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Richey, Helen (1910–1947)

Richey, Helen (1910–1947)

American aviator. Born in 1910 in Pennsylvania; died in 1947.

Was the first woman to fly airmail transport (December 31, 1934); was the first woman to become a licensed instructor (1940); was a flight instructor with rank of major, U.S. Army; discharged (1944); established world record for continuous flight: 9 days, 21 hours, 42 minutes (1933); established world record for Class C plane speed of 55 minutes across 100 kilometers at Langley Field in Virginia (1936); held world altitude record for a midget plane–18,448 feet (1936).

Aviator Helen Richey was born in 1910, just seven years after the initial airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Richey, of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, was the first woman in America to qualify for a pilot's license, and in August 1933 she completed 1,000 solo hours to qualify for a license as an air transport pilot. On December 30, 1933, Richey broke the world record for continuous flight (with refueling) in her plane, The Outdoor Girl.

Richey secured employment as a pilot for Central Airlines and on December 31, 1934, made aviation history as the first woman to fly airmail transport. In 1940, she was the first woman to be licensed as an instructor by the Civil Aeronautics Authority. During World War II, Richey joined the Aviation Transport Auxiliary, which assigned her to transport bombs between the munitions factories and the air bases. Later, as a flight instructor for the U.S. Army, she achieved the rank of major.

Although she never crashed a plane, and despite her accomplishment and bravery, Richey's career grew stagnant. Some suggested that this was because of her lack of physical strength, which made it difficult for her to control heavy trimotor planes, especially under adverse weather conditions. Others, including the lost aviator Amelia Earhart , suggested that the pilots' union, among others, discriminated against Richey because of her gender.


Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Gloria Cooksey , freelance writer, Sacramento, California

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