Meet Boeing’s trailblazers, the women who broke barriers

  • By Andrea Brown Herald Writer
  • Friday, February 28, 2014 3:31pm
  • Life

Flying was more exciting than cooking a souffle.

That’s what led Barbara Erickson London to switch her major from home economics to aviation back in the day when it was a man’s major.

After graduating from the University of Washington in her early 20s, she was the first woman to build then fly B-17 bomber planes and became the first female World War II pilot to get the U.S. Army Air Medal.

The aviator’s smiling, confident face peeking out of a cockpit is on the cover of a new book,”Trailblazers: The Women of The Boeing Company.”

“The book is about firsts,” author Betsy Case said. “These women made great strides for everybody.”

It covers the first females hired at Boeing to stitch linen wings and pound rivets to those who broke records in the skies and ran boardrooms.

Come meet the trailblazers at a book-signing and lunch at Future of Flight Aviation Center &Boeing Tour on March 15. Admission to the museum, usually $10, is free on that day.

London died last year after decades in aviation in California, where the Long Beach airport has a “Barbara London Drive” named in her honor.

The book-cover heroine will be represented at the event by a daughter who is an airline pilot.

The 73-page book is a page-turning journey of first females on assembly lines, in planes and in outer space.

Black-and-white photos show long-skirted women hovered over sewing machines or armed with power tools. Others sport the tailored uniforms of flight attendants, called sky girls then, who were required to be nurses, and single, and to weigh less than 115 pounds.

The pages transition to trendsetters such as Mae Jemison, the first black woman to orbit Earth in the space shuttle Endeavour, and Megan Robertson, the first female Chinook helicopter test flight pilot.

Case, a Boeing writer, spent three years researching the book, which sells for $35 at the Future of Flight center and online.

The idea for the book started with a presentation she did about the wartime aircraft workers known as “Rosies.”

Boeing officials suggested a project about the multiple roles of women through company history.

“They said, ‘We want you to just go poke around and see if there is even enough information for a book, and tell us what you think,’” Case said.

She dug into archives. “I went through acres of folders and Xerox copies of Boeing news articles,” she said. “In the back in the catacombs were all these file cabinets that just seemed to go on forever into the darkness.”

Women have been part of the company since Bill Boeing moved the operation to the Red Barn in Seattle in 1916. By 1918, the Boeing workforce was 25 percent female.

They were recruited by ads stating that riveting was easy, just like pinning a pattern on fabric to make a dress.

Women didn’t want easy; they wanted a steady paycheck and a good job. And many got what they wanted.

They came from all walks of life. Many were working mothers, long before it was fashionable. For others, it was a career change. Bessie Marie Dempsey, a Hollywood dancer, became the first female engineer at Boeing. She’s in the book.

Some made it their lifelong profession, though not quite as long as Diana Rhea.

Rhea, the first female manager in manufacturing engineering, currently holds the longevity record at Boeing: 71 years of uninterrupted company service.

She’s 92 and still works in the 737 program in Renton.

You can meet her at the book-signing.

Trailblazers in the book who will be at the event include:

Loraine Bratset: The first female line supervisor at Boeing, hired in 1943 to work as a shipping clerk in Renton. She said that her work ethic — attendance, punctuality and turning out a perfect product every time — was what helped her rise to a management position.

Suzanna Darcy-Hennemann: The first woman to join the Boeing Engineering Flight Test group as a test pilot and the first female rated as captain on the 747-400. She is the Boeing chief training pilot for more than 550 instructors worldwide.

Eleanor Dickson: She was wild about building model airplanes as a kid and knew she wanted to design the real thing when she grew up. She was the only woman in her engineering class at University of Washington and hired on at Boeing in 1949. She was a wind tunnel testing engineer for much of her 38-year career.

Sandra Jeffcoat: She was the first black woman to become a member of the Boeing Technical Excellence Program. She mentors young women starting on the technology career path.

Megan Robertson: She made Boeing history as the first female pilot to conduct a Chinook helicopter test flight.

Nelda Lee: The first female engineer in flight test engineering for McDonnell Douglas. A licensed commercial pilot, she was the first woman to fly the F-15 Eagle.

Patricia Beckman: Honored in 2010 by the Women in Aviation, International Pioneer Hall of Fame, she was the first woman to qualify as a crewmember in the F-15 and F/A-18.

Andrea Brown; 425-339-3443; abrown@heraldnet.com

Meet the trailblazers

The celebration of Boeing trailblazers is 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. March 15 at Future of Flight Aviation Center &Boeing Tour, 8415 Paine Field Blvd., Mukilteo.

Book-signings are 10:30 to 11:45 a.m., and 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Cost of the book is $35.

Museum admission is free that day.

A buffet lunch, $18, takes place from noon to 1:30 p.m., followed by a panel discussion. For tickets, go to www.womeninaviation.eventbrite.com.

For more information, go to www.futureofflight.org.

Books are available at Future of Flight and www.boeingstore.com.

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