illustrated by Dusan Petricic Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2003


The author comments...

How does a book begin? Often through chance and curiosity. One summer day we were driving down a back road in New Hampshire when my husband spotted an army tank that looked like it had crashed through a brick wall. He had to pull over. Small military museums are not exactly my thing, but I love my husband .. and he promised the next stop would be a lake (bathing suits were packed).

I took my daughter’s hand as we wound our way around exhibits, then I yanked her to a stop in front of a manequin dressed in the uniform worn by women pilots during World War II. I’m always intrigued by women I never read about in history books while growing up. I bought a few books and soon was captivated by the daring WASPs who ferried and tested airplanes during the war ... then were sent home with a rather swift farewell.

The stories of these military pilots made me wonder about earlier aviation history. I read biographies of the Wright brothers and was touched by the quiet heroicism of their sister. Like their mother, Katharine Wright was bright and mechanically talented. She gave her brothers emotional and financial support which made their invention of an airplane possible. I went on to read about the risk-taking first fliers and the dozens of women aviators who were friends with Amelia Earhart. One of these was Jackie Cochran who grew up in poverty, then went on to found her own successful business. She took up flying and broke many speed and altitude records before founding the Women Air Service Pilots.

I was a young woman when Sally Ride became the first American woman to go into space, but I didn’t know that she wasn’t the first woman with that dream. Years before, when NASA was first founded, women pilots were recruited and tested as astronauts. I was especially inspired by the story of Jerrie Cobb. She lost her 1963 fight to keep working for NASA, but she never lost her dream of going into space during the more than thirty-five years she spent flying in food and medical supplies to remote regions of Amazonia. In 1999, Eileen Collins became the first woman to command a spacecraft. She took the space shuttle Columbia into orbit, and deployed the Chandra X-ray telescope, which has already answered many questions about the universe.

Much of my information about these aviators were found in out-of-print books. I was lucky to be able to use the library of my alma mater, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and to get help from the inter-library loan staff at Jones Library in Amherst, Mass. One book was shipped to me in Massachusetts from Fort Worth, Texas, at no cost to me! You can see why writers love libraries and librarians! The story of one pilot often led to another, since many of these women talked together, flew together, and taught each other. After my manuscript was finished, WINGS AND ROCKETS was illustrated with wit and intelligence by Dusan Petricic. His black and white pictures also grace The Longitude Prize, an award-winning book by Joan Dash.


To find out more about women aviators, I hope you’ll use the bibliography in WINGS AND ROCKETS and visit the following web-sites.

The Ninety-Nines This site provides information about the history of women in aviation as well as women who are flying today. There are links to museums, aviation clubs, specific pilots, and more.

Women in Aviation Resource Center This includes information about pilots from the past and present, including a history quiz and current news about aviators and women’s rights.

Women’s History: Aviation Here you will find links to sites about women pilots, astronauts, and cosmonauts.

The Cradle of Aviation Museum This site includes lots of interesting background on women aviators.

U. S. Air Force Museum Here you can learn more about the pilots of WWII.

Women of NASA The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has set up this site, and others in its Quest program, specifically for students and teachers. Along with profiles and photographs of women astronauts, there are often live interviews and opportunites to find out about current events in the space program.

Challenger Center for Space Science Education You’ll find lots of good, accessible information on space.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: Women in Aviation and Space History An excellent site from a fascinating museum.


Activities for students and teachers...

Writing about Aviators!

I didn’t grow up making model airplanes or even wondering much about things that happened in the sky. I came to note the wonders of science and aviation late in life, and it was the lives of scientists and pilots that paved a path for my interest in air and space. Although much of their work remains mysterious to me, I was always touched by the curiosity, passion, and fun I glimpsed in their lives.

I hope students will read WINGS AND ROCKETS and other books about aviators, then write their own short biographies of aviators. Advanced students can use the books listed in the bibliography of WINGS AND ROCKETS and plunge into research. For those who prefer not to face a blank page (just about all of us?) I’ve listed questions I asked as I explored the lives of aviators. Teachers are welcome to print these as worksheets and photocopy away. You might leave space so students can write their answers below, then expand and shape them into a larger work later. I’ve written the questions as if they’re interviewing the aviator, and I encourage researchers to use their imagination, too. I think it’s important to learn about what’s known, but also to exercise compassion -- and to keep from simply copying with minor rearrangements. Students will have to think, and they may feel friendlier or more involved when they ask questions such as:

Sally Ride, what did it feel like to travel at more than 17,000 miles per hour?


Katharine Wright, how did you feel the first time your brothers brought their flying machine to Kitty Hawk?

Questions You Might Ask an Aviator


Important Dates:

What was your life like as a child? Did your family have a television or car?

Did you have a favorite place? A favorite toy, piece of clothing, pet, tree, tool, or book?

Did a person, place or event inspire the work you chose as a grownup? Who or what was it?

Did someone encourage you to do what you loved? How?

Did anyone try to stop you? What did they do or say?

As a grownup, do you have a favorite object, tool, piece of clothing, or pet? Is it the same as something you loved as a child?

What parts of your work are hard or boring? What mistakes did you make? What did you learn from them?

What do you love most about your work?

What is the most amazing thing you ever did?

Is there a person, place, or animal named in your honor? What does this memorial say about how your work changed the world?

Finally, the author/interviewer might ask questions of herself or himself: Why did you choose this person to write about? How are you different? What do you have in common? Do you have a dream that might make this person want to be your friend?

Scientists as well as artists learn a lot from the carefull observation necessary when drawing. You might draw your favorite aircraft. What powers it?

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