On October 23, 1910, Blanche Stuart Scott was the first American woman pilot to make a public flight. The pioneering aviator, known as the “Tomboy of the Air,” was also the second woman to ever drive across the United States in an automobile. She eventually became a Hollywood scriptwriter and a well-known radio personality. Aside from clearing the way for future female pilots, like Amelia Earhart, the fearless Scott soared past societal expectations women and lived her life on her own terms.
Born on April 8, 1884 in Rochester, NY, Scott was adventurous at a young age. Before cars were widely available, Scott’s father was an early automobile enthusiast. At 13 years old, Scott drove her dad’s car around town for joy rides, much to the chagrin of the Rochester City Council. A minimum driving age didn’t even exist back then, so Scott continued to practice her driving skills around town. Nevertheless, her parents wished to cure of her “tomboy” behavior, so they sent Scott to finishing school.
The schooling proved unsuccessful at “feminizing” Scott. In 1910, Scott scored a sponsorship from the automobile company Willys-Overland Motors to embark on a cross-country trip from New York City to San Francisco in a custom made car called the Lady Overland. After 67 days, Scott successfully completed the second ever cross-country automobile trip by a woman. Her only companion for the journey was female reporter, Gertrude Buffington Phillips. With only 218 paved roads outside of major cities, this trip was a particularly noteworthy accomplishment for anyone, male or female!
Her historic car ride got the attention of two men in the burgeoning aviation industry, Jerome Fanciulli and Glenn Curtiss. In 1910, she was the first – and only woman – to get flying lessons from the legendary aviator, Curtiss. In a time when women still couldn’t vote, Scott earned the nickname “Tomboy of the Air” when she became the first American female to take public flight as a member of the Curtiss Exhibition Team in Fort Wayne, IN. After that boundary-breaking display, a year later she became the first woman to fly long distance with 10 miles in July and then 25 miles in August. However, Scott retired her wings five years later in 1916. Her decision to retire came from both safety concerns – her stunt pilot work resulted in such a terrible accident in 1913, that it took her one year to recover – and a growing frustration with the aviation industry for barring women from mechanic and engineering work.
Once she stopped flying professionally, she took to the airwaves instead. In the 1930s, she entered the entertainment industry as a screenwriter for RKO, Universal Pictures and Warner Brothers. She then emerged as a popular radio personality.
However, flying was forever Scott’s first love. She returned to the skies on September 6, 1948 as the first woman passenger to ride in a jet plane. She became a consultant to the U.S. Air Force Museum, where she helped acquire more than $1,000,000 worth of early aviation artifacts. In 1980, a decade after her death in 1970, Scott was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with their air mail stamp commemorating her inspiring achievements in aviation.
Compared to Scott’s times, the sky is the limit for women in their career options today. In the 1970s, the Navy and Air Force as well as commercial airliners welcomed female pilots for the first time. However, women only comprise about five percent of airline pilots today and around seven percent of certified civilian pilots are female. In honor of Scott’s astounding achievements in aviation, let’s get more women navigating the skies!