One hundred years of women in aviation: Longtime Grand County pilot leaves her mark |

One hundred years of women in aviation: Longtime Grand County pilot leaves her mark

Special to the Sky-Hi News
Grand County, CO Colorado

In 1910, only seven years after the Wright brothers made their famous flights on Dec. 17, 1903, a French actress, Raymonde de Laroche, became the first woman to earn a pilot’s license. Shortly afterward, in Russia, when Mademoiselle de Laroche flew in an air show attended by Czar Nicholas II, the Czar was so impressed with her flying that he awarded her the Order of Saint Anne and the title of Baroness. This year, marks the centennial of when the Baroness Raymonde de Laroche was awarded a pilot’s license by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI).

Thus, in only seven years, the tiny world of powered-aircraft flight ascended from being a “men-only-need-apply” activity to international news headlines trumpeting the exploits of a Baroness (no less) flying about Europe, setting altitude and flight-endurance records.

Yet, even with the dazzling technological pace of the nascent aviation industry of the early 20th century, the conventional vision of most humankind remained rooted in the belief systems of the 15th century. Those beliefs ranged from the idea that God did not intend for humans to be flying in the first place to the belief that the hands of women should be stirring spoons in the kitchen and not on the controls of an airplane flying above God’s green earth.

Nevertheless, with regard to men anyway, the technological genie of aviation was out of the bottle, never to be put back in. Yet, with regard to women, their ascent out of the magic bottle and into the annals of aviation history has come at a much slower pace. While most everyone knows about Amelia Earhart and a handful of other women aviation pioneers, for the most part, the early women pilots were dismissed as “stunt-pilot performers” whose function was to draw crowds. Women pilots were not figured to be fit to fly as pilots hired for the more serious aspects of aviation, such as flying passengers on commercial airliners.

Indeed, that perception, even on the part of the men who were running America’s airlines persisted until 1973 (63 long years after the Baroness Raymonde de Laroche was the first woman to earn a pilot’s license). Then, just 37 years ago, Frontier Airlines decided to hire a Denver woman (from a poor Irish family) who, as an instrument flying instructor, had amassed an amazing 7,000 accident-free hours in all kinds of weather and who had been using the Granby/Grand County Airport as the base for instructing male, wannabe airline pilots in mountain-flying techniques.

Frontier Airlines hired Emily Hanrahan Howell Warner to break the glass ceiling that was denying women entrance to the flight decks of America’s scheduled airlines. Today, despite the pre-1973 forebodings by male airline executives that passengers would not board an airliner being flown by a woman, female airline pilots have gained wide acceptance. In fact, Captain Warner led the first-ever, all-female flight crew. While the passengers didn’t take notice, the aviation press touted the event in headlines around the world.

Former long-time Grand County resident Emily Howell Warner’s flying achievements landed her in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and in the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame. Her captain’s uniform hangs in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

The year 2011 will mark the 50th anniversary of Captain Warner’s initial career as a certified flight instructor. She was a co-founder of the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, was the first member of the Colorado Pilots Association and belongs to the 99s (the International Women Pilots) plus Grand County’s Experimental Aviation Association (EAA) Chapter 1267 and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).

In Hollywood at the Beverly Hilton on Jan. 21, 2011, Emily Howell Warner, who, with her husband, Jay, lived for over 25 years at Ouray Ranch north of Granby, will be participating in the 8th Annual Gala celebrating the Living Legends of American Aviation. The Warners will be joined by, to name only a few other laureates: Dr. Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Dr. Bonnie Dunbar, Colonel Frank Borman, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Morgan Freeman, Barron Hilton, Bob Hoover, Arnold Palmer, Paul Poberezny, Cliff Robertson, Burt Rutan, Dick Rutan, Carroll Shelby, John Travolta, Sean Tucker, Patty Wagstaff, Kermit Weeks, and fellow Coloradan, Carl M. Williams. In all, only 69 Americans have been inducted into the Living Legends of Aviation.

Nevertheless, while the names of Amelia Earhart along with stunt pilots Patty Wagstaff and Julie Clark and first-ever female airline captain, Emily Howell Warner, might be well known both in and out of aviation circles; the overall progress of women in aviation has been slow. According to the FAA, there are approximately 700,000 Americans who hold pilot certificates. In other words, licensed pilots only account for one-third of 1 percent of the U.S. population. But women pilots are only 6 percent of that one third of 1 percent. To be precise, women pilots comprise only 2/100th of 1 percent of America’s pilot population.

Why so few female pilots? Recently, another Grand County resident, Penny Rafferty Hamilton, Ph.D, who, like Baroness de Laroche, is the holder of a world aviation record recognized by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, conducted an 18-month study of this phenomenon. Volunteering her time, but aided by a grant from the Wolf Aviation Fund, Dr. Hamilton just published the results of her study at:

Dr. Hamilton found the top 10 positive practices the aviation industry ought to be doing to encourage more women to fly. She also discovered the top 10 negative practices the aviation industry needs to stop doing right now.

While aviation overall has come a long way in the 100 years since the exploits of the Baroness Raymonde de Laroche, women in aviation, as evidenced by the low ratio of women pilots in America, have not come very far. Fortunately, looking into the future, airlines executives are predicting the next 10 years will confront them with a severe pilot shortage. If that is the case, young women might see that shortage as a career opportunity. While there is no Russian Czar around to award the title of Baroness, the opportunity for an exciting and well-paid flying career might be well worth the time, effort and expense required to follow in the footsteps laid out by Grand County’s own Captain Emily Howell Warner.

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