Record-setting pilot Helen Richey fought for a spot in a man’s world.
In the steel town of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, readers of the local Daily News stared in shock at the headline on January 8, 1947: “Helen Richey—McKeesport’s Ladybird Dead. Famed Flier Dies in New York Room.” The talented pilot who had established a national reputation by setting women’s aviation records and fought her way into the right seat with Pennsylvania Central Airlines was dead at age 37. The sad news seemed incomprehensible to residents of her hometown and to America’s aviation community as a whole.
Richey had been making headlines ever since she soloed at age 20 at Bettis Field in April 1930, after just six hours of instruction. The daughter of McKeesport School System superintendent J.B. Richey, Helen was the youngest of five children. After just one semester at Carnegie Tech, she abandoned college for the flight line. Her father, by then well aware of his daughter’s burning ambition to fly, financed her first aircraft, an open-cockpit biplane.
Within months she flew to Johnsonburg, Pa., for the dedication of a new airport, and managed to talk her way into doing aerial demonstrations during the ceremonies there—despite having only 30 hours in her logbook. Flying a Curtiss Fledgling, Richey started out with a loop, then at 3,000 feet cut the engine, rolled over into a spin and pulled out at the very last minute, wowing the crowd. At that moment Richey discovered just how intoxicating it could be to perform for an audience.
The Golden Age offered a unique window of opportunity for women pilots, who were featured in movies, newspapers and magazines across America and around the globe. Back in 1912, Harriet Quimby had been the first woman to fly the English Channel. In 1921 Bessie Coleman defied gender and race barriers to become the first female African-American to earn an international pilot’s license. In 1927 Louise Thaden charmed Travel Air owner Walter Beech into giving her flying lessons, then became one of Beechcraft’s pilots. And Amelia Earhart, perhaps the most famous of them all, gained a worldwide reputation thanks to her many adventures in the cockpit. For young Helen Richey, hungry for glory, it seemed this was her moment.
Richey won first place in an aerobatic contest in Baltimore, also claiming trophies in Lynchburg,Va., and Niagara Falls, N.Y. In January 1933, she flew in the All America Air Races in Florida, reportedly stealing the show with her stunt flying. That same month she made news when, lost in heavy fog, she landed on John D. Rockefeller’s private golf course. She later wrote her parents that Rockefeller greeted her warmly and went back to his game while she waited for the fog to lift.
In June 1933, Richey was in New York for a race when she decided to do some aerial sightseeing. Flying low over Manhattan, she noticed she was being followed. After landing at North Beach airport, she saw the other plane taxi in, and moments later its pilot, New York City flying patrolman Otto Kafka, handed her a ticket for flying too low. He charged her with flying only 700 feet above Coney Island, apparently a violation of a city ordinance. Newspapers around the country picked up the story.
Richey’s first record-breaking flight gained her national attention later that year. On December 30, United Press reported from Miami: “Miss Richey, Partner Land After Shattering Record. Flying Pair Bring Plane to Earth at Conclusion of 237 Hours in Air.” Richey and Frances Harrell Marsalis had taken off in their Curtiss Thrush monoplane Outdoor Girl (sponsored by a cosmetics company of that name) on December 20, intending to stay aloft until the new year with the help of aerial refueling. They landed short of their goal, at 10:46 a.m. on December 30, due to heavy weather and fatigue.“The two birdwomen were extremely tired but happy,” according to United Press. Their 237 hours and 43 minutes in the air eclipsed the previous record of 196 hours set the year before by Marsalis with Louise Thaden.
At one point in the flight, when the end of the refueling hose got caught in the slipstream and punctured the plane’s fabric skin, Richey leaned halfway out of the cockpit long enough to sew it up. A second mishap occurred as the refueling plane was lowering a 55-pound basket of food, extra fuel, oil and two bottles of beer. The basket banged into the wing, tearing loose a large flap of fabric. Marsalis reportedly talked of landing at that point, but Richey braced herself on a strut and—using patching material from the first incident— repaired that rip too.
As the grueling flight wore on and the two women took turns at the controls, fatigue had become more and more of a problem. They continued to report via radio that they were both fine, but in reality the ninth day was a strain, exacerbated by periodic thunderstorms. Faced with an ominous forecast and aware they had already shattered the record, the pilots decided to land after making it through yet another heavy squall.
In August 1934, both Marsalis and Richey entered a 50-mile individual race, part of the First National Air Meet for Women at Dayton, Ohio. On the fifth lap, as Marsalis rounded the second pylon, her plane was buffeted in the slipstream of two aircraft in front of her. Fighting for control, she traded altitude for speed by nosing down. One wingtip brushed the ground, and her plane cartwheeled for 100 feet, ending up in a potato field. Marsalis was cut out of the wreckage alive, but the 29-year-old flier died on the way to the hospital. For Richey, her own second-place finish, with an award of $500, was no consolation for the loss of her former partner.
Richey next set her sights on becoming a commercial pilot. Late in 1934 she edged out eight male applicants and made history by landing a position with Pennsylvania Central Airlines. At the time, PCA was in heavy competition with Pittsburgh Airways for passengers and mail contracts, and a woman pilot promised the struggling airline good publicity. Richey regularly gave newspaper and magazine interviews and speeches extolling commercial flying. Describing her new job, she told one interviewer,“I’ve done a lot of flying, but I’ll never forget that first trip because it was my first time as a pilot of a regular airliner with the safety of a lot of passengers and Uncle Sam’s mail in my hands.”
From January to October 1935, she flew right seat in a Ford TriMotor between Washington, D.C., and Detroit, with stops in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Although she was the first female pilot for a regularly scheduled commercial airline, it could be a frustrating, demeaning experience. The Bureau of Air Commerce, for example, told her employer that Richey was to be grounded during bad weather. Male pilots either ignored her or found ways to make her cockpit time uncomfortable. They even threatened to go on strike, and voted to deny her membership in the Air Line Pilots Association. A public protest headed by Earhart denouncing such treatment was ignored. The Bureau of Commerce sided with the pilots’ union, urging PCA to limit her flying to three times a month. Richey’s logbook shows just seven flights in January, one in February, two in April and one in June. Her airline pilot career was quickly becoming a sham.
Facing determined resistance in her chosen career, Richey resigned from PCA after less than a year. The episode apparently remained a sore point, since she became testy whenever reporters continued to question her about why she resigned. But the flame that fueled her ambition had just been temporarily dampened, not extinguished, and she was soon back in the cockpit.
In 1936 Richey focused on sport and competitive aviation. That February, flying a borrowed Aeronca C-3, she set an international women’s speed record for lightplanes, covering 100 kilometers in 51 minutes—averaging about 73 mph. In May sportsman Ben King, who had just set a lightplane altitude record, lent his aircraft to Richey, who took off from Washington’s Congressional Airport with oxygen aboard, reached 18,448 feet and landed at New Market, Va. She had set an international altitude record for an airplane weighing less than 200 kilos (440 pounds).
The McKeesport Daily News had been regularly running stories on the hometown heroine, but now magazines such as Time, Collier’s and McCall’s also began covering Richey’s career. She was invited to a posh Washington party by socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and also attended a dinner for Amelia Earhart at New York City’s Hotel St. Moritz. That August Earhart asked Richey to join her in the cockpit for the 1936 Bendix Air Race, proof of just how far the McKeesport flier had come.
Nine men and six women vied that year for the Bendix Trophy and $15,000 in prize money. Earhart and Richey competed in the twin-engine Lockheed 10E Electra that Amelia would later fly in her fateful attempt to circle the globe. The contestants took off at staggered times from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, racing against the clock. The rules allowed pilots to follow any route and make any stops they desired along the way. The plane that reached Los Angeles Municipal Airport in the shortest time would be declared the winner.
At 1:37 a.m. on September 5, William Warner, piloting a Vultee V-1A, was the first away. Twenty-four minutes later a Douglas DC-2 launched with Louis Brewer at the controls and the aircraft’s owner, a navigator and mechanic also on board. Earhart and Richey took off at 2:47 a.m. under a full moon. Louise Thaden and copilot Blanche Noyes flew Thaden’s Beech C-17 Staggerwing. Ben Howard in Mr. Mulligan, a plane of his own design, had just disappeared into the Long Island haze when Laura Ingalls—the last competitor to take off—also headed west in her Lockheed Orion 9D Special.
The contestants faced heavy weather, with rain and dense clouds from Kansas City to Albuquerque, but clear skies were forecast from there to the West Coast. Joe Jacobson of Kansas City, Mo., got as far as Stafford, Kan., when his Northrop Gamma 2A suddenly erupted in flames. Luckily Jacobson managed to bail out, landing unhurt.
Richey and Earhart came in fifth, explaining to reporters on landing that they had struggled with the weather and “operational problems,” including a cabin door that suddenly opened during flight. Thaden and Noyes, who had been fighting the same weather plus radio malfunctions, landed in Los Angeles believing they had placed last. They actually took the $7,000 winner’s purse and an additional $2,500 for being the first women to arrive. Laura Ingalls came in second.
Richey next tackled a job for the federal government, involving what was called air marking. She flew over a huge area encompassing 17 eastern states, looking for roofs upon which aerial guide signs could be painted. Later named director of air marking for western states, Richey discovered that she greatly enjoyed California. She settled in on the West Coast, and spent some time in Hollywood mixing with film stars.
After that job ended in October 1937, Richey stayed out West long enough to renew an old friendship with transplanted McKeesport actor Jack Soles. Glenn Kerfoot, in his biography Propeller Annie, noted that in March 1939 Richey and Soles announced plans to marry. The Soles family invited her to accompany them on a sailing trip to Hawaii, where the wedding was to take place. But for reasons that have never become public, their marriage plans suddenly came apart, and Jack Soles released a statement to the press: “We decided such a union would destroy a beautiful and solid friendship so the wedding has been called off.”
On New Year’s Day 1940, Richey was once again in the headlines. She and fellow pilot Bernice Coombs of Butler, Pa., had been on their way to Miami for the All American Air Maneuvers, scheduled for January 5, when bad weather started closing in along their flight path. Since they were getting low on fuel, they decided to make a stop.
Over Elkton, Md., Richey saw what looked like an open field. She was already committed to landing when she spotted a stone wall ahead. “I was forced to pancake the ship onto the field to avoid the wall,” she recalled. The little two-seat Aeronca flipped over and was badly damaged, but both women crawled out unhurt.
In May 1940, with war clouds looming, Richey obtained her instructor’s certificate and began teaching Army Air Corps cadets at Pittsburgh-Butler Airport—the only woman to do so. For women pilots, World War II was both a blessing and a curse. Many who hoped America would follow Russia’s lead and allow females to fly in combat were disappointed. But the U.S. government discovered in its reservoir of female pilots a welcome addition to the war effort. Women fliers delivered aircraft fresh from the assembly lines to air bases all over the country, and even ferried planes across the Atlantic to England.
In 1941 celebrity pilot Jacqueline Cochran persuaded the Air Corps to create the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots, or WASPs, freeing up thousands of male pilots for combat. Cochran had previously established an American contingent of a similar British group, the Air Transport Auxiliary, and it was in that organization that Helen Richey found her niche during the war years. After three months of training, and with more than 2,000 hours already in her logbook, Richey was soon transporting all kinds of aircraft throughout England, including Republic P-47s and Lockheed P-38s. When Cochran went back to the United States, she left Richey in charge of the program in England.
At first, women pilots ferrying planes from British factories to air bases were restricted to flying trainers. When that restriction was lifted, Richey was the first woman to climb into a Hawker Hurricane, one of the stars of the Battle of Britain. Soon she was also flying the Supermarine Spitfire, which she found especially thrilling.“I have been flying Spitfires now pretty regularly and I find them wonderfully easy to handle,” she said. “No drag at all. A Spit in flight is like a fish going through water or a hot knife through butter.” She wrote her parents, “I want to remain in the service for the duration,” adding,“It is no little task to become accustomed to flying over congested English air bases after the vast distances from one air field to another in America.”
In 1942 war correspondent Ernie Pyle mentioned Richey in two of his stories.“Helen is 33 now and as engaging as ever,” he reported.“She wears a dark blue uniform with slacks for flying and skirt for street wear. She looks very snazzy in her outfit.” Pyle added: “Their job is a dangerous one. The fatality rate in ferry service is higher proportionally than in the RAF.”
When she returned to the U.S. after the war, Richey found it difficult to fit into civilian life. She traveled to New York seeking a pilot’s job or work as an instructor or aviation consultant. But at that point the market was flooded with male military pilots. From former WASPs to Rosie the Riveters, women were being pressured out of the job market to make way for returning servicemen.
Richey’s friends noticed that she seemed increasingly despondent. She spent much of her time poring over scrapbooks and old newspaper stories, reliving her record-setting days. She was quoted as saying, “When a girl reaches 37, her flying days are over,” and reportedly told her older sister, Lucille Gamble, that she was done with flying.
Biographer Kerfoot, who interviewed family members and had access to some of Richey’s correspondence, noted that when Helen came home for the holidays in December 1946, her sister Lucille thought she seemed unusually quiet and depressed, “almost detached from reality.” Her New York City friends reported noticing the same symptoms, though no one seemed to understand exactly what her problems were.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Richey couldn’t have found some kind of employment in the commercial aviation world after WWII. But somehow, for reasons we may never understand, the fire of her once burning ambition had seemingly been extinguished.
On January 7, 1947, Richey’s friend Mary Parker became worried when she couldn’t reach Helen by phone. Parker asked building superintendent Robert Wright to let her into Richey’s room, where they discovered her lying dead on a neatly made daybed. An empty water glass was sitting on the floor next to the bed. She had left no note.
After her death, New York detective Tom Mattimore told United Press that Helen had been in ill health and under the care of a physician. Although initial reports said the coroner could not identify the cause of death, later tests by New York City chief toxicologist Dr. Alexander Getler revealed Richey had ingested an excessive amount of the barbituric acid commonly found in sleeping pills. His report concluded it was an “apparent suicide.”
But knowing how Helen Richey died didn’t explain why. Looking back at those appealing photographs of a confident, attractive young pilot, a record-setting flier who laughed at danger and blazed new trails across the sky in peacetime as well as war, it’s difficult to come to grips with her legacy. Her star was eclipsed far too soon for us to feel we know her.
Adam Lynch is a retired TV anchor and reporter who has produced many broadcast stories about World War II. For additional reading, try: Propeller Annie, by Glenn Kerfoot; Ladybirds II: The Continuing Story of American Women in Aviation, by Henry M. Holden and Lori Griffith; and Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II, by Molly Merryman.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.