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.
In 1980 Lynn Rippelmeyer became the first woman to pilot a Boeing 747. She flew the 747 as a first officer for Seaboard World Airlines, which merged with Flying Tiger Line in 1980. She then became the first woman to captain the jumbo jet on a transoceanic flight while at People Express Airlines in 1984.
Rippelmeyer began her career in aviation in 1972 as a TWA flight attendant before obtaining a departmental transfer to pilot as a TWA B-727 flight engineer. She served as the first officer on the first all-female crew for a scheduled commercial U.S. carrier with Captain Emilie Jones, flying an Air Illinois DHC-6 Twin Otter on December 30, 1977. Jones and Rippelmeyer were permitted to fly the scheduled turboprop commuter plane under the condition that the passengers were not made aware the pilots for their flight were both women.
At People Express, Rippelmeyer served as co-captain on the first all-female Boeing 737 crew, which occurred in 1982. People Express was acquired by Continental, which later merged with United Airlines. At United, she trained on the B-787 Dreamliner before retiring in 2013.
Her 1984 People Express flight was the first time a woman held the reins as captain of a trans-Atlantic flight. Arriving in England, she was met by reporters, magazine writers and photographers due to the rarity of female pilots. Photos of the event appeared in newspapers around the world. Rippelmeyer met Princess Anne while being honored at England’s “Women of the Year” charity event later that year. Rippelmeyer was the first American to receive this honor.
Rippelmeyer’s interest in flying had accelerated when friends who were flight instructors offered lessons in a Piper J-3 Cub seaplane in Vermont. She earned the remainder of her required certificates and training at Tamiami Airport in Miami where she worked as a flight instructor and charter pilot.
She founded ROSE (ROatan Support Effort), a non-profit organization, in September 2017. Rippelmeyer founded the non-profit after flying daily commercial flights into Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Among her passengers were missionaries and medical teams who volunteered their time and service to the country’s poor. She made friends among the people of Roatan, many of whom were creating and supporting health care clinics, schools, sports programs and an animal shelter. After witnessing the island’s needs, she began to bring supplies in on her flights, during her days off and while on vacation. ROSE helps to “collect, transport and deliver donated supplies to qualifying local non-governmental organizations, groups and programs that bring medical, dental and vision healthcare, education and meals to those who most need them.”
Arlene Feldman was the first woman to head a state division of aeronautics, to be a Deputy Director of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and to be an FAA Regional Administrator.
Feldman earned a degree in political science at the University of Colorado, earned her pilot’s license and then earned a law degree at Temple University in Philadelphia. She was able to combine her interest in flying and legal matters by studying aviation law.
In 1982 she became the first woman to head a state division of aeronautics. As the director of the New Jersey Division of Aeronautics, she is credited with significantly advancing the cause of aviation in the state.
Two years later she was recruited by the FAA. During her tenure at the agency’s Technical Center in Atlantic City, she was a pioneer in the advancement of rotorcraft technology. Feldman then was appointed as the deputy director of the FAA’s Western Pacific Region, where she managed the complex job of closing and reopening the primary runway at Los Angeles International Airport. She was the first woman to become director of an FAA region.
In 1988 Feldman became the FAA’s highest ranking, non-politically appointed woman when she was selected as the New England Regional Administrator. During her tenure, she coordinated an international aviation partnership with Spain.
Beginning in 1994, Feldman served for a decade as director of the FAA’s Eastern Region. She supervised all of the aviation activities in seven eastern states from New York to West Virginia, which includes some of the most complex airspace in the United States.
Feldman also developed one of the FAA’s most successful aviation education programs. She encouraged high school and college students (particularly those in inner city schools) to pursue careers in aviation as well as provided leadership to complex aviation education programs.
She retired from the FAA in September 2005.
Ellen Evak Paneok
Ellen Evak Paneok was the first Alaskan woman of indigenous ancestry to become a licensed pilot. She was also the first Alaska Native woman bush pilot.
Inspired by a magazine article, and enabled by income from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Paneok pursued her dream of becoming a pilot beginning in 1976. At the time she was in a juvenile detention center, which required her to attend therapy sessions because of her admitted flying obsession. She often skipped school to take flying lessons.
Paneok earned her pilot’s license in 1979. A year later, she cracked one of her vertebrae in three places when her Piper Tri-Pacer crashed. Her elevated blood pressure disqualified her from a career in aerobatics, so she became a bush pilot, carrying cargo and passengers to remote areas of Alaska.
Later, Paneok became an FAA operations inspector and then a statewide safety coordinator for the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation.
In 1997, she was an honored guest at the “Women in Flight” exhibit of the National Air and Space Museum. One of the stories she told was about an airstrip that had to be cleared of polar bears before her plane could land.
Paneok was a Big Brothers Big Sisters volunteer, working with at-risk children. She was a member of the International Organization of Women Pilots, the Alaska Ninety-Nines and the Alaska Airmen’s Association.
Paneok died in 2008. She was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame in 2012. In addition, the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation established a scholarship in her name.
In 1983 Dr. Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman in space.
In 1977 Ride had earned degrees in physics and English from Stanford University and was completing her Ph.D. in physics when she noticed an article in the Stanford student newspaper that NASA was recruiting applicants to become astronauts. Until then, all astronauts had been men, and most were military pilots. However, NASA was seeking scientists and engineers, and was allowing women to apply for the first time. Ride and 8,000 others applied. From those applicants, 35 new astronauts, including six women (one of whom was Ride), were chosen to join the astronaut corps in January 1978.
After undergoing strenuous astronaut training, Ride served as a communications officer for the second and third flights of the space shuttle Columbia. Her responsibilities included relaying messages from mission control to the shuttle crews. She also was a member of the team that developed the robot arm used by shuttle crews to deploy and retrieve satellites.
As a member of the Challenger crew on June 18, 1983, she became the first American woman (and, at 32, the youngest American) in space. Her historic flight made her a symbol of the ability of women to break barriers, as well as a hero to generations of adventurous young girls. She was a member of the Challenger crew again in 1984. Later, Ride was the only person to serve on both panels investigating the nation’s space shuttle disasters – the 1986 explosion of the Challenger and the shuttle Columbia’s breakup during reentry in 2003.
After leaving NASA in 1987, Ride began teaching physics at the University of California San Diego. She also developed the idea for NASA’s EarthKAM project, which allows middle school students to take photos of Earth using a camera on the International Space Station. Students then study the photographs.
In addition, Ride wrote science books for students and teachers and worked with science programs and festivals across the country.
Ride also co-founded Sally Ride Science in 2001 with Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy, Dr. Karen Flammer, and two other friends to inspire young people in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and to promote STEM literacy. Their goal was to motivate more students (particularly girls and minorities) to pursue STEM as they progress in school. Ride served as CEO of the company until her death on July 23, 2012, following a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
In 2015, UC San Diego acquired Sally Ride Science and created a new nonprofit organization, Sally Ride Science, at the university. O’Shaughnessy is the executive director and Flammer is the director of education.
Sally Ride was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Beverly Burns became the first woman to captain a Boeing 747 cross-country. On the afternoon of July 18, 1984, Burns made her first trip as a captain when she commanded a People Express flight from Newark International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport.
When she retired in February 2008, Burns had been an airline captain for 27 years and had over 25,000 hours of flight time. During her career with People Express she captained the Boeing 727, 737 and 747. People Express became part of Continental Airlines. She added the DC-9, DC-10, Boeing 757 and 767 to the list of aircraft she had captained. In May 2001, Burns became captain on the Boeing 777, which was among the most technologically sophisticated airliners of its time.
In addition to her flight deck qualifications, Burns acquired an understanding of the airlines as a business. From 1971 to 1978 she worked as a flight attendant for American Airlines while attending flight school. In 1978, she was both a flight instructor and charter pilot for Hinson Airways. Beginning in 1979 she flew as captain for Allegheny Commuter until 1981, when she began her People Express career.
Among her numerous awards, Captain Burns received the Amelia Earhart Award – presented by New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean and Donald Burr, the CEO of People Express – for her historic flight as captain of the Boeing 747. On August 21, 1984, U.S. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey credited her with “opening doors for millions of American women” and read her deeds into the Congressional Record. On November 16, 1984 she received a letter of congratulations from President Ronald Reagan and was invited to the 50th presidential inaugural.
Kathryn Sullivan became the first U.S. woman to walk in space.
In addition to serving a NASA astronaut, Sullivan is a geologist, oceanographer and a former U.S. Navy officer. She was a crew member on three U.S. space shuttle missions.
Along with Sally Ride and four others, Sullivan was selected as one of the women among the 35 astronaut candidates in NASA Astronaut Group 8, the first group to include women. Sullivan became the first woman to be certified to wear a United States Air Force pressure suit, and on July 1, 1979, she set an unofficial sustained American aviation altitude record for women.
During her first NASA mission, Sullivan performed the first extra-vehicular activity by an American woman. One her second mission, she helped to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope. On her third mission she served as Payload Commander on the first Spacelab mission dedicated to NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth.
After her confirmation by the U.S. Senate on March 6, 2014, Sullivan served as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, as well as Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She served in those capacities until January 20, 2017.
Following completion of her service at NOAA, Sullivan was chosen as the 2017 Charles A. Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. She also served as a Senior Fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Sullivan became the first woman to dive to the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the Earth’s oceans, on June 7, 2020. President Biden appointed her to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in September 2021.
Jeana Yeager served as the co-pilot on the first around-the-world, non-stop, non-refueled flight, which took place from December 14-23, 1986.
The flight lasted 9 days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds and covered 24,986 miles, almost doubling the old distance record set in 1962 by a B-52 bomber.
Yeager earned her private pilot’s license while living in Santa Rosa, California in 1978. She worked for Robert Truax during the time he developed a reusable spacecraft. She met Dick Rutan in 1980; they both set distance records in the Rutan VariEze and Long-EZ planes, which had been designed by Rutan’s brother, Burt Rutan. Yeager set a new women’s speed record for the 2,000-kilometer closed course in early 1982. Then, in 1984 and using the VariEze, she set the open-distance record of 2,427.1 statute miles.
Rutan and Yeager decided to attempt to fly around the world without refueling. They formed Voyager Aircraft, Inc., and Burt Rutan began designing the aircraft to be used for the flight. Because they were unable to find a commercial sponsor initially, Yeager founded the Voyager Impressive People (VIP) program, which became the major source of money used to build, test and fly the aircraft. As the co-pilot on the 216-hour flight, Yeager set a world absolute distance record, the first time a woman was listed in an absolute category.
In recognition of the flight, Yeager received both the Harmon and National Air and Space Museum trophies, the FAI De la Vaulx Medal, the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Ronald Reagan and the Collier Trophy (becoming its first female recipient), sharing the Presidential Citizens Medal and Collier Trophy with Dick and Burt Rutan.
In 2013, Flying magazine ranked Yeager and Dick Rutan No. 33 on its list of the 51 Heroes of Aviation.
Barbara McConnell Barrett
Barbara McConnell Barrett became the FAA’s first female deputy administrator in 1988 and vice chairman of the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board.
She is also an instrument-rated pilot, and became the first civilian woman to land in an F/A-18 Hornet on an aircraft carrier. She trained as an astronaut, and was the backup spaceflight participant for the Soyuz TMA-16 flight to the International Space Station.
Barrett is also the former chair of the Aerospace Corporation and a member of the boards of directors of the California Institute of Technology, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, RAND Corporation, Smithsonian Institution, Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, and the Lasker Foundation.
On May 21, 2019, President Donald Trump nominated Barrett to serve as Secretary of the Air Force. She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate by a vote of 85-7 on October 16, 2019, and was sworn in on October 18, 2019. As the 25th Secretary of the Air Force, Barrett led the Department of the Air Force, which includes the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force.
Barrett was inducted into the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame and received the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Presidential Medal.
In July 1988 Capt. Jacquelyn “Jackie” Parker became the first woman Air Force pilot to attend the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. She became the first female pilot to graduate from the school on June 10, 1989 and therefore became the service branch’s first female test pilot.
Earlier, Parker had attended the University of Central Florida, where she majored in mathematics and computer science. She entered college at 14 and graduated at the age of 17, becoming the youngest student and graduate in the school’s history. She became an intern at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, responsible for the analysis of onboard computer systems. At the age of 18 she became the youngest flight controller in NASA’s history.
When she completed the U.S. Air Force’s Officer Training School in 1980, she entered pilot training at Reese Air Force Base in Texas. Parker received her pilot wings in 1981, and later became the base’s first female T-38 instructor. Between 1983 and 1985 she was recognized as the “Most Outstanding T-38 Academic Instructor” five times.
Parker transitioned to C-141 transport aircraft, assigned to the 76th Military Airlift Squadron as an instructor pilot and squadron executive officer. In addition, she flew the F-16, F-111, F-4, C-141, KC-135 and UH-60 Blackhawk. She accumulated more than 3,000 flying hours in more than 25 types of aircraft.
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf presented Parker with the “Gathering of the Greats” award at the American Academy of Achievement, where she spoke to young people and invited guests. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin wrote to her in 1993 “… Your accomplishments as an aviator have been no less than exemplary. Now as the first Air National Guard woman in F-16 training you are setting goals and standards for other women to emulate. I commend you for the years of hard work you have dedicated to this effort…”
In June 1994, she was presented with the “Ground Breaker Award” by First Lady Hillary Clinton, on behalf of Women In Military Service For America for achievements in military aviation.
Lt. Col. Parker was one of the first female fighter pilots assigned to an F-16 Viper squadron. She has been honored as the recipient of the prestigious “Kitty Hawk” Award twice for achievements in the field of aviation.
Author’s note: The women profiled in this series are among the many women who have made contributions to aviation. Today is March 31, the last day of Women’s History Month. There are more women to profile in aviation history, and women to profile in other modes of transportation. FreightWaves Classics will continue these profiles in the future.