The Whirly Girls, Hoverings Host a Wide-Ranging Group of Helicopter Enthusiasts
by Joseph J. Devanney
Their eggbeaters aren’t in the kitchen
That statement encompasses the philosophy of the Whirly Girls, the premiere organization of international women helicopter pilots. Founded on April 28, 1955, it has grown into a major organization. At the outset, they were an unofficial group with no officers, no dues and no record of meetings. Six of the thirteen women helicopter pilots known in 1955 met on the mezzanine of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. and decided to form a group to help other women who also desired to be helicopter pilots. The group was international in scope with three Americans, two French and one German. Today, there are over 1,000 Whirly Girls representing about 30 countries. The membership roster includes physicians, engineers, reporters, homemakers, airline pilots, and military pilots, all united by their single love of helicopter flying.
Each Whirly Girl is assigned a number upon membership. Many of their biographies are a historical “who’s who” of women in aviation. Whirly Girl #1, perhaps the greatest woman pilot of the 20th century, was Hanna Reitsch. Born in the Silesian town of Hirschberg in 1912, Hanna was the first woman in the world to fly a helicopter. She became a pilot in hopes of becoming a flying missionary physician to serve the peoples of Africa. However, she soon left her medical studies to fly full time. With her personal “altitude” at a mere five feet tall, Hanna has set at least 40 records for altitude and endurance in aviation. For example, in 1933 she established the world record for a sustained glider flight of 11.5 hours. The next year she set the women’s altitude record in a glider at 2,800 meters. Her real achievements, however, came when she served as one of Germany’s leading test pilots during World War II. She flew horizontal bombers, dive-bombers, fighter planes, a V-1 rocket and a ME 163 rocket plane. During one of her flights, she crashed and suffered numerous injuries, including a broken right arm. Afterwards, she refused medical treatment until she completed her reports, written with her left hand, documenting the cause of the crash. In April 1945, she reportedly made the last flight to Berlin to visit Hitler in his underground bunker. He refused to let her fly him out and hers was the last German plane to leave. She was the only woman awarded Germany’s high military honor, the Iron Cross. After the war, the United States interned her for a time. After her release, she established gliding schools in India and Africa. In 1971 she was the first woman to win the World Helicopter Championships.
Ann Shaw Carter holds the distinction of being Whirly Girl #2. She was the first woman in the United States licensed to fly a helicopter. She flew, among others, the Bell 47B, the world’s first commercially certified helicopter. Born in Brooklyn, NY, Ann graduated from high school during World War II and abandoned her plans of college to work as a riveter to help the war effort. She spent part of her salary on flying lessons, much to the dismay of her family. After receiving her license, Ann was hired as a pilot for the Metropolitan Aviation Corporation, one of the first passenger helicopter services in America. She flew sightseeing flights around New York City and became the world’s first female commercial helicopter pilot.
Jean Ross Howard, Whirly Girl #13, was one of the original founders of the group. She learned to fly at George Washington University in a government-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program. At the time, the program was free for participants who paid for their own insurance, provided that they signed a statement agreeing to be drafted in time of war. Jean earned her helicopter rating in 1954 and was the eighth woman in the world accredited to fly helicopters. She is the author of All About Helicopters, published in the Modern Aircraft Series.
Many Whirly Girls have made notable achievements while serving in the military. For example, Commander Joellen Drag Oslund, Whirly Girl #179, became the first female naval helicopter pilot in April 1974. Two months later, Sally Murphy, Whirly Girl #181, was the first woman to qualify as an aviator in the Army. The following year, Whirly Girl #202, Diane Dowd, graduated from Army Aviation School in Alabama and began her distinguished career. She was the first woman helicopter instrument instructor for the Army, the first woman in the Army National Guard qualified as a helicopter pilot, and the first woman to be type-rated in a Sikorsky S-76.
Other Whirly Girls have chosen to combine their flying skills with a career in law enforcement. Laura Goldsberry, Whirly Girl #515, became the U.S. Customs Department’s first female pilot in 1986. On September 9, 1988, the chief of the Compton, CA Police Department pinned helicopter wings on Angelica Myles, Whirly Girl #653. She thus became not just the first African American female helicopter pilot on the west coast, but that location’s first female helicopter pilot in law enforcement as well. Three years later, Teresa McIntosh, Whirly Girl #763, qualified to fly helicopters for the Los Angeles Police Department. She was the first woman in the LAPD’s history ever to do so. Some Whirly Girls reach for the moon, literally. Nancy Sherlock, Whirly Girl #621, was assigned to the NASA Johnson Space Center as a flight simulation engineer on the Shuttle Training Aircraft. In 1991 she became the first Whirly Girl astronaut.
Today, the Whirly Girls hold meetings called “hoverings,” which seek to promote interest in helicopters among women. The group funds scholarships for training women pilots to qualify for a helicopter rating. In addition, the Whirly Girls Men Auxiliary (WGMA) was formed in 1971 to help support the scholarship fund. This fund had been established in 1966 in memory of Doris Mullen, Whirly Girl #84, who was killed in an airplane accident. Another scholarship fund was added in 1991 in memory of Major Marie Rossi, an Army helicopter pilot killed during Desert Storm.
In addition to their common interest in helicopters, members of the Whirly Girls are also talented needleworkers. Out of this interest they have produced a quilt celebrating the group. Each member made a panel, which included her name, number, and hometown. The panels were then sewn together to form the large quilt.
As women enter the field in increasing numbers, this group of pioneer pilots will likely receive increased recognition and add many new names to their membership. Their history, however, is a testimony to determination and skill.