The Pilot Who Repaired a Plane’s Wing in Mid-flight, Helen Richey


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Helen Richey was a trailblazing female pilot known for being the first female ever hired to fly a commercial airline in the United States, a job she quit after only a few months because it didn’t give her the freedom to do what she did best, a bunch of cool flips and loops.

Born in a time when women even being out of the kitchen long enough to look at a plane was considered odd (1909), Richey’s dream of being a pilot was one that had considerable road blocks placed in front of it at every turn. Luckily for her, she had the two things considered absolutely essential for achieving your dreams back in those days, a total lack of shits to give and a really rich dad.

When Richey expressed to her dad that she wanted to be a pilot, rather than playing to the traditional gender stereotypes of the day (read: being an asshole) he told her to go for it and when she received her pilots license at age 20, he bought her a plane to celebrate instead of saying that she should concentrate on not doing something awesome. Apparently one of the first things Richey did after receiving her license  to fly was apply to become stunt pilot, which would kind of be like getting your drivers license and then immediately applying to be a tank driver in war-torn [insert country currently at war here to make this reference timeless].

One of the reasons Richey applied to be a stunt pilot is because it was one of the pilot-based career options open to a woman, the other reason was because it let her do cool loop the loops and barrel rolls, but that should have been obvious anyway.

A verifiable flying prodigy, Richey took part in countless stunt shows and races, however perhaps Richey’s most famous feat, second only to her being the first woman to break the glass ceiling of the commercial piloting world was her record breaking endurance flight with fellow female pilot, Frances Harrell Marsalis. 

Pictured here: Eye-fucking the sky like she owned it.
Pictured here: Eye-fucking the sky like she owned it.

The plan was for Richey and Marsalis to stay aloft for 9 days and 21 hours, 6 days into this trip though, a small, but nonetheless severe rip was made in the one of the plane’s wings while it was being refueled. For both women, landing the plane wasn’t an option, because hey, they only had to stay in the sky for another 6 days, so it was decided that Richey would repair the rip herself with a needle and thread. Which she did by crawling onto the wing of the plane while it was thousands of feet in the air without any safety equipment.

"I asked her to do a bunch of flips and shit to make it interesting but she said no."
    “I asked her to do a bunch of flips and shit to make it                                                    interesting but she said no.”                               Image credit: National Air and Space Museum Archives.


This daring feat of bravery, along with setting the record itself, instantly cemented Richey’s reputation as a pilot of tremendous skill. Which didn’t stop here from being treated like a second-class citizen by every male pilot she ever came into contact with. This is despite the fact she was objectively a better pilot than 99% of the people she spoke to, the only reason we’re not saying 100% is because we’re assuming that Richey gave herself a pep talk every morning when she looked in the mirror.

In fact, it’s precisely for this reason that Richey quit her supposedly landmark job as the first female commercial pilot in America, ever. Central Airlines, the company that hired Richey staunchly refused to let her fly any route with passengers and would only let her fly in clear weather thanks in part to pressure from their male pilots. After only a few months, Richey decided that the job wasn’t worth her time and quit, arguing that any airline that wouldn’t trust a pilot who could repair a plane’s wing mid-flight to fly in anything other than a straight line was an airline that sucked just a whole bunch of shit.

Though we’d like to think the airline was simply afraid of Richey doing jack knife turns in a passenger plane, we know in our hearts that they were simply being assholes. Which is why they’re not the focus of today’s fact, Richey is.