Aerial Policewomen: Flying Under the Radar of History

Close your eyes and picture a police officer in the United States. Is it a vision of a male officer in blues, badge glinting in the flashing lights of a squad car? How about a female in a jumpsuit and headset in the cockpit of a helicopter, blades whirring overhead?
Several exhibits in the National Law Enforcement Museum highlight female law enforcement pioneers like Police Matron Sarah Hill – representing the first women in U.S. law enforcement – and Patrol Officers Betty Blankenship and Elizabeth Coffal Robinson – the first women to patrol in a police car together. As we approach National Aviation Day, I want to focus on a group of female trailblazers not currently featured in our exhibits: female law enforcement aviators.
The first women involved in law enforcement aviation were known as “aerial policewomen.” Their primary responsibility was to report violations of aviation law from the ground. In 1929, Elizabeth Lippincott McQueen was deputized as the world’s first aerial policewoman by Chief Charles Blair of the Beverly Hills (CA) Police Department.[1] Although McQueen never piloted an aircraft, she supported women’s involvement in aviation at all levels, including founding an association for aerial policewomen in 1933.
While early aerial policewomen served in passive roles, women soon took to the skies. In 1937, five aerial policewomen were appointed as reserve officers with the Los Angeles (CA) Police Department. They joined the all-male squadron of commercial and amateur pilots who were on-call in case of emergencies. Two years later, the city of Albany, Oregon, appointed its first aerial policewomen, including Bessie Gale Halladay of the National Aero Policewomen’s Association. Halladay and her fellow female colleagues served without pay.[2]
Aerial policewomen of the 1920s and 1930s were concerned with the laws and piloting of airplanes. After their introduction in the 1950s, helicopters quickly became the aircraft of choice for law enforcement departments across the country. Consequentially, the number of women involved in law enforcement aviation decreased with the lack of accessibility to licenses. In 1955, only 10 women in the United States possessed a helicopter pilot’s license. Many major police departments, including the New York (NY) Police Department, did not begin assigning women to their helicopter-powered aviation units until the late 1980s.

Law enforcement has come a long way since the first aerial policewomen, but the number of female officers in aviation units remains relatively low. Roughly 12 percent of law enforcement officers in the United States are female, and only about six percent of licensed pilots in the United States are female. These figures accompany the recent retirement announcement of the only female law enforcement helicopter pilot in the state of Texas.[3] Women entering the fields can either be negatively deterred or positively challenged by this information. I hope for the latter. So long as there are still shoes (or wings) to fill and milestones to reach, the female presence in law enforcement aviation can only increase.
As we celebrate National Aviation Day, I want to leave you with a message of inspiration, particularly for all the future female law enforcement aviators out there:
“The public press generally censured this outburst of ‘feminism’ in a man’s world. I encountered derision and criticism as did the earlier trail blazers, but happily, a comparative short time later, the wisdom and judgment of my idea was vindicated, which the general public had considered ‘unthinkable’ only a few years ago.”
-Elizabeth “Beth” Lippincott McQueen, first-ever aerial policewoman
Learn more about law enforcement aviation at this month’s Science Saturday program
[1]Schultz, Barbara Hunter. 2013, “Elizabeth Ulysses Grant McQueen: “wings around the world for peace, prosperity, and world friendship”. AAHS Journal. 58 (2).
[2] “Aerial Policewoman Rules Albany Airport.” The Capital Journal, February 20, 1939.
[3] Arthur, Myra. “SAPD boasts only female police helicopter pilot in Texas: Years of being denied made Army veteran more determined.” KSAT 12 News. Last modified March 16, 2018.