Famous Women in Air Force History

  • Published
  • By Mr. Christopher J. McCune
  • 460th Space Wing Historian
In honor of Women’s History Month, we take the time to recognize just a few of the many ladies who pioneered an enduring legacy within the worlds of the Air Force, aviation, and space. Their achievements continue to provide an example of innovation and service to all those who have followed in their footsteps.

Esther Blake: Known as “The First Woman in the Air Force,” Staff Sgt. Esther McGowin Blake famously enlisted on the first minute of the first hour of the first day—July 8, 1948—that women were eligible to enlist for active duty in the Air Force’s Women in the Air Force program, or WAF. An Alabama native and resident of Miami, Florida, Blake had served two previous stints with the Women’s Air Corps, the first beginning in March 1944 after both her sons were shot down in air combat (fortunately, both survived). During the war, she was assigned to several bases, most notably Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory. Following the end of her enlistment in 1954, she spent several years working at the Veteran’s Regional Headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama.

Amelia Earhart: One of the most famous aviators in U.S. history, Earhart was technically never a member of the Air Force or its organizational predecessors. But her skills as a pilot, advocacy of equal rights for women, and unusual circumstances of her death created a lasting fame in the aviation world, and an inspiration to generations of pilots, both male and female. Born in Atchison, Kansas, Earhart devoted her life to flying after receiving a 10-minute joyride from noted air racer Frank Hawks. Her most famous achievement was emulating Charles Lindbergh’s solo, non-stop flight over the Atlantic Ocean on May 20, 1932, becoming the first woman to do so. Earhart received the Distinguished Flying Cross from Congress and Knight of the Legion of Honor from the government of France for this feat. Throughout her career, she leveraged her fame as a female pilot into promoting aviation and opportunities for women in equal measure. On July 2, 1937, Earhart disappeared near Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean, while attempting an around-the-world flight.

Jeanne Holm: Jeanne Holm made her mark as an activist for women’s rights in the Air Force, becoming the first female one-star and two-star general in the history of the service. Maj. Gen. Holm’s service began in July 1942 as a training instructor, and later became the commander of a training regiment with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Following a brief break in service after World War II, she returned to duty in October 1948 and transferred to the Air Force the next year. After serving in Germany during the Berlin Airlift, Holm became the first woman to attend Air Command and Staff College in 1952. She became the director of WAF in November 1965, using her position and authority to advocate for increased roles and career opportunities for women in the Air Force during the remainder of her career. She was promoted to Brigadier General on July 16, 1971, and Major General on June 1, 1973.

Susan Helms: Although most Americans know about astronauts Sally Ride and Christa McAullife, Lt. Gen. Susan Helms crafted a landmark space career of her own. A 1980 graduate of the Air Force Academy—the first class in its history to graduate women—Helms served 12 years with NASA from 1990-2002. During this period, she became the first female member of the U.S. Air Force in space in January 1993 as a member of the Endeavour shuttle crew, and went on to participate in five space flights, logging 211 days in space. During her final mission aboard the International Space Station in 2001, she set a world-record time for a space-walk on March 11, with 8 hours and 56 minutes, installing hardware on the laboratory module. After her time with NASA, Helms spent the remainder of her career within Air Force Space Command, commanding the 45th Space Wing and later 14th Air Force. Helms retired on April 1, 2014.

Sheila Widnall: Of course, not all famous women in the history of the Air Force have been pilots or active-duty members. On August 1, 1993, Dr. Sheila Widnall was named Secretary of the Air Force; in doing so, she became the first woman to serve as head of one of the five service branches of the U.S. military. Dr. Widnall had spent her entire professional career as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, specializing in fluid mechanics, when President Bill Clinton nominated her as Air Force secretary on July 4, 1993. During her tenure as secretary, Dr. Widnall focused on improving the quality of life for Air Force members while advocating for modernization of the service and acquisition reform.