Women Were Pioneers of Flight. So why Aren’t any Airports Named for Them?


Behind heavy glass at the Oakland Aviation Museum, black-and-white photos offer glimpses of planes, hangars and runways connected to Oakland history and what today is Oakland International Airport. The pictures also show pilots.

The name under a few images is Amelia Earhart.

The name of the aviator, who made record-setting flights that started or ended here and is among the most famous names in aviation, is also on a handful of street signs on a stretch of road that parallels the old runway. But beyond that you won’t see that name much in — or on — the airport and its terminals.

Oakland International isn’t alone.

There are national and international airports in the United States named for presidents, generals, members of Congress, aviators, civil rights activists, mayors, governors, hotel magnates, a city manager, actors, war heroes, a jazz musician, a secretary of state, a comedian and a guy who owned a fur company.

But no women. None with top billing, anyway. (There’s Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock, Ark., but it’s often known simply as Clinton National.)

The recent move by San Francisco city officials to rename Terminal 1 at San Francisco International for gay rights activist Harvey Milk is being hailed as a victory for LGBT recognition, but it also serves as a reminder that women — aviators or not — continue to be underrepresented in the naming of airports, whole or in part, one of society’s most visible and enduring ways to honor its heroes.

“I think recognition of women is overdue. And when that comes, the dedications will come,” said Wendy O’Malley, a corporate pilot who’s been flying for more than 20 years. O’Malley also is chairwoman of the Bay Cities Chapter of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for female pilots. Earhart was one of the group’s founders and its first president.

Photo: Michael Macor / The Chronicle

Wendy O’Malley, a corporate pilot who’s been flying for more than 20 years, stands before a portrait of Amelia Earhart.

“We’re seeing high-profile women finally getting the attention they need, and as that becomes more mainstream, the dedication of an airport, a terminal, will happen, as the evolution toward full equality continues,” O’Malley said.

Of the 29 airports in California with commercial passenger service, most are named for their location. Those airports with names honoring the achievements of a person include John Wayne, Charles Lindbergh, Norman Mineta, Charles Schulz and Bob Hope (although the last one is being quietly replaced). The only airport in the state recognizing a woman is a regional airfield in the Coachella Valley, renamed in 2004 for pioneering aviator and Indio (Riverside County) resident Jacqueline Cochran.

The representation doesn’t improve much when looking nationwide. Of the 28 largest airports in the country, 10 are named in tribute to someone, all of them men.

Other dedications to women nationwide include:

•The Barbara Jordan Terminal at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas.

•Two regional or city airports: Dorothy Scott Airport in Oroville, Wash., named for a World War II pilot who died ferrying planes to England, and Cornelia Fort Airpark in Tennessee, named for the first pilot of any gender to encounter the Japanese during the attack on Pearl Harbor and the first female U.S. pilot to die on active duty.

•And, of course, other dedications for Earhart, including Amelia Earhart Airport in Atchison, Kan., a regional airfield that sees about 1,500 visitors a year in Earhart’s hometown, and a remote terminal and baggage area at Boston Logan and Tampa International, respectively, although at the latter site, Earhart shares the honor with astronaut Neil Armstrong.

“There are so many women aviatrix in history who probably deserve much more than that, but they just haven’t risen to the surface for a number of reasons,” said Jim Geldert, a trustee for the Oakland Aviation Museum. “I think it’s gender bias historically that has caused it.”

Photo: Paul Chinn / The Chronicle 2007

Airports are similar to other public buildings, parks, monuments and streets in the lack of women’s names. In June, Chronicle columnist Heather Knight reported that of the 87 public statues around San Francisco, just two represent real women — Dianne Feinstein in City Hall and Florence Nightingale at Laguna Honda Hospital. Then-Supervisor Mark Farrell introduced an initiative with the goal of increasing “female representation in the public sphere” up to 30 percent by 2020. It’s unclear whether this would include airports.

More so than monuments, public buildings and parks, airports are a city’s most visible public building with the highest traffic, as well as a big part of its identity. Last month, now-interim Mayor Farrell signed the legislation assigning Harvey Milk’s name to SFO’s Terminal 1. The naming was a specific effort by Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who sponsored the ordinance passed by the Board of Supervisors; there haven’t been any other serious campaigns in recent history to put someone’s name on all or part of San Francisco International, according to Doug Yakel, a spokesman for the airport.

Of the 10 other areas at SFO dedicated to someone — ranging from the Tom Lantos Hub of Terminal 3 to the Howard Friedman Drop-off Triangle — only the Susanna Tong Employment Information Center is named for a woman.

At Oakland International, there are the streets named for Earhart and, more recently, Bessie Coleman, but Terminal 2 was named for then-Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson at the time it was completed in 1985. Had he not been named for having been the first black mayor of Oakland, he stood a chance to be honored for serving as a board commissioner for the Port of Oakland, which owns Oakland International.

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Bessie Coleman was an aviation pioneer.

Policy adopted by the Board of Port Commissioners in 2001 sets guidelines for naming portions of Port facilities, from streets and bridges to hangars and marinas, as well as who is eligible. The first entry for individuals who qualify is “Former Port commissioners,” although it also covers honorees whose “accomplishments are acknowledged to be compelling, and his or her legacy is firmly established,” the document states. The board can consider recommendations at any time, although according to Port spokesman Mike Zampa, the only renaming in the past four years was last year, when the board renamed a street at the seaport George Vukasin Way, after a late commissioner.

Whether at Oakland or elsewhere, there is no shortage of women (past and present) who could be honored, according to Geldert of the aviation museum and O’Malley of the Ninety-Nines.

“Hopefully, Sally Ride might get an airport, or Eileen Collins. They were astronauts,” O’Malley said.

An informal survey of this reporter’s Facebook friends on women who merit honoring produced an eclectic list, ranging from Isadora Duncan, Christa McAuliffe and Nellie Bly to Maya Angelou, Hedy Lamarr and Julia Morgan. O’Malley said Sen. Dianne Feinstein is a perfect example of someone who should be honored in that way. “She’s had a lifetime of service.”

Several responders even raised the name of Capt. Tammie Jo Shults, who was in the news last month for landing a Southwest 737 jet that had lost one of its engines. She was one of the first female fighter pilots in the Navy in 1985.

But the name that came up most often was Earhart’s.

“The port did see its way clear to name the main north field access road Amelia Earhart Road, but I would consider that only a beginning, considering the significance of Amelia Earhart to the Oakland airport,” Geldert said. “It could be said that it’s entirely warranted that she get some recognition.”

Earhart’s record-setting 1935 flight from Honolulu, the first solo trip of its kind by any pilot of any gender, ended triumphantly at Oakland Airport — 10,000 spectators waited in the cold to witness history — and when she set out on an ill-fated attempt to fly around the world in 1937, the airport was the starting line, the last place she ever saw on U.S. mainland.

O’Malley, whose chapter of the Ninety-Nines is working with the aviation museum to expand and improve the Women in Aviation display, said Earhart is among the first names she would choose for dedication.

“Certainly Amelia Earhart, and Oakland would be the appropriate place for that,” she said. “Oakland Airport is pretty ripe to dedicate a terminal.”

Photo: Mason Trinca / Special To The Chronicle

Southwest Airlines 1st Officer Wendy Mora waits in the walkway for an airplane to arrive at Oakland International Airport.

Photo: Mason Trinca / Special To The Chronicle

Southwest Airlines 1st Officer Wendy Mora heads to an airplane at Oakland International Airport.

Photo: Mason Trinca / Special To The Chronicle

Southwest Airlines 1st Officer Wendy Mora performs a general inspection at Oakland International Airport.

Photo: Mason Trinca / Special To The Chronicle

Southwest Airlines Capt. Dana Lyon talks with 1st Officer Wendy Mora before a flight at Oakland International Airport.

Photo: File Photo

Amelia Earhart ended a record-breaking flight in Oakland, but she doesn’t get major recognition at the city’s airport.

Photo: File Photo

Amelia Earhart’s plane in Oakland is readied for her around- the-world flight, but she failed to reach her destination.

Photo: Courtesy Jay Miller / Aerofax Inc. 1921

Aviation pioneer Bessie Coleman has a street named after her at Oakland International Airport.

Photo: File Photo

Amelia Earhart, surrounded by Paul Mantz (left), Harry Manning and Fred Noonan, prepares in Oakland for her around-the-world flight.

Photo: Mason Trinca / Special To The Chronicle

Southwest Airlines 1st Officer Wendy Mora performs a general inspection of the cockpit before her flight at Oakland International Airport.

Photo: Mason Trinca / Special To The Chronicle

Southwest Airlines 1st Officer Wendy Mora carries out a general inspection of an airplane before takeoff from Oakland International Airport.

Photo: Mason Trinca / Special To The Chronicle

Southwest Airlines 1st Officer Wendy Mora waits on the runway for at Oakland International Airport.