Women Who Fly

Portraits of female pilots

marty goppert flying circus
Carolyn Russo

Everyone’s heard of Amelia Earhart. But how about Patricia Jenkins, a pilot who uses her helicopter to herd cattle? Or Suzanne Asbury-Oliver, a skywriter for the Pepsi-Cola Company? Or Florence Parlett, an airport operator in tiny Edgewater, Maryland?

“As a photographer working at the National Air and Space Museum,” writes Carolyn Russo in her book
 Women and Flight“I pass by Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega almost every day. So when a friend suggested I photograph [modern-day] women aviators, it seemed only natural.”

In 1992 Russo began her search for subjects. Rather than focus on “the fastest and most famous,” she decided to document a range of pilots, letting each woman tell her own story in the accompanying text. Russo’s book, 
Women and Flight: Portraits of Contemporary Women Pilots (1997, Smithsonian Institution), offers a delightful array of female pilots and their stories of flying. Click on the images below to see a selection.

Text and images reprinted with permission.


Pictured above: Marty Goppert, Flying Circus Pilot

Dressed in her flying uniform for The Flying Circus, Bealeton, Virginia, 1992.

“The Flying Circus got started by these fellows who had a love of old airplanes. It’s a takeoff on the 1930s barnstorming show, placed between Warrenton and Fredericksburg, Virginia, off a country road….

I really never had a great interest in flying. I’m a nurse, and when I would go up with my husband, who was flying for United Airlines, and me being practical and thinking about the whole situation, I wanted to know how to land this airplane if he ever had a heart attack…. So he said, ‘Well, if you’re going to learn to land it, you might as well get your license, because landing is the hardest part.’

I got my license so that I could land the aircraft, and from there my love for flying grew. I just really enjoyed going up and flying around and getting away from everything, especially if you’ve had a hectic day at work, and enjoying the beauty of the country from up above. You don’t have the traffic, the hassle, and the busyness of our society that we live in day to day.”

Madge Rutherford Minton, Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP)

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(Carolyn Russo)

Standing in her living room with objects she has collected from around the world. Indianapolis, Indiana, 1995.

“My parents were always saying, ‘Control yourself, Madge, control yourself.’ The first really strong wish as to the future came to me the first time I saw an airplane. I was sitting on the curb eating a piece of my grandmother’s pie and this little plane was up maybe a couple or three thousand feet. It looked like a toy. I went in and I said, ‘Mother, there’s something up there and I want you to get it for me so I can play with it.’…

I guess aviation sort of became part of my subconscious. I was a student in college and I signed up for this civilian pilot training program and I was accepted, and my very first time in an airplane was my first flight lesson….

In January of 1943, I had a telegram asking me if I was interested in being a WASP, and that’s the way it began. I was twenty-two years old, and had to report to Sweetwater, Texas, to the Avenger Air Field, for training….

I said I wanted to be in the Air Transport Command ferrying division. I would like to ferry hot planes and big planes, and I wanted to be assigned to Long Beach, California, because my fiancé was stationed at the naval hospital in San Diego….

I would have flown combat. I think this is the reason I’ve been so sympathetic to the contemporary women pilots about their problems. During that period of time, it was exactly the same point of justice I fought for in college. If they wanted to do it, let them do it. They earned it. I think women should have that privilege.”

Patty Wagstaff, Aerobatic Pilot

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(Carolyn Russo)

With the German monoplane Extra 260. Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, 1993.

“When you first start doing [aerobatics], you feel like your head’s going to explode and your eyeballs are going to pop out. All the blood drains out of your head and goes down to your feet so you have to tense your stomach muscles and your chest muscles, and then if it really gets bad, you tense up in your neck. I’m pulling so many Gs in such a short amount of time, it’s automatic with me….

Competition is a mental game in any sport. I start preparing mentally months before. When I get in bed at night, I go through a routine every night for months, sometimes for three months. I’ll go through the routines in my mind and it sort of lulls me to sleep. And I fly it. Sometimes I’m outside the plane. Sometimes I’m inside. And it’s always from a little different angle, and the wind is always different….

As soon as I started flying, I knew this is where I needed to be. I really needed a challenge and a focus and I wanted to achieve something. I wanted to make my mark somewhere. Aviation just symbolized everything that I loved. It was freedom, total freedom. You can get in an airplane, you can leave, you can go somewhere else, and you can be up there all by yourself. You grab hold of the stick in the plane and everything is sort of right. The world’s at peace.”

Susan Still, Lieutenant, United States Navy, Combat Pilot and Astronaut

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(Carolyn Russo)

In her flight suit at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Maryland, 1993.

“I wanted to be a hairdresser when I grew up. I’d sit on the back of the sofa and my mother would sit in front of me, and as long as it didn’t involve scissors or dye, she’d let me do whatever I wanted to her hair. All the women in my life were nurses, hairdressers, or secretaries, and that’s why I thought my father would not support me in being a pilot. I can remember asking him, ‘What would you think if I told you I wanted to be a pilot when I grow up?’ expecting him to say no or disagree. He said, ‘I think that would be fantastic.’ Had he not said those words, I don’t know what would have happened to me….

Some of the most dynamic flying that I did in the Tomcat was shooting the banner [shooting at a towed target]. I mean, everything happens in a split second. You’re pulling a lot of Gs, your arms are getting tired, you’re having to get your airplane in the exact piece of sky it needs to be in, at the speed and altitude it needs to be at, and you’re using your radar to get the pipper on the bull’s eye on the banner and making sure all your switches are right to shoot the bullets, and you’ve got two other airplanes out there that you have to keep in sight at the same time. So it’s like you need about six more eyeballs and two more hands and another foot to do it all, but it’s very fun when it all comes together and everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to do. You’re going fast and it’s loud and you’re pulling a lot of Gs and you get done with the flight and you’re just sweating.”

Patrice Clarke-Washington, Captain

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(Carolyn Russo)

Seated on her flight bag at the United Parcel Service operation base, Louisville, Kentucky, 1995.

“I wanted to fly airplanes because I wanted to travel and see the world. That’s the only focus I’ve ever had, and that’s still the way it is for me. I remember my first day at Embry-Riddle [Aeronautical University]. I was basically in a state of shock. I was pulling into the campus in a taxi. Of course, school hadn’t started yet, so there’s not a whole lot going on, and it’s wintertime and it’s gray out. I remember sitting in the back of this taxi, thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ But anyway, I got enrolled in school and did what I had to do….

I started as a flight engineer on the DC-8, upgraded to first officer, now captain on the DC-8. For us, as pilots, captain is the top of the line. So I’m a captain, I’m flying a big airplane, one of the bigger airplanes. I have the option of flying to many international destinations, which is what I wanted. I expect another twenty-seven years in the industry, but, yes, I’ve reached my goal, and UPS did it for me.”

Patricia Jenkins, Helicopter Pilot

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(Carolyn Russo)

On her cattle ranch property with her Hughes 300 helicopter named Woodstock in the background. Diamond, Oregon, 1995.

“Our cattle hear this helicopter overhead so often that they just kind of glance around and ‘Oh, it’s just her again.’ They don’t run out of just sheer fright. Other people’s cattle do. That’s how I know when I have other people’s cattle, and it makes it a lot easier to get them separated, because the others just take off in a dead run like a spilled bag of marbles….

Five years into the marriage, my husband decided he wanted to learn to fly, and I said, ‘Well, if you’re going to learn, I’d better learn, too.’ So we traded beef for flying lessons. I was raising children and doing ‘housewifely’ things and hated it. I was bored to death. So the airplane was a good brainteaser for me. The flying was just what I needed. I could finally do something. I hadn’t finished school and I don’t have a degree. So flying was the next best thing that I could do and feel okay about myself living out here….

The minute I [take off], I don’t get altitude, I have to stay close to the ground all the time, because my job is observation. I have to be sure fences are up, the wires are on all the fences, the gates are closed or open as they’re supposed to be. Almost all my work is done very close to the ground. I’d say ten, twenty feet. I have to do visual observation of my cattle, making sure what they look like, if they’re thin or comfortable, if they look lost or if they’re in the wrong fields….

So with the helicopter, I can go out and check the cattle in the morning…then I’m back in the machine in the afternoon, and can do the fencing or move cattle or whatever is needed to be done.”

Marsha Neal, Aeronaut

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(Carolyn Russo)

Silhouetted outside an inflated hot air balloon. Statesville, North Carolina, 1994.

“It’s fun to land, and, of course, from an advertising perspective we always are trying to fly around the city, landing in neighborhoods. Since it’s relatively calm, when we fly, we can come down, say, in a cul-de-sac or in the middle of a street if the power lines are buried. You can land in people’s driveways and their backyards. It’s just really fun to come in and see the astonished look on people’s faces….

I think I’m almost a purist when it comes to gas ballooning because to me—there’s nothing to compare it to. There’s no burner noise, nothing. The wonderful thing about gas ballooning is that you can fly all day and all night. The most incredible thing flying over the countryside is that you can hear this network of dogs talking to each other. I mean, you can pick up the communication, just sitting up there listening, and you can hear very distinctly any car driving down the road.”