1911: The First Female British Pilot Gets Her License, Goes on to Found a Flying School

August 29, 1911

Hilda Hewlett became the first British woman to earn an airplane pilot’s license. Hewlett, who was 47 at the time, received certificate number 122 from the Royal Aero Club after she completed a test flight at Brooklands Aerodrome near the town of Weybridge in southeastern England.

Hewlett had been born in Central London’s district of Vauxhall in 1864. She was one of the first women in England to drive a motor vehicle, and she even took part in automobile rallies. Hewlett was also an avid bicyclist. She eventually developed a stronger enthusiasm for airborne transportation, attending her first aviation meeting in the town of Blackpool on England’s northwestern coast in 1909. Her husband, the famous author Maurice Hewlett, did not support her interest in flying “Women will never be as successful in aviation as men,” he asserted. “They have not the right kind of nerve.”

Thomas Sopwith, c. 1911.

Hilda Hewlett, adopting the pseudonym “Grace Bird,” persisted in her zeal for flying despite such strident opposition in her own household. (She separated from her husband in 1914.) In 1910, she went to France to take flight lessons at the airfield at the commune of Mourmelon-le-Grand. It was there that she met the pilot and engineer Gustav Blondeau, and together they opened the first flying school in England at Brooklands Aerodrome. Those who learned how to fly at their school included Thomas Sopwith, who achieved international renown for his military aircraft and other aviation pursuits.

Another noteworthy student at this school was Hewlett’s son Francis. She taught him how to fly and, exactly 11 weeks after she earned her license, he received certificate number 156 from the Royal Aero Club. He went on to have a distinguished aviation career of his own and made it into the record books as the first military pilot whose mother gave him flying lessons.

Hilda Hewlett also found time to participate in airshows and flight competitions. Along with jointly operating a flying school, she and Blondeau started an aircraft manufacturing business. During World War I, this company employed as many as 700 people and built more than 800 military aircraft as part of the efforts of England and its allies to defeat Germany and the other Central Powers.

In the 1920s, Hewlett left England and settled halfway around the world in the city of Tauranga on the North Island of New Zealand. As she explained, “The urge to escape from the three Cs, crowds, convention, and civilization, became strong.” Hewlett, who was affectionately nicknamed “Old Bird” by her family in her later years, died in Tauranga in 1943 at the age of 79.

For more information on Hilda Hewitt, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilda_Hewlett.

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