Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America

Jean Ross Howard Phelan, a pioneering female helicopter pilot whose life spanned the era from Lindbergh to the space shuttle, died January 29, 2004 at George Washington University Medical Center. She was 87. She was fascinated with flying as a girl. She watched Charles Lindbergh sail up the Potomac when he came to town, then slipped into a balcony seat at the Mayflower Ballroom the following morning where she could hear him during a breakfast held in his honor.

She learned to fly as part of the civilian pilot training program during World War II, leaving behind a well-paying government job “which was as dull as dishwater, because I wanted to be in aviation.” She went to work at the Aircraft (later Aerospace) Industries Association in December 1945 as an administrative aide. She was transferred to the helicopter division, and kept telling presidents of companies that she could do her job a lot better if she knew how to fly helicopters. After seven years of nagging, Larry Bell of Bell Aircraft agreed. After 18 days of lessons, in 1954, she became the eighth American woman and the 13th worldwide to receive her helicopter accreditation. She described flying the aircraft as like “patting your head and rubbing your stomach simultaneously.”

Almost immediately, she began contacting other female helicopter pilots. The Whirly-Girls, an international association of women helicopter pilots, was born in 1955 when the group got its name from Bell’s nickname for her. Its financial support came from Howard Hughes. Hughes made only 150 pins for the group, mistakenly believing there would never be the need for more than that. Today, the group has 1,265 members in 41 countries.

Jean remained at the Aerospace Industries Association until she retired as director of helicopter activities in 1986. After that, she married a pilot she had met at a helicopter convention. A year later, she had a heart attack at 3 a.m. An oxygen monitor reported she died, but her husband, James D. Phelan of Washington, revived her. That led her to report in the Whirly-Girls Newsletter, “Don’t ever sleep alone or with anybody who doesn’t know CPR.” 

AHS (VFS) Updates: Vertiflite Spring 2004