"We didn't have a whole lot of money in those days, in 1939," says octogenarian aviator Doris Lockness. "We had a refrigerator that had a meter, and you dropped quarters in there to keep it running. It was always a toss-up, whether I was going to drop my quarters in or use that money to go fly."
Lockness is one of 37 contemporary women pilots profiled in a new exhibition on view at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) through September 12. Organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, "Women and Flight" presents a striking display of portraits and interviews by NASM staff photographer Carolyn Russo. A companion book, Women and Flight: Portraits of Contemporary Women Pilots, is now out from Bulfinch Press.
Women aviators have been on the wing since 1908, just five years after the Wright brothers' pioneering flight. For decades, though, women pilots were hindered by social, economic and legal barriers. Only in the past 25 years have professional training and career opportunities become widely available. Today, as these photographs aptly attest, women are flying everything from hang gliders and helicopters to commercial airliners and space shuttles.
"I wasn't just looking for the first and most famous," says Russo. "I wanted to show a variety of flying careers — to find women with good stories who were doing something a little different in American aviation." From a skywriter who pilots an open-cockpit biplane to a U.S. Air Force captain who flies U-2 reconnaissance missions, these pilots personify the expanding presence of women in the sky and in space.