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To celebrate International Women’s Day, we’re shining the spotlight on aviation – an industry historically dominated by men. But times are changing.

In January 2022, 19-year-old Zara Rutherford became the youngest woman to fly solo around the globe. And in February 2021, Aer Lingus followed in the footsteps of Air France and easyJet by appointing its first ever female CEO. But there’s still a long way to go. Currently, women make up just 5% of pilots worldwide – and less than 2% are captains. Find out more as we celebrate some key milestones on the road to gender equality.

1. First woman to get a pilot’s license 

You probably know that the Wright brothers made history by inventing and successfully flying the first ever plane in 1903 – but did you know that, just seven years later, Raymonde de Laroche became the first woman to receive a pilot’s license? She was also the first woman to ever fly a plane solo.

Previously an actress and model, her interest in getting into the skies came about after attending the 1908 Grande Semaine d’Aviation (Great Aviation Week) in Reims, France. After taking flying lessons from Charles Voisin, a French aviation pioneer, she was awarded her license in 1910 – only the 36th license to be given by the Aeroclub de France.

2. First African-American and Native American woman to hold a pilot’s license

Born in 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, to a family of sharecroppers, Bessie Coleman’s interest in aviation was sparked by the stories of World War I pilots, but also the experiences of her own brothers, who had served. Whilst only studying for one term of college at Langston University in Oklahoma before the money she’d saved up ran out and she had to go home, she continued to save until she had enough to get to Paris, where she could attend flight school, and where she’d later earn her pilot’s license in 1921. She would be the first woman of African American and Native American descent to hold one.

She overcame both racial and gender barriers to pursue her love of flying during a time when opportunities for white women in the aviation field were hard to come by – for those of colour, it was even more difficult.

3. First woman to fly solo across the Atlantic

You probably already know this one – she’s arguably the most famous female pilot of all time, after all. The first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1928, Amelia Earhart was a pioneering figure in the field of aviation. It was in 1920 that she experienced her first flight, and the spark for what would follow. Amelia didn’t mess about, either. The next year she bought her own plane, and just two years after that she had her license.

In 1928, she became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger. But that wasn’t enough, and four years later she would become the first woman to fly solo non-stop across it. She’d also go on to became a prominent advocate for women in aviation and worked to promote gender equality in the field before her famous disappearance in 1937 whilst attempting to circumnavigate the globe.

4. First female captain of a commercial airline

It wasn’t until the seventies that a woman was finally appointed to fly for a commercial airline, when Emily Howell Warner was hired as a pilot for Frontier Airlines in 1973. That year she had became the first woman in the United States to earn a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rating as a fixed-wing airline transport pilot – the highest level of aircraft pilot certificate. Then, in 1976, she went on to become the first woman to work as an airline captain.

In addition to piloting, Emily was a flight school manager in Denver, Colorado, as well as co-founding the International Society of Women Airline Pilots and serving as its president. Today, her pilot’s uniform is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

5. Female CEOs of major American airlines

No major American airline has ever had a female CEO.

As of February 2024, Joanna Geraghty, formerly a president at the company, became the first woman to lead a major US airline – JetBlue. But whilst she might be the first in the USA, there are several female airline CEOs elsewhere in the world: Virgin Australia has been led by Jayne Hrdlicka since November 2020, Marjan Rintel is at the helm of KLM, Aer Lingus has Lynne Embleton in the boss’ chair, and Vanessa Hudson is now CEO of the Qantas Group.

6. Number of female pilots on the increase

Today, there are about 8,400 female airline pilots in the world, which works out at just 5% of the total. But, on a positive note, the number of female pilots has increased every year since 2017.

In the US, the number of women airline pilots grew by 71% from 2002 to 2022, versus a 15% increase for all airline pilots. And data suggests that regional airlines have the edge, with low cost airlines holding a 6.1% share of women in the cockpit, whilst major airlines and cargo airlines had only 5.0%.

7. Airlines leading the way with female pilots

When it comes to big-name airlines, Air India is in the top spot when it comes to pilots, with 12.7% of them being women. Aer Lingus follows, with a 9.9% share. United has a 7.5% share, whilst Lufthansa, Air Canada, and British Airways all scored above the average of 5.8%.

8. India has the most female pilots

8. In terms of countries, India comes out on top for having the most female pilots. It’s way ahead of the curve, with 15% of the country’s pilots being women – that’s 1200 of them!

India’s higher number of women pilots comes off the back of a variety of initiatives led by the Indian government, including training programmes and a taskforce set up to identify and overcome obstacles to women joining the aviation industry.

9. Youngest ever female pilot to circumnavigate the globe solo

Only 10 women have flown solo around the globe, the most recent of whom was Zara Rutherford in January 2022. The Belgian-Briton was the youngest female pilot – just 19! – to circumnavigate the planet solo – and she was also the first to do so in a microlight aircraft, the Shark Ultralight.

It would take her five months through storms, visa issues with Russia, language barriers in remote towns, and even communications problems with the air traffic controllers in Seoul (she had to get the help of a nearby KLM commercial pilot), but she successfully landed back where she started on the 20th of January 2022.

10. Youngest ever female captain of a commercial airline

Of the estimated 185,000 airline pilots across the world today, only about 2,600 are female captains. In 2016, Kate McWilliams became the youngest female captain in the world, when she progressed to being a captain for easyJet aged just 26.

After getting into the L3 Airline Academy at 19, she spent the next year training and travelling in New Zealand (nice for some!), before joining easyJet at 21 as a First Officer. Now a Captain, she also spends time in schools talking about gender stereotypes and encouraging them look at different career options they might not have considered.

Happy International Women’s Day!

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