Phelan, Jean Ross Howard (1916–2004)

By: Albert J. Knabe and Russell Stites

Type: Biography

Published: October 21, 2021

Updated: October 21, 2021

Jean Ross Howard Phelan, pioneering woman aviator, was born in Washington, D.C., on September 5, 1916, to Robert Combs Howard and Georgette (Ross) Howard and was their only child to live to adulthood. Her grandfather, John Wesley Ross, was a member of Washington, D.C.’s Board of Commissioners from 1890 to 1902. She grew up in the D.C. area and attended the Sidwell Friends School and Western High School. Her father died when she was sixteen. Her mother gave lectures on current events and, beginning in 1934, took Jean on summer trips through Europe, where she could conduct interviews. After transferring from Connecticut College, Jean graduated from George Washington University with a bachelor's degree in history in 1939. In 1955 she earned a master’s degree in transportation from American University.

Jean left a government job with an $1,800-a-year salary to enter the Civilian Pilot Program and earned her pilot’s license in 1941. She worked briefly as a reservation clerk at Eastern Air Lines and with the National Aeronautic Association. In 1942 she became a pilot-secretary for the Washington, D.C., office of Piper Aircraft, Taylorcraft Aircraft, and Aeronca Aircraft, where she flew light aircraft to demonstrate military utility. After hearing a speech by Jacqueline Cochran, who was recruiting pilots for the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II, Jean signed up. She began her training in Houston in January 1943 as part of the third WASP class, which transferred to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, in May. Jean, however, failed out of the program. Cochran hired her to assist with training, and Jean stayed with the program until her class graduated in July. After this, she joined the Civil Air Patrol and worked for the American Red Cross as a program director on the Italian island of Capri from 1943 to 1945. She was an officer in the Civil Air Patrol’s National Capital Wing following the war and rose to the rank of major.

Jean’s long career with the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), then known as the Aircraft Industries Association, began in 1945, when she was hired as staff assistant for the AIA’s Personal Aircraft Council. In 1950 she became a staff assistant to the public relations director. Jean also competed in the Transcontinental Air Races in 1951 and 1952.

In 1954 she met Larry Bell of Bell Aircraft at an industry dinner and convinced him to allow her to get her helicopter certification at the Bell Helicopter School in Fort Worth, Texas. She had been asking for the opportunity to learn how to fly a helicopter since 1947, when AIA sent her to help organize a helicopter air show (possibly the first of its kind) in Bowie, Maryland. After eighteen days of training, she became the eighth American woman, and the thirteenth woman globally, to receive her helicopter accreditation. Jean made an effort to identify and reach out to the women who had preceded her and helped establish the Whirly-Girls, an international organization for female helicopter pilots, in 1955. The group received funding from Howard Hughes. Each of the women was assigned a number based on when they earned their accreditation, with Jean being No. 13. She was the Whirly-Girls’s only officer for more than a decade and handled all press releases and helped keep the young organization alive and growing. In 1969 other offices were created within the organization, and Jean, affectionately called the organization’s “den mother,” became its first president. She stepped down as president in 1975. Jean advocated establishing heliports for emergency medical services and promoted the Whirly-Girls as well as the helicopter industry as she traveled across the country. She was presented with the first Whirly-Girls Livingston Award because of these efforts in 1988.

She chaired the American Helicopter Society’s annual forum in 1958 and 1959 and was the first woman to do so. She also chaired the Aero Club of Washington’s 1962 Wright Day Memorial Dinner and was president of the American News Women’s Club from 1966 to 1968. She published a book, All About Helicopters, in 1969. She served as a judge for the Helicopter World Championships, which had its first events in 1971. She served as secretary and vice president of the Ninety-Nines, the international organization of women pilots, and as secretary of the American Helicopter Society. She was also a member of the Federal Aviation Agency’s Women Advisory Council, the Army Aviation Association, the Helicopter Association of America (later Helicopter Association International), the Aero Club of Washington, and the Aviation/Space Writers Association. She was named an Arthur Godfrey Air Fellow in 1952, was awarded the Washington Air Derby Association Trophy in 1963, received the Lady Hay Drummond Award from the Women’s International Association of Aeronautics in 1969, was honored at the 1994 Charles A. Lindberg Memorial Lecture, and was named one of the “100 Women Who Made A Difference” by Women in Aviation, International in 2003.

Jean retired from AIA as director of helicopter activities in 1986. On July 27 of that year she married James D. Phelan, a World War II pilot involved in the first helicopter combat rescue mission in 1944. Later he served as president of the Whirly-Girls Men’s Auxiliary. Jean passed away in Washington, D.C., on January 29, 2004, at the age of eighty-seven.

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Katherine S. Gray, Flying in Formation: Creating a Place for Women in Aviation through the Ninety-Nines, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, and the Whirly-Girls (M.A. thesis, Miami University, 2007). Jean Ross Howard Phelan Papers, Woman’s Collection, Texas Woman’s University. Jean Ross Howard Phelan, Interview by Dawn Letson, February 24, 1996, Texas Woman’s University, Woman’s Collection, Jean Ross Howard Phelan Papers. Sherry Knight Rossiter, “Jean Ross Howard Phelan: Aviation Pioneer Extraordinaire Lifts off to New Horizons,” 99 NEWS/International Women Pilots Magazine, March/April 2004. Carolyn Russo, Women and Flight: Portraits of Contemporary Women Pilots (Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1997). Washington Post, February 5, 2004.

  • Aviation and Aerospace
  • Military
  • World War II
  • Organizations
  • Associations
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Albert J. Knabe and Russell Stites, “Phelan, Jean Ross Howard,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 23, 2022,

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October 21, 2021
October 21, 2021

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