First Female Airline Pilot
Helen Richey was the youngest of six children born to Joseph and Amy Richey, in 1909. Her father was the Superintendent of Schools, in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. As a teenager, she seemed to be a bit of a tom-boy, one of the few girls riding bicycles and wearing pants around the town. That was scandalous behavior in those days. She loved adventure and was interested in everything that was going on.
She began to develop an interested in aviation. Then, in 1928, she managed to get a ride as a passenger from McKeesport to Cleveland. Her father was against this flight, but she was able to convince him to give his permission. It was during this flight, while sitting on top of bags of mail, that she decided she wanted to become a pilot. On this, her first flight, she had met Ruth Elder, a well known female pilot at the time, who probably inspired her.
She began her flight lessons on October 27, 1929. Her mother encouraged her, but her father objected. She earned her pilot’s license on June 28, 1930. She told a friend, “I’m going to fly . . .I’m going to be good enough to earn money at it, too. It’s what I want to do with my life.” With that attitude, she continued lessons.
She began flying in exhibitions and races. She wanted to fly every time she got the chance. However, being new pilot her opportunities in exhibition flying were very limited. At an air meet at Bettis Field, MeKeesport, in August 1930, five months before she qualified for her commercial license, she wanted to fly for the crowd. There were more experienced pilots and she was turned down. She begged for the chance, and finally was given the OK. She took off in a Curtiss “Fledgling,” a training airplane. She started performing stunts, including loops, which she was not trained to do. The little ‘trainer’ airplane was not intended for that kind of flying, but she didn’t care. She wanted to impress the crowd, which she did!
She was still not satisfied. She wanted to get a regular job flying the mail and passengers. She continued to fly at every opportunity, and on December 4, 1930, she earned her commercial license.
On August 6, 1931, her father presented her with a big surprise. He gave her a four passenger, Bird airplane. With her own airplane, she was able to fly in parades, meets, exhibitions, and races. She traveled to Ohio, New York, Maryland, Virginia, anywhere there was a flying event she could enter. She began to have name recognition. She was contacted by Frances Marsalis with an interesting proposal. Frances wanted a partner for an endurance flight. They teamed up, and were sponsored by a cosmetics company. They took off from Miami on December 20, 1933, in an airplane named “Outdoor Girl,” and stayed aloft for 237 hours and 42 minutes. Over the ten days, they flew 23,700 miles circling over Miami. During this flight, Jack Loesing and Fred Fetterman provided 83 refueling flights, and brought them additional supplies, food, water, suntan lotion, whatever they needed.
When refueling, one of the gals would have to climb out of the overhead hatch and catch the fuel nozzle in the wind, and put it in the opening of the gas tank. Marsalis said it was like, “wrestling with a cobra in a hurricane!” She would have to keep the nozzle in the tank. If it came out, she would be sprayed with gasoline! In addition, oil had to be added to the engine periodically. Again, climbing out of the overhead hatch, accessing the running engine and adding the oil, sometimes getting a face full of engine oil. On the sixth day, the fueling nozzle came out of the tank and before it could be caught and put back, it tore a hole in the wing fabric. Helen was able to climb out the hatch and onto the wing with needle and thread and repair the hole!
After breaking the previous endurance record, Marsalis made a perfect landing, ending the flight on December 29, 1933. Officials verified the record. They had almost flown a distance equal to circling the globe, and had burned eight tons of gasoline!
In August 1934, Helen entered the First Women’s National Air Meet. She finished sixth. She had also entered the 50 mile race over a closed course. With only six miles left to go, she was battling Edna Gardner for first place. As Frances tried to overtake them, her plane side-slipped and her wingtip scrapped the ground. Her airplane cartwheeled a hundred feet before crashing in a field. Marsalis was severely injured and died on the way to the hospital. Helen won the race.
In November 1934, Helen was awarded the coveted Fairchild Trophy. At 24 years old, and having only been flying 4 years, she was at the top of the aviation world!
Still wanting to make flying her career, Helen applied for a co-pilot position with Central Airlines, which later merged into what became United Airlines. The president of the company wanted to capitalize on her popularity so he contacted the Department of Commerce and told them he wanted to hire her for a few weeks. He planned to let her fly long enough to get some publicity, then transfer her to an office job. The Department agreed as long as she would not be allowed to fly in inclement weather. They feared the increased strain of bad weather would be too much stress for a woman.
She was assigned the Washington, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland round trip, every other day. She flew a Ford Tri-Motor airplane. She was still in the cockpit eight months later, and the Department of Commerce wanted to know why. The president of the company explained that she was so popular with the public, and her publicity so good, he wanted to keep her flying a while longer. The Department agreed, but said she could only fly three times a month, not every other day! She soon became frustrated with the lack of flying time, and the hostility of the male pilots, and resigned in August 1935. However, she had become the first American woman to be hired by a scheduled airline, paving the way for the thousands of us who benefited from her boldness.
That December, Helen joined Nancy Harkness Love (see previous article), and several others and was hired by the Works Progress Administration of the Department of Commerce for air marking. In this process they flew into towns and contracted with farmers to allow their barns to be used as signs for pilots. The sign would consist of a large circle, representing an airport; an arrow, representing direction; and a number representing miles. This sign could tell a pilot flying overhead the direction and mileage to the nearest airport. Many of these signs are still visible.
War was beginning to be waged in other parts of the world. The country needed flight instructors, so Helen signed up to instruct for the Army. She also instructed future airline pilots. By now, she had over 1500 hours of flight time, making her a very experienced pilot.
She was contacted by her friend, Jackie Cochran (see previous article), about flying in England for the British Air Transport Auxiliary. She was anxious to help with the war effort, and to fly, so she reported to Montreal, Quebec for flight and medical tests. With her experience, she had no trouble, and sailed for England on March of 1942. In training, she flew Miles Magister and Tiger Moth airplanes. By the end of June, in addition to the Magister, Tiger Moth, she had accumulated 90 hours, and had flown Harvards, Oxfords, Masters, Hurricanes, and Albatross airplanes. In July she completed 32 ferrying flights, and flew 126 hours.
On July 21, she flew the Spitfire for the first time. On landing, she crashed. Not allowing herself to be defeated, she determined to master the Spitfire. For the rest of the month she flew Spitfires, and “found them wonderfully easy to handle. No drag at all. In fact, a Spit in flight is like a fish going through water . . . .”
These young women were expected to be able to fly anything assigned to them. They carried “Ferry Pilot Notes,” small cards with instructions for each airplane. Helen said, “Sometimes we would hurriedly skim through the pilot’s operating manual to find out how to take off, then keep reading the book while in flight to find out how to land the damned thing!” Modern pilots expect to be thoroughly briefed and ‘checked out’ in each airplane they fly. These gals did not have that privilege, they were expected to be able to fly whatever airplane they were assigned with no instruction!
In September, Jackie Cochran announced she was returning to the states to work with ‘Hap’ Arnold, setting up a similar program in the States, later known as the WASP (see previous article). She left Helen in charge of the American women. After several months, the stress of the flying and being group commander, plus learning that her mother was seriously ill, made Helen resign and return home. Once back in the States, she joined the WASP program and continued her flying. She remained a WASP until the program was disbanded. She accumulated 300 hours as a WASP, and flew 27 different types of airplanes.
Her life of excitement came to a sudden end. All the good flying jobs went to the male pilots returning from the war. She became very frustrated and bored with her mundane life, and moved to New York City. She became despondent. Her sister, Lucille visited her and observed that she seemed unusually quiet and depressed. She seemed somehow disconnected from reality. On January 7, 1947, she took her own life in her Manhattan apartment. A very sad end to a very important life.
She was awarded, along with other WASP, the Congressional Gold Medal, on March 11, 2010.
By, Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer
Winner of the writer’s prestigious 20thCenturyAviationMagazine “Golden Yoke Award”