Helen Richey: First Female Commercial Pilot

The San Diego Air & Space Museum Library & Archives houses the personal papers of the first female commercial pilot, Helen Richey, born on November 12, 1909 in McKeesport, PA.  

Helen at home in Pennsylvania.

Richey began her flying career as a teenager out of high school. In 1929 she became the first licensed female pilot in Allegheny County. In August 1932, Richey and Frances Marsalis set a new women's endurance record when the pair stayed aloft for almost ten days. They did so by using another airplane to refuel. In May 1934, Richey won the main race at the first National Air Meet for Women in Dayton, OH. 

Frances Marsalis and Richey after their endurance flight in a Curtiss Thrush, sponsored by "Outdoor Girl" cosmetics.

Richey was the first female pilot to be hired to fly by a commercial scheduled passenger carrier on December 13, 1934 with Central Airlines. Although she won the job after competing with eight men, the Airline Pilots Association and the Department of Commerce, in a case of gross sex discrimination, forced her out. She resigned in November 1935. Women were not to become airline pilots again until 1973.

Helen Richey as a WASP.

In 1936, Richey, with Amelia Earhart, came in fifth place in the Bendix Trophy Race from New York City to Los Angeles, and, by doing so bested several male pilots. She was an air-marking pilot for the Bureau of Air Transport and set two world records for light planes. Later, she became the first woman to be licensed as a flight instructor by the CAA. Richey was a member of both the WASP and the Ninety Nines. She died at age 37 on January 7, 1947.

The Museum's collection contains over 200 photographs (posted on Flickr), diaries, correspondence and ephemera. 

San Diego Air & Space Museum

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