Historical Markers
Helen Richey [Great Depression] Historical Marker
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Helen Richey [Great Depression]

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Renzie Park, Corner of Eden Park Blvd. and Tulip Drive, McKeesport

Dedication Date:
August 1, 2002

Behind the Marker

"How do you feel?"
"Great. Wonderful. Tired, but wonderful."
"Did you ever think of giving up?"
"Never. As long as our plane kept going."
"How were you able to sleep up there?"
"If you're weary enough you can sleep anywhere."
"Now that you have the record, what are you going to do next?"
"Call our families, have a hot meal, and sleep for a week in a real bed."
-Helen Richey, upon her completion, with co-pilot Frances Marsalis, of the longest flight by female pilots in aviation history, August 1932.

Pictured above are the principals in the Annette Gipson Trophy Race for women which was held at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, June 24th. Left to right: Miss Laurel Sharpless, New York City; Miss Edna Gardner, winner; Miss Edith Descomb, Hartford, Connecticut; Arline Davis, Cleveland, Ohio; Frances Marsalis, Garden City, N.Y.; Margery B. Ludwigsen, Brooklyn, N.Y.; Suzanne Humphrey, Far Hills, N.Y.; J.T. "Peggy" Remmy, New York City; Annette Gipson, sponsor; Helen Richey, McKeesport, Pennsylvania; Amelia Earhart, starter; Mrs. I.J. Fox, backer; Amy Mollison, British flyer, and Ruth Nichols.
Amelia Earhart, holding flag with contestants in the Annette Gipson Trophy...
When Amelia Earhart disappeared somewhere over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 during her attempt to become the first woman to fly around the globe, the whole nation was enthralled. Earhart was already a national heroine; the personification of the courageous and independent American women.

After she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932, Earhart was the most famous of the handful of women who competed against men in the exciting and death-defying world of aeronautics. Earhart's life and death would fascinate Americans for generations.

A decade later, when pioneering female aviator Helen Richey took an overdose of sleeping pills and died alone and nearly penniless in 1947, the nation took little notice. Richey, too, laid claim to many aviation firsts.

The co-holder of the women's aviation endurance record (1932) and two world records for light planes (1936), she was also the first woman to pilot a commercial airliner and a regularly scheduled airmail transport plane (both in 1934); and the first to train army pilots. A charter member of the Ninety-Nines - the pioneering organization of women flyers begun in 1929 - she was also Amelia Earhart's co-pilot in the 1936 transatlantic Bendix Trophy race.

Helen Richey, shakes hands with Assistant Postmaster General W.W. Howes as she prepares to become the first woman to fly the U.S. Air Mail
Helen Richey shakes hands with Assistant Postmaster General W.W. Howes as she...
Born November 21, 1909 in McKeesport, PA, Richey as a teenager frequented Bettis Field, western Pennsylvania's first flying field, which was not far from her home. After graduating from McKeesport High School in 1928, she signed up for flying lessons and after only six hours of flight instruction made her first solo flight on April 29, 1930. Fearless in an airplane, she took a job as a stunt plane performer, and in 1931 won the Women's National Air Meet in Dayton, Ohio. In August 1932, she and Frances Marsalis set a new women's endurance record by flying for nearly ten days.

Richey's fame brought her to the attention of Dick Coulter, owner of the newly formed Pennsylvania Central Airlines, based in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. In December 1934, Coulter hired Richey to draw attention to his new airlines. Within days she became the first woman to fly a scheduled mail flight, piloting a Ford Trimotor from Washington D.C. to Detroit. Richey soon learned that Central was much more interested in her name than her piloting skills.

In the next ten months she made only a dozen flights and faced constant hostility from the male pilots, who resented the presence of a woman in a cockpit. In addition, Central, at the strong suggestion of the Bureau of Air Commerce, restricted her to daytime flying in clear weather. Resigning late in 1935, Richey returned to racing and barnstorming, setting two world records for flying light planes in 1936.
Black and white image of Helen Richey in her WW II service uniform.
Helen Richey in her WASP uniform, circa 1944.

The American press fell in love in Richey after she set her first endurance record in 1932. She had the perfect mix of qualities for celebrity. A vivacious, attractive, and tiny woman - she stood barely over five feet tall - Richey was utterly fearless and tough, but also self-effacing and humble.

In the years that followed, newspapers and national magazines would run a succession of feature stories on the young American record breaker. In 1940, Richey broke another barrier, becoming the first woman licensed by the Civil Aeronautics Authority as an aviation instructor.

The Second World War offered Richey and other female flyers new opportunities. In 1942 she traveled to Great Britain and became commander of the small group of American women who flew planes for the British Air Transport Auxiliary, transporting bombs between munitions factories and airbases. Returning to the United States in 1943 she joined the Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASP). Over the next twenty months she logged more than 300 hours ferrying fighter planes, heavy bombers, and cargo planes between U.S. bases.

When the WASP was disbanded at the end of the war, Richey found herself out of work. Unable to fly for a commercial airline, none of which employed women as pilots, Richey took her own life in January, 1947. When she was laid to rest in McKeesport's Versailles Cemetery, four airplanes from Bettis Airfield circled overhead. In 1954, McKeesport dedicated the Helen Richey Memorial Field in Renziehausen Park, and there placed a bronze plague with her likeness, to honor her memory.

To learn more about the activities of Helen Richey and other Pennsylania women during World War II, click markerhere.
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