Wednesday, September 3, 2014


The 20th century is, I think, one of the most fascinating periods of history. The changes during the last century had distinct and direct influence on our society today. We may be tempted to take these changes for granted, forgetting that we only got here through the work and bravery of people such as Helen Richey, a pioneer of aviation and trailblazer for opening male dominated fields (such as piloting) to women.

Growing up near an airport, Richey was inspired to earn her pilot's license at age 20. She learned stunt flying and competed in races.

In 1933 Richey teamed up with fellow pilot and friend Frances Harrel Marsalis to embark on an endurance flight of nearly 10 days in the air in an attempt to break the record for a female pilot. A third of the trip was completed when the plane's wing was torn during midair refueling. Richey found herself crawling out onto the damaged wing with her needle and thread and successfully repaired the tear to finish the rest of the flight.

On the heels of the good press she got from her flight, she became the first female pilot hired by a commercial airline. However, she was rejected by the all male pilot's union and the company was more interested in using her publicity than her skills so she left after a short time. Amelia Earhart learned of her treatment and protested, but Richey did not return to commercial flying.

Instead, she and Earhart teamed up for the Bendix Race, where they finished in 5th place. Richey continued to push the boundaries of flight, and in 1936 she set records for travelling 77 mph in her class of light plane, and for reaching an altitude of 18,000 feet in a plane weighing less than 440 pounds.

By the early '40s, she was working as an instructor, being the first woman to earn a teaching license and also to train military pilots, until she went to England to join the Air Transport Auxiliary, a British civilian organization which ferried aircraft and personnel during WWII. She returned to the US and joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots.

After the war, she grew despondent, believing her flying days were over. She died in 1947, tragically by her own hand.

This portrait honors Richey's passion, determination, and bravery. The phrase "Spread your wings and fly" is meant to inspire us to find these things within ourselves.

Acrylic, gel pen, india ink, Sharpie, fabric on canvas.

Learn More:

237 Hours 42 Minutes In The Air ! British Pathe, 1934

Helen Richey Collection on Flickr. San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives.

Krivyanski, J. Michael. Pittsburgh Area History: Female Aviation Pioneer Helen Richey., 2012.

Merry, Lois K. Women Military Pilots of World War II. McFarland, 2010.

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