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Forgotten Wings: 7 Overlooked Aviators Who Redefined Flight History

Hazel Ying Lee one of the first two Chinese Americans in the Women Air Force Service Pilots

While aviation history is filled with tales of legendary pilots who captured the world’s imagination, there are unsung heroes whose remarkable achievements have often been overshadowed. Join us as we shine a spotlight on seven overlooked aviators whose contributions to flight deserve recognition.

1. Eugene Bullard: World War I African American Fighter Pilot

Long before the famed Tuskegee Airmen, Eugene Bullard, a boxer and jazz musician, became the first African American fighter pilot during World War I. He was from Columbus, Georgia, the seventh of 10 children.

Within two months of the onset of WWI, Bullard joined the 3rd Marching Regiment of the Foreign Legion, and started out as a machine gunner on the Somme front. Later, as a member of the 170th Infantry, Bullard was wounded in action and learned to fly in 1916 on a bet. He volunteered for the French Air Service (Gironde), earning his license from the Aero-Club de France in 1917. He served with other American aviators serving with the Franch Air Corps  at the Lafayette Flying Corps and later as assigned to Escadrille N.93. He served past armistice, and was later passed over for recruitment in the U.S. Army Air Service because he was Black. He died at age 66 in New York City. 

2. Jerrie Mock: A Solo Odyssey

 In 1964, Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock became the first woman to fly solo around the world. Despite her historic feat, Mock’s accomplishment was often overshadowed by her male counterparts.


She achieved many other firsts, including first to circumnavigate the globe in a single-engine airplane, first to fly from the U.S. to Africa via the North Atlantic, first to fly the Pacific in a single-engine aircraft, first woman to fly both the Atlantic and Pacific, and first woman to fly to Pacific in both directions. She also achieved many speed firsts throughout the late 1960s. Mock died at age 88 at her home in Florida. 

3. Elsie Mackay: A Transatlantic Pioneer

Elsie Mackay, an English actress (with the stage name Poppy Wyndham), interior decorator, jockey, and pilot, attempted a transatlantic flight in 1928, just a year after Charles Lindbergh’s historic crossing.

She earned her certificate at the De Havilland Flying School and attempted her transatlantic flight in her Stinson Detroiter under the pseudonym Gordon Sinclair. Her plane was last spotted on course on the afternoon of March 13, 1928, after a morning departure from Cranwell, Lincolnshire, but she and Walter Hinchliffe never arrived at their intended destination, Long Island. 

4. Hazel Ying Lee: Breaking Barriers in the Sky

Hazel Ying Lee was the first Chinese-American woman to earn a pilot’s certificate and the first to fly for the U.S. military. She was born in 1912 in Portland Oregon, and her first job was working as an elevator operator in a department store. She earned her pilot certificate in 1932, and traveled to china in 1933 in response to the Japanese Invasion of Manchuria, with a plan to aid the Chinese Air Force.


She was only allowed to fly commercially, and ended up flying for a private airline for several years. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Lee trained to become a Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) and was the first Chinese American woman to fly for the U.S. military. Lee died from burns she sustained in a mid-air collision due to control tower error in 1944. 

5. Sophie Blanchard: The First Female Aeronaut

In the early 19th century, Sophie Blanchard became the first woman to earn a living as a professional balloonist. Her daring ascents and fireworks displays captivated audiences across Europe, yet her spouse, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, often receives more recognition. Blanchard entertained high-ranking officials, including Napoleon Bonaparte, with her stunts. She died in a balloon crash in 1914 at age 41.

6. Lydia Litvyak: The White Rose of Stalingrad

Lydia Litvyak, a Soviet Air Force fighter pilot during World War II, achieved the status of the world’s first female ace. She was also the first female fighter pilot to shoot down an enemy. She earned her flying credentials at 15 and after graduating from Kherson military flying school, became a flight instructor.

She was initially turned down when she tried to join the military in 1941, but was finally accepted to the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment after exaggerating her flight hours by 100. 


7. Beryl Markham: A Fearless Aviatrix

Beryl Markham, a British-born aviator, became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west in 1936. In addition to being a writer—she wrote West with the Night—and racehorse trainer, she was notable for becoming one of the first female bush pilots in Kenya.  

These lesser-known aviators each brought their unique contributions to aviation history, breaking barriers and defying expectations. Let’s honor and remember these unsung heroes who paved the way for future generations in the world of flight.

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