Local author’s work showcases triumphs of female aviators and astronauts
In 1958, 19-year-old Denver resident Emily Warner took an airplane flight from her home city to Gunnison. The teenager was considering a career path as a stewardess, and this trip was to help her learn more about the job. In those days, stewardesses (now known as flight attendants) were women, and the voice over the radio announcing, “This is your captain speaking” was always a man’s. During her flight, Warner was curious to see what the cockpit looked like.
The captain showed her the control panels and the blue horizon out the window. As Warner took in the bird’s eye view, her life was changed.
“It’s so beautiful looking out of the front window instead of looking out of the sides,” she would later say. She made it her mission to take to the skies as a commercial pilot, and eventually captain.
Warner died in 2020, but her legacy lives on at the Granby airport, which bears her name. The airport is also home to the Emily Warner Field Aviation Museum, located in the airport’s former terminal.
Dr. Penny Rafferty Hamilton co-founded the museum with her husband, Bill. Hamilton is a local aviation author, photographer, historian and pilot. With her husband, she co-holds a World Aviation speed record, and is as passionate about writing as she is about flying. She has written several works on aviators like Emily Warner, whose feats have inspired future flyers. Hamilton’s latest book, “101 Trailblazing Women of Air and Space: Aviators and Astronauts,” is currently a finalist in the Colorado Authors League Awards in the nonfiction category. The book chronicles the accomplishments of historic female pilots and astronauts from around the world, including Warner.
“The book is a worldwide look at really outstanding women. Their stories are so inspiring,” Hamilton said. Female aviators, historically known as aviatrixes, were truly pioneers.
“Aviation started in 1903 with the Wright brothers, but America didn’t have a licensed woman until 1911,” Hamilton said, explaining that women were up against gender conceptions of the times.
After the Wright brothers accomplished the first controlled, sustained flight of an airplane, other air aficionados took their own flights, perfecting the plane’s aerodynamics. In the early 1910s, aerobatics captured the world’s imagination as pilots competed in races and arial feats such as flying upside down and looping through the air.
“In the early years, aviation was considered entertainment instead of transportation,” Hamilton said. This was a male-dominated field, yet one young woman featured in Hamilton’s book was inspired by these feats. Her name was Harriet Quimby.
Quimby was originally a journalist for the popular news magazine, Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. In 1910, she covered the International Aviation Tournament for Leslie’s. She became instantly captivated by the sport. She approached her editors with an idea. They would pay for her flying lessons, and she would write about her flights.
Quimby became America’s first licensed woman pilot after only four months of lessons. Then in 1912, she became the first female pilot to fly across the English Channel.
“Every week, readers would flock to Leslie’s to read what Harriet was doing,” Hamilton said. Spectators also turned up in droves to watch Quimby at aviation shows.
“They called her the China doll because she was so small,” Hamilton said. “She’d wear a purple satin flying suit with pantaloons.” Quimby explained to people she didn’t wear a dress as traditional women did, because it would be a dangerous clothing choice while flying. Her costume, complete with a satin hood, high lace-up boots, and jewelry, celebrated femininity at a time when society considering flying a masculine sport. People were in awe of the petite woman soaring through the air in a flash of bright purple.
Quimby’s iconic career was cut short in 1912, when she and a partner were flying in a two-seated monoplane at an Aviation Meeting. The plane lost balance, causing both Quimby and her partner to fall to their deaths. Quimby, like many pilots of that time, was extremely courageous, facing down risk whenever she took flight. She went down in the history books as a celebrity of aviation.
Hamilton’s book also features women astronauts, such as modern-day Colorado Springs resident Susan Helms. “Helms was a Lieutenant General in the Air Force, and she’s in the Colorado Hall of Fame with me,” Hamilton said.
Helms was in the first class of the Air Force Academy to admit women cadets, and the first U.S. military woman to go to space. Her other milestones include being the first woman to live aboard the International Space Station, during which she completed the longest spacewalk in history, eight hours and 56 minutes. Helms’ legendary accomplishments have inspired girls to pursue dreams of traveling to the last frontier, having their own chance to view earth from above.
Other women in the book include Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman pilot, who trained in France when American flight academies wouldn’t accept her because of her gender and skin color, and of course, Captain Emily Warner.
Warner was America’s first permanent female commercial airline pilot, then became the first female captain for Frontier Airlines in 1973. Also in 1973, Warner helped create the Granby Airport as a terminal for Rocky Mountain Airways. Warner was friends with Gordon Autry, the founder of Rocky Mountain Airways.
“She convinced Gordon to bring airline service to Granby, and that’s how this terminal got built,” Bill Hamilton said.
The airway’s roundtrip route traveled from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to Steamboat Springs, Granby, and then Denver.
“Once you got to (Stapleton) International, you could fly anywhere in the world,” Bill said. (The route was eventually replaced during the mega-mergers of dominating airlines).
Warner frequently flew commercial flights between Granby and Denver. She eventually made her home in Granby, at the Ouray Ranch. The Emily Warner Field Aviation Museum houses a replica of Warner’s captain uniform that hangs in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
“But we have something they don’t have,” said Bill. “We have her real wings and her real name tag. … Emily had 7,000 (flight) hours logged when she broke the glass ceiling.”
These accomplishments earned Warner a chapter in Hamilton’s book, which is available for checkout at Grand County Libraries.
Without Warner, the Granby Airport would have never existed, and neither would the Emily Warner Field Aviation Museum. The museum holds all Grand County’s unique aviation history in one place. Both experienced pilots and young children with dreams of flying can enjoy the museum.
Stay tuned for Soyars’ next article on the Emily Warner Aviation Field Museum and the programs and events the museum offers. The museum opened for the summer season on June 3, and visitors can stop by Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (except Saturday, July 2). Admission is free.
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