Women in test history

  • Published
  • By Jeannine M. Geiger
  • Air Force Test Center History Office

In today’s uncertain times, it is even more important to celebrate all aspects of human history. Women’s history month plays an important part in the highlighting achievements that may have been buried throughout history. The United States has just entered its second century of promoting the advancement and achievements of women, making this time period perhaps more important than others.

The National Women’s History Alliance selects and publishes the yearly theme. The theme for Women's History Month in 2021 captures the spirit of these challenging times. Since many of the women's suffrage centennial celebrations originally scheduled for 2020 were curtailed, the National Women's History Alliance is extending the annual theme for 2021 to "Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to Be Silenced.”

Just as they have in other fields, women pioneers have played a major role in the aerospace field, particularly at Edwards Air Force Base, California. While women have always supported and participated in military campaigns, either in support roles or, more rarely, in combat, American women participated in the Army Air Corps, the United States Air Force today, and recorded significant achievements during the lead-up to World War II. The first women stationed at Edwards arrived at the Muroc Bombing and Gunnery range in 1944 as part of the Women’s Army Corps. Women would not arrive at Edwards in official test roles until the mid-1970s.  These early female Testers laid the foundation for their successors, who continue to make history today.

In 1944, Ann Gilpin Baumgartner, as Women’s Air Service Pilot assigned to the Flight Test Division, flew a YP-59A, becoming the first woman to fly a jet aircraft.

In 1953, Jacqueline Cochran made two supersonic dives in a Canadian-built F-86 Sabre becoming the first woman to exceed the speed of sound.  Later the same day, she flew the same plane over Edwards Air Force Base low-level course setting a new speed record 652.337 miles per hour.  A chase plane piloted by then Maj. Charles Yeager accompanied her and she received one of her five Harmon Aviatrix Trophies for the effort (Yeager won the Aviator trophy that year).  At her death in 1980, Cochran held more speed, distance, and altitude records than any other pilot, which remains true today.

In 1975, Capt. Jane L. Holley, a student in Test Pilot School class 74B, became the first woman to graduate from the training as an engineer.

In 1990, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration selected Maj. Eileen Collins (a graduate of TPS Class 89B) as a Space Shuttle pilot candidate.  Collins was the first woman selected for this program.

In 1993, Lt. Col. Susan J. Helms became the first female military astronaut to enter space when Space Shuttle Endeavor launched on a 5-day mission.

In 2010, Col. Dawn M. Dunlop accepted command of the 412th Test Wing. The first woman to command the test wing, she had also been the first woman to fly an F-22 Raptor when she flew F-22 number 4006 here at Edwards.

The trials and tribulations of early women pioneers need to be remembered and not forgotten. These Airmen risked all that they had for this cause. They impacted their local communities, their nation and their world.