Women’s History Month: The First Women’s Air Derby

In our pursuit to build a beautifully realistic and expansive sim, we would like to give credit to the early pioneers of flight; specifically, the brave women who entered the field of aviation. They have paved the way for flight enthusiasts today, setting precedent upon precedent.

In 1910, Raymonde de Laroche, became the first the first woman in the world to receive a pilot license when the Aero-Club of France issued her license #36 of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.  Hélène Dutrieu, the “girl hawk” of aviation from Tournai Belgium, set many altitude and distance records including winning France’s Coupe Femina for the women’s world nonstop light record on December 31, 1911 flying 254 kilometers (158 miles) in 178 minutes. In Northern Ireland, Lilian Bland designed a glider, the Bland Mayfly, even before she earned her pilot’s license, making her the first women in the world to design, build, and fly an aeroplane. The United States wasn’t far behind, and soon women all over the globe took to the skies despite the challenges they faced due to gender norms.

Circa 1929, when there were as little as seventy licensed female pilots, one of the most revolutionary races began in the US: The Women’s National Air Derby.

It was more than a race; it was a chance for women to finally show the world that they could fly.

These women spanned from aviatrix record breaker to Hollywood starlet to the wife of a preacher, but they all had a common message to spread: women were fiercely good at flying, and they would prove it. To qualify, they had to have at least 100 hours of solo flight, with a minimum of 25 hours of cross-country flying.

As the idea of letting women fly was not commonly accepted in the 1920s, there were many restrictions in the first race, such as access to only slower and less powerful aircraft.

It was an early morning in August where twenty women put on their flight gear, climbed into their cockpits, and raced across America from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio. Navigating the 2700-mile course with only road maps on their laps, they started their journey.

The race itself was something out of the movies — Questionable mechanical failures, threats of sabotage from outsiders, two crashes, and one case of typhoid fever. The threats of sabotage and protestors sported signs with phrases like, “Race Should Be Stopped”. Blanche Noyes, a non-smoker, had to put out a fire mid-flight and later found a cigarette butt in her baggage. Pancho Barnes crashed into a car that drove onto the runway as she was landing. Claire Fahy’s wing wires had mysteriously been eaten through. However, despite some of the mishaps, the pilots decided to stick together and finish the race.

“What chances we took in those pioneer days of flying! What narrow escapes we had during takeoffs and landings on the many rough, short airfields of the twenties!” — Ruth Nichols, Derby Contestant

A crowd of over 18,000 people gathered at the finish line in Cleveland to greet the pilots. In the end, Louise Thaden finished in first place with a time of 20 hours, 19 minutes and 4 seconds. In third place was famous Amelia Earhart.

The race was their first chance to meet face-to-face as women pilots and set the stage to carry on the legacy. Many of the women banded together afterwards to form The 99’s Club (now known as The Ninety-Nines) to celebrate women in aviation all over the world.

We salute these outspoken and brave women as we continue to develop Microsoft Flight Simulator and hope we can empower more females to pursue an interest in the field of aviation. To everyone, thank you for your passion and love for flying. Your enthusiasm has made our sim efforts possible.

-The Microsoft Flight Simulator Community Team-


  • https://www.ninety-nines.org/women-in-aviation-article.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_aviation
  • https://airandspace.si.edu/explore-and-learn/topics/women-in-aviation/roche.cfm
  • https://airandspace.si.edu/explore-and-learn/topics/women-in-aviation/dutrieu.cfm
  • https://pioneersofflight.si.edu/content/1929-women%E2%80%99s-national-air-derby
  • https://breakingthroughtheclouds.com/
  • https://womensmuseumofireland.ie/articles/lilian-bland