The story of Spain’s first female pilot

María Bernaldo de Quirós was born on March 26, 1898, in Madrid, Spain, to high-society parents Rafael Bernaldo de Quirós y Mier and Consolación Bustillo y Mendoza. Growing up, Maria always dreamed of flying, but it wasn’t until she got married for the second time that it became a reality.

In 1922 Bernaldo de Quirós married José Manuel Sánchez-Arjona y Velasco and began flight training with flight instructor José Rodríguez y Díaz de Lecea in a de Havilland DH.60 Moth. In the 1920s, learning to fly in Spain was all the rage, with Spain’s first male pilot Benito Loygorri making his first flight on March 13, 1921 at Cuatro Vientos airfield in Madrid.


Maria received her pilot’s license seven years after Spain’s first male pilot

At the age of 18, Loygorri had seen a demonstration by the Wright brothers in Pau and Le Mans and had been inspired to obtain his pilot’s license. On August 30, 1910, he became the first Spaniard to receive the FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) pilot’s license from the Voisin aviation school in the French town of Mourmelon-le-Grand, near Reims. Loygorri did all his flight training aboard a Henri Farman model biplane with a Gnome 50CV engine.


Maria stopped flying after the Spanish Civil War. Photo: Flavia bq

Seven years later, Maria passed her exam in early October 1928 and received her pilot’s license from the Escuela Nacional Aeronáutica (National School of Aeronautics). Based at Real Aeroclub de España at Getafe airfield south of Madrid, Maria has participated in numerous flight demonstrations and exhibitions. When Infant Jaime, Duke of Segovia, arrived in La Coruña in 1929, Maria flew over his car, dropping flowers on him from above. That same year, she was awarded the Royal Aero Club Air Force Badges, a rare honor resulting from public admiration for her exploits.

Maria saw herself as a modern woman

1929 also saw Maria divorce her second husband José Manuel Sánchez-Arjona y Velasco following an affair with her flight instructor Díaz de Lecea. Subsequently, Maria became one of the first women to avail herself of the Ley del Divorcio de la Segunda República (Divorce Law of the Second Republic). While being interviewed by various periodicals of the time, Maria was fond of emphasizing that she was a modern woman in every sense of the word, telling one magazine the following:

“Public opinion is changing, people will realize that women can do more than embroider it.”

When the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, Maria sided with the Left Popular Front government of the unstable Second Spanish Republic. She helped the Republican cause by using her plane to drop anti-fascist pamphlets on General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists. Due to the outcome of the war and the fact that she supported the losers’ cause, little is known about Maria other than the fact that she died on September 26, 1983.

Iberia has named an Airbus A320neo after Maria


Iberia named one of its planes after Spain’s first female pilots. Photo: Iberia

While female pilots are still a minority at many airlines, Spain’s flag carrier Iberia has 85 female pilots, a number slightly above the industry average. To celebrate María Bernaldo de Quirós and her achievements, Iberia named a new Airbus A320neo after her in September 2020, saying they hope it will inspire many other aspiring female pilots.

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