Matilde Moisant (left) and Harriet Quimby, the first two women in the United States to obtain pilot certificates (photo circa 1911–1912)

Matilde Moisant (left) and Harriet Quimby, the first two women in the United States to obtain pilot certificates (photo circa 1911–1912)

Discover the incredible history of women aviators in Northern Michigan, where they defied societal norms and made their mark in aviation. From flying over lakes and forests, breaking barriers in early aviation, and serving our country during WWII, these trailblazers have fascinating stories to tell. Join us as we explore their courageous journeys and contributions to Northern Michigan’s aviation legacy.

Harriet Quimby

Harriet Quimby (May 11, 1875 – July 1, 1912) was a pioneering American aviator, journalist, and film screenwriter, born in Arcadia Township, Manistee County. In 1910, she undertook an assignment to cover the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament. Developing a friendship with John Moisant, she persuaded him to take her on as a student, defying the opposition of the Wright brothers, who staunchly opposed women in aviation.

In 1911, Quimby achieved the 37th aviation license in American history, marking the first for a woman. Within a month, she secured victory in her inaugural cross-country race. Departing from Dover, England, on April 16, 1912, in an unfamiliar plane with no instruments except a recently mastered compass, Quimby landed near Hardelot, France, just 59 minutes later. Unfortunately, her accomplishment went unnoticed by the world as it coincided with the sinking of the Titanic the day before.

Tragically, Quimby lost her life at the age of 37 in a flying accident, leaving a lasting impact on the role of women in aviation. In 1993 Quimby was enshrined in the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame. In 2013 she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame

NANCY HARKNESS LOVE

Nancy Harkness Love (February 14, 1914 – October 22, 1976), born Hannah Lincoln Harkness in Houghton, Michigan, on February 14, 1914, was the daughter of a wealthy physician and developed a profound interest in aviation from an early age.

Nancy Harkness Love at age 28At 16, she took her first flight and swiftly obtained her pilot’s license within a month. Despite attending prestigious schools such as Milton Academy in Massachusetts and Vassar in New York, Love’s restless and adventurous spirit led her to make headlines as the “Flying Freshman” during her freshman year in 1932. At Vassar, she earned extra income by taking students on aircraft rides rented from a nearby airport.

In 1936, Love married Robert M. Love, an Air Corps Reserve major, and together they established a successful Boston-based aviation company, Inter City Aviation, where Nancy served as a pilot. She also flew for the Bureau of Air Commerce.

World War II

During the war, Love persuaded Colonel William H. Tunner of the U.S. Army Air Forces to establish a group of female pilots to ferry aircraft from factories to air bases. This proposal materialized as the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, and Love assumed command of this unit. Later she commanded all ferrying operations in the newly formed Women Airforce Service Pilots. For her wartime contributions, she received the Air Medal and was appointed lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1948.

Post-war, Love, now a mother of three daughters, continued her leadership in the aviation industry and advocated for the military recognition of women who served as WASPs. With the creation of the United States Air Force in 1948, she received the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.

Sadly, Love passed away from cancer at the age of 62 in 1976, three years before witnessing the WASPs being officially accorded military recognition.

Love was posthumously inducted into the Airlift/Tanker Association in 1996, the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1997. In 1989 Love was enshrined in the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame and the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2005. A statue dedicated to Nancy Harkness Love is at the New Castle County Airport in Delaware.

Bernice Steadman

Bernice Trimble Steadman in 1995Bernice Steadman (née Trimble; July 9, 1925 – March 18, 2015) was a pioneering American aviator and entrepreneur. Born in Rudyard, Michigan, in 1925, Steadman faced early tragedy when her father, sisters, and brother perished in a home fire when she was only one year old. Despite the challenges, she graduated from Flint Central High School in Michigan.

Eager to pursue her passion for aviation, Steadman worked at AC Spark Plug after high school to fund her flight lessons. Remarkably, she obtained her pilot’s license before getting a driver’s license. Becoming a charter pilot, she eventually established Trimble Aviation, her flight school, and charter company based in Flint, Michigan. Steadman’s remarkable career included training over 200 men who later became airline pilots. She achieved the distinction of being one of the first American women to obtain an Airline Transport Rating (ATR), the highest pilot rating.

Steadman played a crucial role in advocating for women in aviation, serving as a charter member on the Federal Aviation Agency’s (FAA) advisory committee on women in aviation. Additionally, she chaired the Airport Commission in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Recognized for her outstanding contributions, Steadman was inducted into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2003.

Mercury 13

In the early 1960s, Bernice Steadman became one of the Mercury 13. Aa group of thirteen women who underwent the same tests as the Mercury 7 astronauts. Despite their achievements, these women were denied the chance to become astronauts due to gender bias. Later in her life, Steadman co-founded the International Women’s Air & Space Museum in Ohio during the 1980s.

In 2001, she published her autobiography, “Tethered Mercury: A Pilot’s Memoir: The Right Stuff — But the Wrong Sex,”. She recounted her career and experiences with the Mercury 13 program. The book shed light on the gender discrimination the women faced, revealing that President Lyndon B. Johnson had expressed disapproval of the program.

Bernice Steadman passed away at the age of 89 on March 18, 2015, at her home in Traverse City, following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She left behind a lasting legacy and was survived by her husband of 56 years, Robert Steadman, her brother Ray Whipple, son Michael, and two grandchildren.

Nancy Harkness Love in a B17 during WWII

Nancy Harkness Love in a B17 during WWII

Defying Stereotypes

The soaring spirit of women aviators in Northern Michigan’s history is a testament to their groundbreaking achievements. Showing an unwavering passion for the skies. Against the backdrop of the Northern Michigan and beyond, these women have left an indelible mark on aviation history. From defying stereotypes to conquering the challenges of early flight, their stories inspire a sense of pride and admiration. As we celebrate the legacy of these women aviators, we recognize their pivotal role in shaping the aeronautical landscape. During Women History Month we share their resilience and determination in paving the way for future generations of aspiring aviators.

Come back for more history of Northern Michigan Women. In our sixth article we highlight 4 women who were champions of conservation, labor and women.

Read more about Northern Michigan Women in History. As we publish articles this month we will add links to published articles.


Image Attributions:
Matilde and Harriet – Attribution: PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7391092 <a href=”//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait_of_Matilde_Moisant_(left)_and_Harriet_Quimby_(right)_Circa_1911-1912.jpg” title=”Public domain in the United States”>PD-US</a>, <a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7391092″>Link</a> 
Banner Image – Left to Right – Harriet Quimby, Nancy Harness Love, Mercury 13 Women (Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Ratley, Myrtle Cagle, and Bernice Steadman), Nancy Harkness Love and Harriet Quimby