Woman in the Air

Probably ever since we began paying attention to the birds, we human beings have longed to fly ourselves. And once the Wright Brothers proved this possible in 1903, it was not only men who were keen to give it a try.

Blanche Stuart Scott (1885-1970), born in Rochester, New York, was known as a “tomboy.” Her father let her drive the family automobile around town, and although some of the neighbors objected to a fifteen-year-old behind the wheel, there was as yet no minimum driving age.

In 1910 Scott became the first woman to drive across the country, from New York City to San Francisco, which brought her to the attention of Jerome Fanciulli, a promoter for Glenn Curtiss. Curtiss was a pioneer in the U.S. aviation industry, who designed aircraft and hired pilots to demonstrate his products. He wasn’t crazy about the idea of training a female pilot, though he agreed to accept her as a pupil—but he kept a block of wood behind her throttle pedal, so that although Scott learned to operate the plane and run it back and forth on the ground, it never took off.


This was probably fun for a while, but one day while Scott was practicing, the block of wood mysteriously became dislodged. Oops! Wonder how THAT happened! Scott zoomed off on an unscheduled flight, alarming her instructor but landing safely, and demonstrating that a woman could actually operate a plane not only on the ground, but also in the air. Eventually she joined Curtiss’ Exhibition Team, and made her first Official Flight on October 23rd, 1910, of which today is the anniversary. (That first “accidental” flight didn’t count.)

Scott became known as “Tomboy of the Air,” flying upside-down and executing heart-stopping dives, for a heart-stopping salary, too. In 1911 she made the first woman’s long-distance flight—sixty miles—another “unplanned” event, when she decided one day just to keep flying. Scott went on to become the first female pilot to test prototypes, but after a number of male colleagues lost their lives in terrible accidents, and sensing that her spectators anticipated her own eventual crash, she retired from flying and spent several decades in broadcasting instead. Her flying days weren’t over, however—in 1948 she became the first American woman to fly in a jet, piloted by none other than Chuck Yeager.

From a travel sketchbook I post a page that seemed appropriate for today’s anniversary: airplane/daring daughter.


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