May 30, 1918, Dallas, Texas—Less than a year after the airfield’s official opening, the aviation companies of Dallas’ Love Field posed for a panoramic photograph. The neat rows lined up for the camera belie the fevered mobilization that had spurred Love Field’s construction. At the time of the American declaration of war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the U.S. Army Air Service was a branch of the Signal Corps. Compared to the foreign forces already waging the air war over Europe, its resources were paltry: one squadron of obsolete airplanes, fewer than 50 trained pilots, five officers stationed in Europe, and a little over 1,000 total personnel. In 1917 there were only three aircraft training schools; by that Christmas, there were 15, and Love Field was among them.
An uproarious celebration would greet the news of the armistice when it arrived six months later, on November 11, 1918. Fevered mobilization of a different sort ensued, and on November 12-13, the “Flyin’ Frolic” took over Love Field. Despite being a hastily improvised affair, the entertainment covered a lot of ground—music (the Aviation Repair Depot Band), dance (the Tail Spin Cabaret) and sport (the Dry-Land Boat Race), to name only a few of the acts lined up for the celebration. The crowd on the Frolic’s second afternoon was estimated at 80,000 to 100,000, and the event that the Dallas Morning News called the nation’s “first officially recognized air circus” was an early sign that the freewheeling era of the barnstormers was about to begin.
April 28, 1955, Washington, D.C.—Jean Howard convened the first meeting of the Whirly-Girls, an organization she founded for women helicopter pilots, at the historic Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. “Convened” might be too strong a term—the initial impetus behind the group was a modest one. After passing her flight test in 1954, Howard said, she began to wonder how many other American women had helicopter ratings. “When I found out I was the eighth woman accredited to fly helicopters,” she recalled, “I modestly proclaimed myself the eighth wonder of the world.” But when Howard expanded her search and found that 13 women were accredited internationally, she said, “I thought we should get together.” Six of those original 13 met her for coffee at the Mayflower on April 28.
That first meeting—members now refer to them as “hoverings”—was one of many to follow, as evidenced by the 1962 photo at right. It is an illustrious group. In the front row, Howard is second from left. Standing fifth from left is Whirly-Girl No. 2, Ann Carter, who by soloing in a Bell Model 47 in June 1947 became the first American woman to earn a helicopter rating. She was preceded only by German test pilot Hanna Reitsch, second from right (see related feature, P. 30), who flew what was arguably the first modern helicopter, Heinrich Focke’s and Gerd Achgelis’ Fa-61. Reitsch famously showcased the Fa-61 before an amazed crowd inside Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle in February 1938. Standing at the far right, in his fedora, is Igor Sikorsky, whose design and manufacturing work helped usher the helicopter out of the experimental phase and into daily use.
The Whirly-Girls recently celebrated their 50th anniversary, complete with a commemorative plaque installed in the Mayflower Hotel and an exhibit of memorabilia at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. They remain dedicated to advancing professionalism in helicopters while providing women helicopter pilots a forum for the exchange of information. They also provide opportunities: Their scholarship programs award more than $40,000 annually. But the simplest way to mark the success of Jean Howard Phelan’s idea is membership: As of this writing, their most recent member is Whirly-Girl No. 1,364.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.