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The first half of the twentieth century was an interesting time for America.
Our story starts in 1912, the year the Titanic sank while carrying more than 2,200 people from England to New York. Steamships and other boats were the only way people could cover vast oceanic distances. There were no transatlantic flights; airplanes were fodder for the rich and daring to soar moderately high above a gathered crowd for minutes at a time.
The First World War changed that. Aerial officers flew ahead of soldiers on foot to get the lay of the land, then they carried guns as protection, and finally, those guns were fixed to the front of the planes. A pilot could aim his gun by aiming his aircraft, relying on an interrupter gear to ensure the propeller blades never got in the way of automatically firing bullets. Wood and fabric fuselages soon gave way to all-metal vehicles, and by the end of the war pilots routinely engaged in swirling aerial dogfights. For civilians, these stories imbued flying with unparalleled excitement and a feeling the future was right over the horizon.
As these high-performance planes became available to private pilots, the Everyman took a step closer to the sky. Aviators dazzled audiences with aerial displays. Sometimes, lucky onlookers could even take a ride in a plane, either at a county fair or at a small airport that offered rides for a small fee. Flying held allure. It was romantic, thrilling, dangerous, and the pilots who flew were like no one else on Earth.
Coincident with the end of the First World War was the first wave of feminism; suffragettes fought for equality and won women the right to vote in 1920. Women had freedoms they’d never known, a change in status that saw echoes in fashion and culture. Women eschewed restrictive clothing in favor of skirts and trousers that offered physical freedom. In this newly emancipated climate, women took to the sky, though this wasn’t without challenges. Few men would consent to teach women to fly, and even fewer would take on African American students. When Bessie Coleman decided she wanted to earn her pilot’s license, she had to train in France, where she met no racial barrier in getting a license. When she returned to America in 1921 at the age of twenty-nine, she was greeted with press coverage and enthusiastic audiences. Female aviators held a different appeal; if men flying was exciting, women flying was a novelty like no other. The sky was starting to open to women.
Regardless of gender, flying had the power to turn everyday people into heroes, and no one embodied this phenomenon as completely as Charles Lindbergh. After he made the first solo flight across the Atlantic, he went from unknown air mail pilot to celebrity overnight. When Amelia Earhart became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in a plane, her fame similarly skyrocketed even though she was merely a passenger on that flight. Regardless, women watching these feats were inspired to follow suit, and by 1929 there were ninety-nine licensed women pilots of all backgrounds in the United States. That same year, Amelia was a founding member of an all-female flying society called the Ninety-Nines, which is still active today.