Helen Richey was 20 years old when she learned how to fly an airplane. The McKeesport native finished training in 1929 at the Pittsburgh School of Aeronautics, located at Bettis Field in West Mifflin. Barely 5 feet tall, Ms. Richey had a winning smile and a competitive spirit. She set records for speed and endurance after becoming the first woman in Allegheny County to earn a pilot’s license.
The youngest of six children, she grew up on Jenny Lind Street in McKeesport, where her father, Joseph B. Richey, served as superintendent of schools. In 1931, he presented her with a four-passenger Bird plane. Her first paying job was working as a stunt pilot at the Johnsonburg Airport.
One of her finest hours came in 1933, when she joined pilot Frances Harrell Marsalis to set a women’s flight endurance record by remaining aloft for nine days, 21 hours and 50 minutes. They took off Dec. 20th and landed on Dec. 30. On the third day of the journey, after a refueling hose ripped a hole in the plane’s fabric, Helen crawled out on the wing with a needle and thread and calmly sewed up the tear.
In 1934, Ms. Richey won the premier air race at the National Air Meet for women, held in Dayton, Ohio. That same year, she became the first woman commercial pilot when Greensburg-based Central Airlines hired her. She flew the Washington, D.C., to Detroit route, which meant crossing the Allegheny Mountains.
Her hiring angered the all-male pilots’ union. Because of the controversy, the airline sent her on fewer than a dozen trips in eight months. She was refused membership in the union and resigned from her airline job in 1935. One of the few women in the world to rate an air instructor’s license, she trained U.S. Air Force pilots. In 1939, Ms. Richey joined Amelia Earhart as co-pilot in her Lockheed aircraft for the Bendix cross-country race. The duo finished fifth. To help American allies during World War II, Ms. Richey served with Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary, a service that ferried Spitfires, Hurricanes and bombers all over Great Britain, from factories to Royal Air Force bases to aerodromes. She achieved the rank of major in the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), where she ferried planes and towed anti-aircraft targets for the U.S. Air Force.
One of her good friends was Ernie Pyle, a famous World War II correspondent who devoted two columns to her. He described her this way: “She loves people, especially screwballs, and has her best time wandering around London, falling in with strangers and winding up in odd eating places with various brands of foreigners who tell wild and mysterious tales. … She loves airplanes and big cities and hates stuffy people. She is gay-hearted and level-headed and I’ve never heard of anybody who didn’t like her.”
After the war, she tried to find a job as a pilot in New York City, but available work was offered to male aviators who had returned home. Ms. Richey took her own life on Jan. 7, 1947, when she swallowed a vial of sleeping pills. She was 37.
To learn more about Helen Richey, visit the McKeesport Heritage Center, 1832 Arboretum Drive, McKeesport. The museum is located next to Renzie Park and is open Tuesdays through Thursdays and Saturdays. Or, visit the organization’s website at www.mckeesportheritage.org.
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