country’s call in a time of need while blazing a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation since. Every American should be grateful for their service, and I am honored to sign this bill to finally give them some of the hard-earned recognition they deserve.” On March 10, 2010, the 300 surviving WASPs were invited to the U.S. Capitol to accept the Congressional Gold Medal from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Congressional leaders.
During its period of operation, the WASP, on behalf of the U.S. Army Air Forces, each member’s service freed a male pilot for military combat or other duties. Members of WASP: “flew over 60 million miles; transported every type of military aircraft; towed targets for live anti-aircraft gun practice; simulated strafing missions; and transported cargo.”
On June 20, 1979, Lt. Lynn Spruill became the first female U.S. Navy aviator to obtain carrier qualification. She was one of the Navy’s first female pilots and the first to pass the aircraft carrier test, which “takes skilled flying, iron nerve and physical stamina.”
Spruill was 27 at the time, and she had been around planes or flying them for 20 of her 27 years. Qualifying for carriers “was absolutely the greatest thrill I’ve ever had.”
She grew up in Starkville, Mississippi, and began flying with her father when she was a young girl. She earned her own pilot’s license when she was 16. Attending Mississippi State University, she considered earning her wings in military service; however, the “Air Force just laughed at me,” she said (but the U.S. Navy was interested). At the time she had over 500 hours of flying time and had earned her commercial pilot’s license.
After graduating from college in 1973, she enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was sent to the five‐month officers’ candidate course at Newport, Rhode Island, and then went to basic flight training in Pensacola, Florida (where she graduated first in her class of men and women). Spruill was in the second group of eight women the Navy was training as an experiment.
She then spent a year in advanced training, six months in Hawaii and two years flying cargo aircraft from a base in the Philippines. She was then transferred to Naval Air Station Norfolk (Virginia), where she was instructed on carrier landings at a practice field.
“When that was over, I had to find a ship that would let me land,” she said. Spruill landed on the aircraft carrier Independence (first as a co‐pilot). “Then I did my own thing,” she said, making the 10 “traps” required to qualify. She then flew to carriers about 10 times a month. At the time, she said, “I adore the Navy, but my chief desire is to fly.” Before leaving the Navy, she qualified to fly six different aircraft.
She flew corporate jets for Atlantic Richfield for five years, and then was one of the first six female aviators hired by Delta Air Lines in 1985. She flew for Delta for 19 years (out of Dallas and then Atlanta), including flying the Lockheed L-1011, the largest passenger aircraft then manufactured.
While living in the Dallas suburb of Addison, she served on the city council and then served as the city’s mayor from 1988 to 1993.
In addition to earning her bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State, she later earned both a law degree and a master’s degree in public administration from Georgia State University.
After moving home to Starkville, Spruill served as mayor of that city (its first female mayor). Simply put, Lynn Spruill’s life has been full of “firsts.”