Native vision of flight
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There have been historic contributions by Indigenous People to Aviation 

Engineers, Pioneer Pilots, Astronaut & WASP

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By Presidential Proclamation, the second Monday is now Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Diversity is a societal goal now and on this national holiday, it is appropriate to recall the contributions of Native Americans to Aviation.

Partnership with Native Americans

Native Americans celebration

Thanks to Partnership with Native Americans and ASHTO’s Transportation Heritage site; here are some contributors whom we should all know:




 mary golda ross

Mary Golda Ross: is  the first known Native American female engineer[1]. Ross enrolled in Northeastern State Teachers’ College in Tahlequah. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1928, at age 20. She received her master’s degree from the Colorado State Teachers College in Greeley in 1938, taking “every astronomy class they had. After a career as a civil servant, she was employed by Lockheed as a mathematician and aerospace engineer  where she became an integral part of the Space Race program. Her work on  numerous design issues involved with high speed flight and issues of aeroelasticity came to the attention of NASA. At the time, Ross was the only Native American woman who worked as a major consultant to NASA  and worked on designing concepts for space travel and unmanned orbiting objects. In fact, one of Ross’ biggest roles was laying the groundwork for the Apollo missions to the Moon.


Bessie ColemanBessie Coleman was the first person of Native American (Cherokee) and African American descent[2] to hold a pilot’s license. Coleman was inspired by her brothers’ stories of French women pilots from The Great War. At the time, no flight schools in America accepted women so she applied to the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in France and earned an international pilot’s license in 1921. She also became popular for her stunt flying and air performances across Europe and the U.S. Coleman wanted to own her own plane and open her own flight school, but she died in a plane crash before that dream could be realized.





Mary Riddle, Clatsop and Quinault, from Seattle known as Kus-de-cha, which means “Kingfisher” , was qualified to fly solo in 1930. She earned her pilot’s license and later her commercial license.Mary Riddle Pictured on the cover of the Ninety-Nines’ June 1934 magazine, Riddle was best known for being a performing parachutist. Riddle was inspired to become a pilot when she was 17 years old and happened to see a woman crash in an airplane. Riddle also received nationwide attention after announcing her plans for a transcontinental flight to deliver gifts from Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest to President Herbert Hoover in Washington, D.C. Public opinion, Riddle said, was that women would never be successful pilots—she knew then,but she wanted to prove them wrong and help “fill the sky with thunderbirds.”

ohn herrington


John Herrington, Chickasaw from Oklahoma, was the first Native American to walk in space. He was designated as a naval aviator in 1985 and has logged over 3,300 flight hours in more than 30 different aircrafts. NASA selected Herrington to participate in the 16th shuttle mission to the International Space Station in 2002. During his spacewalk, Herrington honored his Native heritage by carrying six eagle feathers, a braid of sweet grass, two arrowheads and the Chickasaw flag. He now travels the country giving presentations about his life.

 Aaron Yazzie

Aaron Yazzie, Navajo ( Diné ) from Tuba City, Arizona, supported NASA’s Mars landing in 2018. mechanical engineer who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. He has developed mechanical systems that help analyze Mars’ atmosphere and Martian soil samples. His technology is currently at work on the Mars Insight Lander, and he is working on the Mars 2020 mission. Yazzie says the crust of Mars reminds him of the Navajo Nation and that he is learning Earth and Mars are not so different. Yazzie is currently focused on Mars 2020 to look for signs of microbial life and prepare for human exploration.

Cherise John, Navajo from Fruitland, New Mexico, is an expert in thermal cooling and turbine design for military and commercial engines. Cherise was always environmentally conscious, good atCherise John math and encouraged from a young age to reach for the stars. She studied language abroad through a Dartmouth program and later earned two master’s degrees – one from Ohio State University in environmental engineering and one from Northern Arizona University in mechanical engineering. Today, John is a lead engineer in turbo-aerodynamics for GE Aviation and a STEM advocate for Native youth.



madine pulaskiMadine Pulaski:  Cherokee Originally an air hostess for Trans World Airlines (TWA), Madine Pulaski made a switch and became a pilot. She raced in what were then called powder puff derbies — the very same air races, like the annual Air Race Classic, that  women pilots compete in today. In addition to racing, Pulaski taught others to fly, , worked as a bush pilot, flew cargo planes, and chartered flights to bring healthcare providers to impoverished areas in Mexico. As a hobby, Pulaski piloted lighter-than-air aircraft, like hot air balloons.

 pearl scott


Pearl Carter Scott:  is often referred to as the world’s youngest pilot, and was inducted into both the Oklahoma Aviation and Space Hall of Fame as well as the Chickasaw Nation Hall of Fame. She also served as a Chickasaw Nation legislator later in her life and was a charter member of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Scott took to the skies at just 12 years old and earned her license at 13, completing her first solo flight at 14 in 1929. Years later, she flew as a stunt pilot.

Ola Mildred Rexroat,
Ola Mildred Rexroat, who achieved fame as the only Native American to serve as one of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II, was an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

She worked her way through a variety of educational institutions available to her, graduating from the University of New Mexico in 1939. After  her jobs at Office of Indian Affairs, Rexroat work helping to build airfields, and this employment experience inspired her to want to learn how to fly. This goal became a reality as a result of the U.S. entry in World War II. She joined the WASPs and flew flights ferrying military officers to various locations, transporting cargo, and towing targets for both air-to-air and ground-to-air gunnery practice. “I did quite a bit of flying,” she later recalled.

After WWII she served as an air traffic controller for both the now-defunct Civil Aeronautics Administration and the present-day Federal Aviation Administration for more than three decades. In 2007, Rexroat was inducted into the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame

The Native American culture was fascinated by flight as witnessed by the picture of a man dressed as a bird in flight.


Native American Flight Dance



[1] Williams, Jasmin K. (March 21, 2013). “Mary Golda Ross: The first Native American female engineer”Amsterdam News. New York. Archived from the original on April 10, 2013. Retrieved March 29, 2013.

[2] She was the first American to be licensed by FAI.



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