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Turi Widerøe - the first female pilot in the Western world. Here in front of SAS Convair OY-KPD, in 1970.
Turi Widerøe - the first female pilot in the Western world. Here in front of SAS Convair OY-KPD, in 1970.

Aviation

1970s: Turi Widerøe takes the world by storm

The first female pilot in the Western world made headlines and was worth millions in PR for SAS.

Turi Widerøe. In the background - a glimpse of SAS Convair LN-KLA Atle Viking.

Maybe she was always meant to be a pilot. After all, her father Viggo and uncle Arild were founders of the airline that carries their name, Widerøe, so she had aviation in her blood.

However, Turi Widerøe first got a book designer’s degree in 1958 as a 21-year-old, and she won a prestigious Norwegian design award the same year. She then worked at the Norwegian architects’ union, designing their magazines, before getting her pilot’s certificate in 1962.

Then aviation grabbed hold of her. She got her professional license in 1967 and worked during the summers at the family airline, even if her father didn’t originally like her decision to embark on a new career.

In June 1968 she passed SAS’s pilot’s exam and was accepted into training. It was a feat that even made page 73 of the Sunday New York Times: “SAS to Train Woman Pilot.”

While the candidates weren’t given specific grades, former captain Povl Jensen, who had piloted the first SAS trans-arctic flight in November 1952 when he flew a DC-6B from the Douglas factory in California to Copenhagen, told Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter that Turi Wideøe had been “excellent at both math and English as well as the psychological and medical tests.”

“I paid for the certificate with my own money, and Dad was sure I’d never get a job as a pilot. Women pilots didn’t back then,” the now 78-year-old Widerøe told Trondheim’s Adressavisen in 2016.

In 1969 she graduated as the third-best student in her class of 50 and became SAS’s first female pilot. The Soviets and the Bulgarians had female pilots in their cockpits, but Turi Widerøe was called the first female pilot in the West. That alone was worth a lot for SAS, and in February 1970 the airline sent the 32-year-old pilot on a whirlwind PR tour of America.

She landed in New York on a Saturday (as a passenger), had a lunch meeting with the New York Times on Sunday, and worked on Monday from 7am until late at night going from interview to interview.

She started the day with Hugh Downs at the Today show on NBC, then rushed over to CBS’s Studio 50 for the taping of To Tell the Truth, a panel game show in which celebrity contestants try to guess the occupation of a contestant. At 1pm she met with United Press International, and at 2pm she was interviewed by ABC News. At 4pm she met with magazine editors from both the United States and Scandinavia.

Then there were all the other TV shows and radio stations to visit.

At the time, Turi Widerøe had only just graduated from the SAS school and flown a Convair 440 Metropolitan, mostly domestically, but for SAS she became much more valuable than that.

“At least during this week, Ms. Widerøe is the most famous woman in New York. Maybe with the exception of Ms. Jackie Kennedy,” SAS spokesperson Inga Wallhem told Expressen.

“Turi will get us as much good PR as the opening of the polar route did.”

Not everybody was as amused by seeing a woman in the cockpit. According to the San Bernardino County Sun, “One Danish pilot has lodged an official protest with his pilots’ union charging that a woman doesn't have enough strength to handle a heavy plane in an emergency.”

“There's no reason in the world why women on airlines have to be limited to ‘coffee, tea, or milk?’ jobs,” was Ms. Widerøe’s reply.

She received the Amelia Earhart medal, given by Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots founded by Amelia Earhart, and the Harmon Trophy, awarded annually to the world’s outstanding aviator, aviatrix, and astronaut, created by Clifford B. Harmon, a wealthy balloonist and aviator. Her award in 1969 followed a two-year gap in the awarding of the trophy to a female aviator. Sheila Scott, the first woman to fly over the North Pole, got it in 1966 and again in 1970. 

Turi in the cockpit as a jet co-pilot in 1972.

Ms. Widerøe didn’t get the award until May 1971 when Spiro Agnew, the American vice president, handed it to her as “the first woman to become an airline pilot.” That year’s other winners were the RAF pilots who were the first to cross the Atlantic in a vertical takeoff plane, and the first men to fly to the moon: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins.

The one question she was always asked was, “Why aren’t there more women pilots?”

“I think it’s up to us women,” she said. “I think many women are too busy getting married and having children when they’re between 20 and 30 and the big decisions have to be taken. They don’t have time to consider a career in aviation.”

Turi Widerøe continued her career as a pilot after she got married and had children, and eventually she got to pilot jet planes.

After 10 years at SAS, she retired and became a radio journalist before returning to publishing and corporate communications. She has also illustrated books and has a master’s degree in history from the University of Tromsø in Norway.

But it’s her SAS uniform that’s on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. – from back when she made history. 

Last edited: June 24, 2016

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