Say “women aviators before World War II” and most people will respond “Amelia Earhart.” But Earhart was far from the only pioneer in this field. And a few of them, in fact, hailed from Pittsburgh.
That’s one lesson of “The Golden Age of Flying and Air Races,” a photo exhibit harking to the early days of commercial aviation in Pittsburgh nearly a century ago. The 300 images in the show were drawn from among some 5,000 aviation photos in the archives of the Photo Antiquities Museum of Photographic History.
“Everybody knows Amelia Earhart, she was the most famous woman pilot, but some of these other women have not really been recognized and are kind of overshadowed,” says museum founder Bruce Klein.
Pittsburgh’s first commercial airfield was Mayer Field, which opened in Bridgeville in 1919. Others soon followed, including Bettis Field in West Mifflin and Rodgers Field near Aspinwall.
This was the age of double-winged biplanes and pilots who wore goggles to fly in open cockpits. Air mail was a brand new thing. Flying was dangerous and crashes were common. While women had only recently acquired the vote, some were already taking to the skies.
One was Teresa James, who was born in 1914 in Pittsburgh and flew solo at age 19. She later became the first female flight instructor to graduate from Buffalo Aeronautical Institute and also earned a commercial transport license.
But perhaps the most famous woman aviator from the area was McKeesport native Helen Richey. “During her teens,” according to a Photo Antiquities press release, “she was one of the few girls in McKeesport who wore pants. She learned how to fly by age 20 and later became the first woman in the U.S. to fly for a commercial airline. In the nearly all-male pilots' club, she was confronted with a nasty brand of sexism, and the experience was apparently far from a happy one. Richey also raced planes and would compete as half of a team with Earhart herself.
During World War II, Richey ferried military planes to England. But after the war, flying opportunities dried up. Richey was found dead of an apparent suicide in New York in 1947.
Other groundbreaking women pilots documented in the show include Jackie Cochran, a distinguished racer who during World War II proposed the idea for a women’s flying division in the Air Force, later realized as the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots.
The “golden age” that the show describes ended with the war, after which came the widespread building of commercial airfields like Pittsburgh International Airport, for which ground was broken in 1946.
Photo Antiquities is a two-story museum on the North Side. The second floor includes cameras, photographs and other memorabilia ranging from the origins of the medium in the 1820s to the present day. The first floor gallery is for featured exhibits like “Golden Age.”
The exhibit opened this month and will run through next summer.