Everybody has heard of Amelia Earhart, the world-famous American aviator who disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, while attempting to circumnavigate the globe.
But what about Betty Browning, Alys McKey Bryant, Bessie Coleman, Helene Dutrieu, Wally Funk, Mary Haizlip — just a few of the many women who made a profound mark on aviation history over the last century?
A new exhibit of photographs at the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport shines a light on these and many other female aviation/space pioneers.
There’s the French aviator Raymonde de Laroche, thought to be the world’s first woman pilot; Harriet Quimby, the first woman to earn a pilot’s license in the United States and first woman to fly across the English Channel; Miriam Martinez Magaña and Karen Vanessa Velasquez Ruiz, both lieutenant pilots with the Mexican Air Force; Valentina Tereshkova of Russia, the first and youngest woman to have flown in space.
Amelia is there too, naturally, fitting given her connection with Brownsville. She was here in March 1929 when Charles Lindbergh flew the first international airmail flight from Brownsville to Mexico City. In those days Brownsville was known as the air-travel gateway to Latin America. Earhart earned her commercial air transport license here, the fourth American woman to do so.
An official ribbon cutting for the exhibit, titled “Women in Aviation & Space History,” took place at the airport Monday morning. On hand were Mexican Consul Juan Carlos Cue Vega and airport Director Bryant Walker and Deyanira Ramirez, executive director of the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art among others. The idea for the exhibit originated with the consulate, with the collaboration of the BMFA, the airport, the city of Brownsville, the Mexican Secretary of National Defense and the Mexican Executive Directorate of Cultural Diplomacy.
Most of the 35 images on display are mostly on loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which the consulate arranged, though some of the photographs are courtesy of NASA and the Mexican Air Force, according to Diana Gonzalez, the consulate’s head of cultural affairs and tourism. For two other photos, of American aviator Funk and Guam-born astronaut Sian “Leo” Proctor, Gonzalez contacted the subjects directly to secure permission for use of the images, she said.
Gonzalez said the accomplishments of the women highlighted in the exhibit are especially impressive because aviation and space have been such male-dominated spheres.
“It was very difficult for them to become pilots and accomplish what they accomplished,” she said.
“Women in Aviation & Space History,” located on the airport’s second floor, will be open to members of the public through Jan. 22, Gonzalez said.
“You don’t have to necessarily be boarding a plane to see it,” she said. “The public can visit the second floor to see the exhibit and not have to go through security gates. I hope the community enjoys it. I hope they come out here and see it.”
Vega said he hopes to collaborate with the airport on future projects as well.
Francisco Partida, the airport’s special projects manager and interim assistant director, said it’s important to shine a light on female aviation pioneers who have been forgotten or overshadowed by history’s more celebrated figures.
“It just came together in the last week, which was great, and we’re happy to host it,” he said.