Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Helen Richey in a photograph dated October 1929, when she was in Curtiss-Wright flight school at Bettis Field in West Mifflin. Courtesy of the San Diego Air & Space Museum

Helen Richey in a photograph dated October 1929, when she was in Curtiss-Wright flight school at Bettis Field in West Mifflin.
Courtesy of the San Diego Air & Space Museum

It was the era of plucky barnstorming aviators. Charles Lindbergh had flown across the Atlantic in 1927 and in the ensuing decade the romance of the skies was in full flower. Flight records were being chased and broken with regularity. Faster, sleeker airplanes were being introduced. Air races with cash prizes were in vogue across the country. The public, fed by an eager press, was fascinated. And women, who had gotten the vote nationally only in 1920, were busily trying to prove they were as good as the men when it came to flying.

An old black-and-white photograph of Helen Richey in the archive of the San Diego Air & Space Museum, where her personal papers are stored, is itself a story. The photo shows a beautiful, self-assured young woman. She is clad in a leather aviator’s cap, goggles pushed up on her forehead. Her leather flight jacket is casually open in front, with the collar turned up in back. She seems to be looking ahead, and the slight smile on her lips suggests pleasant anticipation. Overall the image bespeaks glamour and buoyant youth and energy. At the moment the camera shutter clicked, one can imagine that all was right in Richey’s world and she was confident in how her future would turn out. She was living up to the lighthearted nickname she gave herself — “Propeller Annie.”

Much of the future Richey hoped for did indeed come to her. She captured an outsized number of records and became the first woman in the United States to be hired as a commercial air transport pilot, a stunning achievement for its time. But ultimately the career fulfillment that she desired eluded her. She died young and dispirited. She is today remembered in her hometown of McKeesport in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, but is largely forgotten or overlooked in the wider world. Glenn Kerfoot, a fellow McKeesport native and author of the Richey biography Propeller Annie, wrote, “She is probably the least known of a hardy band of female pilots who took to the skies back in the days when flying was a rarity, even for men.” The recent best-selling book Fly Girls by Keith O’Brien, for example, contains only two references to Richey.

Despite that, Alan Renga, an archivist at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, considers Richey “very, very significant” in the history of women in American aviation. He describes her as a woman with the uncommon “nerve and technical skill to push an airplane to see what it could do.” She was certainly adventurous — an adjective often associated with her — but beyond that she wanted to turn aviation into a career, like men were able to do. “She wanted women to be allowed to compete and do things on their own, but when it came to challenging men’s roles [women] were not allowed to compete on the same playing field.” Richey’s frustration that lasted to the end of her short life was that “she couldn’t make it a career like she wanted to.”

According to Claudia M. Oakes in United States Women in Aviation, 1930-1939, Richey’s ambition was ignited when she and a friend took a ride in a biplane from McKeesport to Cleveland in 1929, when Richey was 20 years old. Bad weather kept the young ladies from returning for several days. “They were allowed to stay around the Cleveland airport, sometimes convincing pilots to take them for rides,” Oakes wrote. “Richey became convinced that she, too, wanted to fly.”

Henry M. Holden, in an article for the Women in Aviation Resource Center, wrote that Richey’s eyes “popped” when the already famous Ruth Nichols, a socialite-turned-pilot, flew into Cleveland outfitted in a white flight suit. “When [Richey] saw the newspapermen, photographers and autograph-seekers gathering around Nichols, [she] suddenly knew what she wanted to do with her life.”

In October 1929 Richey enrolled in a Curtiss-Wright flight school at Bettis Field in West Mifflin near her home. According to terse notes in her own handwriting, preserved in the San Diego Air & Space Museum, she was doing take-offs and landings alone by her eighth lesson. Perhaps, though, her later assurance as a pilot was hard-won, in that after doing more take-offs and landing in her 10th lesson, she wrote, “I was terrible.” She was more upbeat after the next lesson. “Better today,” she wrote. Richey’s notes ended with her 13th lesson. According to Oakes, she officially soloed on April 29 in 1930 and became the first licensed female pilot in the Pittsburgh area on June 28.


Richey in the cockpit of a plane in her early years of flying, June 1930. Courtesy of the San Diego Air & Space Museum

Richey in the cockpit of a plane in her early years of flying, June 1930.
Courtesy of the San Diego Air & Space Museum

In a news story published in The Pittsburgh Press in 1939, Richey looked back and described her time in flight school. “I’ll admit that the boys were a trifle skeptical of my joining the class at first, but no one really resented my being there,” she was quoted as saying. “They certainly kept me on my toes. Nothing delighted them more than to catch me on a difficult problem. Consequently I studied twice as hard so I wouldn’t give them that pleasure. When they saw I was trying to be a good sport and that I was sincere about flying, they accepted me as one of them and from then on it was clear sailing.”

In that same article, the nub of the dilemma that Richey and other women pilots faced was revealed in passing. The story said that when aviation officials arranged for Richey’s test for her pilot’s license it was as part of an “entertainment program” at the airport. The tacit suggestion was that women pilots were entertaining but maybe not to be taken too seriously. Getting licensed wasn’t regarded as launching into a career as a flier, certainly not as a commercial pilot. There was no path for that. Maybe it was more like auditioning for the circus. (In fact, according to Henry M. Holden in an account for the Women in Aviation Resource Center, Richey actually did try to run away and join a circus when she was 12 years old.)

Richey’s father, the superintendent of schools in McKeesport, and his wife had hoped that their daughter, the youngest of their six children, would become a teacher. It seemed clear, however, that the ambition her parents held for her would not be realized, so when she acquired her pilot’s license, her father rewarded her with her own plane, an open-cockpit, four-seat biplane known as a Bird. But, according to Glenn Kerfoot, it was Richey’s mother who was the decisive voice in favor of allowing their daughter to pursue aviation.

If it had to be the “circus,” so be it. In the summer of 1930 Richey was among a group of fliers based at Bettis Field who went to an air show in Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania. It was there that she decided to get a taste of stunt flying. First, she performed an upside-down loop. Then she did a dangerous tailspin from an altitude of 3,000 feet. According to the newspaper account, the crowd gasped. And it led to a job doing aerial acrobatics to entertain visitors at Bettis Field. That, in turn, kicked off a period of stunt and aerobatic flying — barnstorming. She began to collect trophies in air meets at places such as Baltimore, Lynchburg and Niagara Falls. Her prowess propelled her to winning the Amelia Earhart Trophy at the Cleveland Air Races in 1932.

What really thrust Richey into the limelight was when she teamed up with another lady pilot, Frances Marsalis, and circled above Florida for days in December 1933 in an attempt to set a women’s world record for time aloft without landing to refuel. Their plane was sponsored by Outdoor Girl Cosmetics and carried the company logo.


Richey with her four-seat biplane. Courtesy of the San Diego Air & Space Museum

Richey with her four-seat biplane. Courtesy of the San Diego Air & Space Museum

The endurance feat generated untold column inches of newspaper coverage, including a lively story about a plane loaded with news photographers spotting Richey “sunbathing” sans clothes in the cockpit of her plane, prompting Marsalis to dive their craft into a cloud bank while Richey “hurriedly donned her clothes” according to the Associated Press.

Staying aloft involved midair refueling, then a none-too-developed technique. At one point a dangling fuel transfer hose banged into their plane and punctured the cloth covering of the fuselage. Richey leaned far out of the cockpit and managed to sew up the tear in flight. A second such incident occurred when a basket of supplies was being lowered from another plane. The damage was serious enough that the women considered landing, but Richey, according to Kerfoot, climbed out an overhead hatch onto the wing and patched the tear while Marsalis took the controls. It made for even more sensational news copy.

When Richey and Marsalis landed in Miami, they had been in the air continuously for 211 hours and five minutes and had beaten the old record by 13 hours. The team received a congratulatory telegram from Amelia Earhart herself.

The next year, in August 1934, Richey and Marsalis competed separately and against each other in a 50-mile race as part of the Women’s National Air Meet in Dayton, Ohio. On one of the laps in the race, Marsalis’ wingtip clipped the ground. Her plane cartwheeled and she was fatally injured. Richey went on to win the race. She was then on hand to pay her respects when the plane ferrying Marsalis’ body home to New York stopped in Pittsburgh on the way.

According to Henry M. Holden, Richey was depressed by Marsalis’ death and began to look for something “more stable” than air races and stunts but that still involved flying. The odds were long to nearly impossible, but she applied for a job as a commercial pilot. At the time, Pennsylvania Central Airlines was locked in competition with Pittsburgh Airways for mail contracts. The publicity that could be created by hiring a woman pilot was obvious, as would become even clearer later.


With copilot Frances Marsalis, Richey set a women’s endurance world record for staying airborne for 211 hours in 1933. Rudy Arnold Photo Collection, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 91-212)

With copilot Frances Marsalis, Richey set a women’s endurance world record for staying airborne for 211 hours in 1933.
Rudy Arnold Photo Collection, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 91-212)

So the historic deed was done, and in July 1935 Richey flew as an air transport copilot, a first in the United States. A photo of a broadly smiling Richey leaning out of a cockpit window appeared with an Associated Press dispatch about her first flight in a large Ford TriMotor carrying the mail and passengers on Pennsylvania Central’s Detroit–Washington route.

The press coverage hailed her as “the nation’s first woman to fly the mails and the first woman to hold a regular flying job,” but the language the AP used was decidedly patronizing, though probably not unusual for the time. She became “little Helen Richey, all five feet, four inches of her.” She was described as “contemplatively” brushing “one of her brown curls off her high forehead.” Her large airplane could “swallow her at one bite, or so it looks when she climbs into her ‘job.’”

Meanwhile, Richey was playing it straight. As far as she knew, it was all on the level. “My getting this job was constructive, not sensational. It makes it easier for other women fliers,” she told the press service.

She went on: “Flying isn’t physically tiring. You just have to know your air and navigation. We follow the radio beam all the way. We get frequent weather reports. There’s no guesswork. If fog settles over our next stop, we fly on or return. Our tank carries enough gas. Doesn’t it sound routine? It is.”

She was trying to make a point about equal competence. But a lot, probably most, of her unaccepting male “peers” weren’t listening and certainly weren’t welcoming her aboard. The male pilots gave her the cold shoulder and the Air Line Pilots Association refused her membership. Then the U.S. Commerce Department, which oversaw air transport licensing, “suggested” she not fly during rough weather. Women weren’t strong enough, the agency said.

Ernie Pyle, a reporter for the ScrippsHoward newspaper syndicate, who was later to gain fame as a chronicler of soldiers’ battlefield lives in World War II, broke the story in late November that Richey’s hiring had been a sham from the start.

Amelia Earhart and Richey flew together in the 1936 Bendix Air Race in Earhart’s Lockheed Electra. Courtesy of the San Diego Air & Space Museum

Amelia Earhart and Richey flew together in the 1936 Bendix Air Race in Earhart’s Lockheed Electra.
Courtesy of the San Diego Air & Space Museum

“In December of last year, Central Airlines wrote the Department of Commerce, saying they wanted to hire Miss Richey as a co-pilot for a week or two as a publicity stunt,” Pyle reported. “After that, they said, they would find other employment for her.” The Commerce Department went along with the scheme.

After two weeks went by and Richey was still on the job, the Commerce Department asked the airline what was going on. The president, James D. Condon, told the agency he was “in a stew,” according to Pyle. The publicity had been so widespread that he hadn’t been able to drop her quickly, for fear of public “indignation.” Instead, they came to an agreement to limit her trips and gradually taper off her flying “until the public forgot.” When the scheme came out, Richey said she wouldn’t be a “fair weather flier” and quit. She had flown about a dozen round trips during her eight months on the job.

Richey expressed her disappointment publicly but refrained from openly criticizing her ex-employer. “I never had any illusions about being a first pilot [versus a copilot]. I wouldn’t want to be a first pilot. I wouldn’t take the responsibility, the public attitude being what it is. I had hoped I could fly legitimately as a co-pilot for a year or so, just for the added experience. What I really want is to have my own plane again and fly on contract in advertising work.” Of her male colleagues in the cockpit, she said they were courteous and pleasant, but “they never took me in as one of them.”

The revelation, and the charge of discrimination, echoed through the small community of female fliers. A few of the women agreed that big planes were “too heavy to handle,” but others, with Amelia Earhart significantly out in front publicly, portrayed it as discrimination, pure and simple. Alice Paul, a longtime feminist, commented at the time, “Certainly Miss Earhart herself has demonstrated the fallacy of that old idea of women’s physical inferiority which we meet on a thousand fronts every day.”

Richey’s tenure in the airline cockpit, however brief, put her in the record books — at least in the United States. The first female airline pilot in the world has been identified as Marga von Etzdorf, who flew for Lufthansa in 1927. The next woman to step up in the U.S., after Richey, did not do so until 1973. Bonnie Tiburzi Caputo, the 24-year-old daughter of a male airline pilot, is listed as the first woman to fly for a major U.S. airline.

Progress has been made since then, but parity still lies in the future. A current veteran pilot for a large freight transport airline said on background that women pilots still have to be extremely tough to make it in what continues to be a male-dominated profession — even as aviation faces an acute shortage of pilots. He estimated that at his airline only 25 of 700 pilots are women and of those only three are captains. College-level training is now standard and although flying can be quite lucrative, it usually takes until age 30 for one’s career to get rolling.

The brouhaha over Richey’s stint with Pennsylvania Central Airlines did not end her career. By no means. In December 1935, Richey signed on with the Bureau of Air Commerce in the U.S. Commerce Department. She went to work for a program marking rooftops throughout the country with location and directional information to assist pilots flying overhead. The next year, she set another record. She piloted a lightweight single-seat plane to 18,448 feet, more than a thousand feet above the old record. Also in 1936, she set a women’s speed record for light planes. Then Amelia Earhart asked Richey to fly along with her in the 1936 Bendix Air Race. They flew in Earhart’s Lockheed Electra, the same plane in which Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, would disappear while flying over the Pacific Ocean in 1937. Richey and Earhart finished fifth in the race.

Richey in her British Air Transport Authority uniform during World War II. Courtesy of the San Diego Air & Space Museum

Richey in her British Air Transport Authority uniform during World War II.
Courtesy of the San Diego Air & Space Museum

In 1939, according to Kerfoot, Richey announced plans to marry an old friend from McKeesport named Jack Soles. The wedding never materialized and apparently neither did an explicit explanation as to why it was called off. Once asked by a newspaper reporter if she had any marriage plans in her future, she joked, “I’m looking for a rich old guy who’ll buy me all the gasoline I can use and let me fly wherever and whenever I like.”

She was grounded briefly in 1940 by a crash in a field in Maryland, but that same year she was certified as a flight instructor, the first woman to be so licensed by the then-new Civil Aeronautics Authority. (Forced landings were not uncommon in those early days. She once made an emergency landing on a golf course and discovered it was the private course of John D. Rockefeller when he came out to say hello.)

In 1942, with world war now a fullfledged reality, she entered a new phase of her career. She went to England where she was chosen to lead an American contingent in the British Air Transport Auxiliary. The job involved flying newly manufactured planes from factories to frontline airbases. Ernie Pyle, who by then had become a good friend, estimated that during her service there she flew 10 different types of British airplanes and delivered more than 50 of the famous Spitfire fighters. She once played hostess to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Clementine Churchill, spouse of the prime minister of the United Kingdom, when they made an inspection tour of her base.

The delivery missions were not always uneventful. “We had to watch for lone Jerry raiders who sometimes swooped down from the clouds on unsuspecting ferry pilots,” Richey told a reporter. “Several of our pilots were attacked.”

According to Pyle, Richey likened piloting the Spitfire to “flying in a beautiful dream.” One time she was assigned to fly an old-fashioned, ugly-looking bomber nicknamed a “Walrus.” Richey told Pyle it was “so old-lady-like I felt I ought to get out on the wing and hang out a washing.” Pyle remained a fan of Richey’s until his death at the hand of a Japanese sniper near Okinawa in 1945.

In the spring of 1943 Richey returned to McKeesport to be with her mother, who was ill and would die in the fall of that year.

In 1944, now as a member of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) assigned to the New Castle Army Air Base, she resumed making airplane delivery flights, this time throughout the United States and Canada. It was significant work and a valuable contribution to the war effort, but Richey acknowledged that it wasn’t as exciting as the flying she had done in England where the danger level was a lot higher.

After the war ended in 1945, the opportunities for women in aviation shrank, as men returned to reclaim jobs and previous roles in civilian society. The woman who once said, “I don’t feel like I’m living unless I’m in a plane,” was unable to find an outlet for her skills. She went to New York looking for a job as a pilot or instructor but was discouraged not to find anything. An article by Adam Lynch for History.com pointed out that “the market was flooded with male military pilots. From WASPs to Rosie-the-Riveters, women were being pressured out of the job market to make way for returning servicemen.”

According to a report in The New York Times that appeared Wednesday, January 8, 1947, a friend of Richey’s was concerned that, on the day before, Richey had failed to answer the door of her small apartment in a building in the 400 block of West 23rd Street. A passkey was used to gain admittance. “The police said that Miss Richey, who apparently had been dead since late Sunday, was found in bed. On the floor beside her was an empty glass, which was taken for analysis.” Toxicology tests revealed that Richey had ingested an “excessive amount” of sleeping pills. Her death was ruled an apparent suicide. She was 37 when she died.


Helen Richey, June 1930. Courtesy of the San Diego Air & Space Museum

Helen Richey, June 1930. Courtesy of the San Diego Air & Space Museum

In a 1974 article in The Pittsburgh Press, reporter Ann Butler wrote, “To this day, her older sister, Lucille Richey Gamble, as well as her niece, Amy Lannan, believe Richey took her own life because she could no longer fly commercially, although her death could have been an accident.”

Michelle Wardle, executive director of the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center, gives some credence to the possibility that Richey’s death could have been accidental rather than intentional. “We know she liked her alcohol and we know she was on antidepressants,” Wardle explained.

Richey’s elderly father attended her service at a McKeesport funeral home. Four planes from Bettis Field flew over the cemetery as her body was interred.

While the outside world may need to be reminded who Helen Richey was and what she accomplished, she is still well-known in McKeesport. Over the years, her deeds “all made the local papers” and she remains “highly regarded by the local community,” Wardle said. McKeesport is no longer the booming mill town it was in the era when it grew from fewer than 10,000 residents in the 1880s to 45,000 in the 1940s, but the McKeesport center has kept Richey alive. In 2009, on the 100th anniversary of her birth, a crowd, including some surviving relatives, gathered at the center and at her gravesite to remember the woman who Amelia Earhart is reported to have said was the better pilot.


Helen Richey is featured in Game Changers, an exhibition at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, showcasing 32 Pennsylvania women who overcame obstacles and made significant strides in their fields since the early 20th century, in commemoration of the centennial of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote.


Don Sarvey, a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, is a freelance writer who lives in Harrisburg. His previous article for Pennsylvania Heritage was “Paying It Forward: The Legacy of Genevieve Blatt” (Winter 2019).