Recently, a team of pilots from Air India made history by completing the world’s longest commercial flight from San Francisco to Bengaluru (Bangalore). The 8,600-mile flight had a nonstop duration of approximately 17 hours and flew over the North Pole. The journey was the longest flight ever made by an Indian national airline, and, most notably, the entire crew was made up of women.

Women in aviation

For most people, one of the only prominent women in aviation history who comes to mind is Amelia Earhart. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and her unsolved disappearance continues to fascinate the public. Otherwise, aviation has been largely dominated by men. Their names might ring a bell even to an ordinary person — Charles Lindbergh, Chuck Yeager, the Wright brothers, William E. Boeing. The history books rarely acknowledge the female pioneers who shattered multiple glass ceilings to make way for the landmark Air India flight. Here, I will attempt to do a few of them justice by passing on their legacies, though there are countless pilots who set distance, altitude, and other records as well.

Bessie Coleman was the first African American and Native American woman to earn an International Pilot’s License. In the 1920s, she learned to fly in France after being refused admission to American flight schools due to discrimination. She eventually became a stunt flyer. To this day, her memory continues to inspire women of color to pursue a career in aviation.

Jacqueline Cochran was the first woman to break the sound barrier. She also founded the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots, or WASP, which operated during World War II. Cochran received honors usually awarded to members of the U.S. Armed Forces. She is one of the many women who have served the United States, and she represents women’s strengths and contributions to the military.

Perhaps in a more amusing light, Fay Gillis Wells became the first female member of the Caterpillar Club, an informal organization of those who have successfully parachuted out of a disabled aircraft. In addition, 16-year-old Elinor Smith was the youngest pilot ever to earn a license. When she was 17, she succeeded in flying under four bridges in New York City. This daring feat drew both reprimand and admiration.

And of course, Captains Zoya Aggarwal, Papagari Thanmai, Akansha Sonaware, and Shivani Manhas are the four pilots who recently flew Air India flight 176. In 2013, Aggarwal also became the first woman to have flown a Boeing-777. They are among the newest aviators to be celebrated for years to come.

Advancing our language

However, it is important to note the language used to tell these women’s stories because it is still used in contemporary articles. Many of these women are famous for being the “first woman.” In contrast, men are almost never described as this. They are always the first pilot, the first astronaut, the first American. Rarely is a man described as the “first man” to accomplish something. 

There is no need to identify men by their gender because it is implied. Men were the first to arrive on the scene in most industries and therefore had earlier and more plentiful opportunities to make their mark. Female aviators must be distinguished as such, while an “aviator” is simply presumed to be a man. Likewise, women of color must also be distinguished, as “first woman” often refers to a white woman. 

Women still face barriers, especially in commercial aviation. Historically, they have been closely associated with the role of flight attendants, not captains or officers. In turn, flyers assume flight attendants to be present solely in order to ensure their comfort. Flight attendants are also sometimes sexualized or harassed. Even today, much of flight attendant training consists of appearance and politeness.

However, the reality is that female flight attendants deserve just as much respect and legitimacy as crewmembers in the cockpit. They are not only there to pour drinks — they are trained to respond to emergencies and save lives. Both roles need to continue to advance in parallel.

Going forward

Whether they are cockpit crew or flight attendants, there is no denying that women in aviation have come a long way. But like any other industry, they can still go much further. Female crewmembers still feel the need to prove themselves, whereas competency in male pilots is generally accepted. That is why it is crucial for the next generation to see a team of women of color pilot a record-breaking and historic flight. 

So, with that, thank you to the crew members of Air India flight 176 for demonstrating your abilities to women and girls who aspire to be like you. You have inspired rising aviators not only in India but across the world. And, of course, many congratulations on a successful journey!

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