A closer look at the life of Bernetta Adams Miller, and the impact she had on the aviation industry.
Amelia Earhart is often credited with being one of history’s most influential female aviators. But before her came a series of pioneering women who also changed the face of the industry, one of whom was Bernetta Adams Miller.
Born in Canton, Ohio in January 1884, Miller later moved to New York City, where she developed an interest in aviation. In 1912, she took up flying lessons at the Moisant Flying School, and in September of that year she was awarded her pilot’s license, making her only the fifth woman in the US at the time to hold one.
Miller had undeniable talent when it came to flying, and was chosen as the pilot to demonstrate the Blériot monoplane to the US Army. Writing about her flight tests, the New York Times said,
“Critics here regard her license fly as remarkable. The trial called for an altitude of only 150 feet, and she rose to 600. In the landing test, she was expected to touch the ground within 164 feet of a designated object, and she made the spot within 20 feet.”
Overcoming gender stereotypes
While significant strides have been made in recent years to balance the pilot gender gap, the world was a different place in the 1910s. Conscious of her position in a male-dominated industry, Miller would often rebuke comments about her bravery. She is quoted as saying,
“I am too busy with my machine to be nervous. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t take a lot of nerve after all. You learn how to drive the machine first a little, and then a little bit more until the whole thing becomes a matter of habit and you don’t think about risks at all.”
The first female to hold a pilot’s license in the US was Harriet Quimby, who was also the first woman to fly across the English Channel in 1912. Later that year, she tragically died at the age of just 37 in an air accident, but in her short life, she too had a profound impact on women in aviation.
Photo: Manuel Esteban | Shuttertsock
A short-lived flying career but a long-lasting legacy
Faced with mounting debt, Miller reportedly became disenchanted with flying after a short time, and retired from aviation in 1913. She was later a volunteer for the YMCA in France during World War One, where her brother was killed in action.
Following the war, Miller moved into the education sector, working from 1926 to 1933 as Bursar of the American College for Girls in Istanbul, Turkey, and later at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, at the same time as Albert Einstein.
In 1963 Miller was admitted to the Early Birds of Aviation, an organization devoted to the history of early pilots, alongside the Wright brothers, Harriet Quimby, and over 500 other pioneering aviators.
She passed away after breaking her hip in a fall in November 1972 at the age of 88. She is buried in her hometown of Canton, Ohio. Despite what was a relatively short flying career, her legacy lives on, inspired, and paved the way for a generation of female aviators, including Amelia Earhart.
Do you know of any other pioneering female aviators? Share your knowledge with readers by commenting below.