Birgit Thüring was the first woman in Sweden to be awarded a “C” certificate (pilot’s certificate) in public commercial flying. She was also the first woman to receive the Aftonbladet newspaper’s achievement medal for Swedish pilots.
Birgit Thüring was born in Grängesberg in 1912. She was the daughter of mining engineer Vilhelm Fahlman and Iris Fahlman, née Bergstedt. She had two younger brothers, named Sven and Åke. In 1935 she married Nils Thüring and they had two children, named Nils and Ritva. She had met her husband to be through the Stockholm musical society of which they were both members. He was a bass and she was a soprano.
Despite the fact that the Fahlman family included two boys Birgit Thüring’s father remained disappointed that his first-born was a girl. This impacted on Birgit Thüring during her childhood and she tried to live up to every expectation her father had of a son – namely being bold and courageous. Thanks to her husband, who had retrained from a career as a photographer to become a pilot, Birgit Thüring fell for the art of flying after experiencing some joint trips into the air. She resigned from her job as library assistant in order to become a pilot. She gained her “C” certificate before her husband did, which led to a newspaper story where their respective positions in the musical society were noted. According to the reporter it now appeared that “Mrs Thüring was the bass”.
In 1939 the Thürings obtained their first pilot’s licences and Nils purchased a three-seater propeller plane. On Midsummer Day that same year the couple took off on a flying tour of the major European cities which they were going to finance by writing articles for a flying journal. However, this was not the most optimum time to be undertaking a flying tour. Europe was on the brink of war, which eventually did break out in September that year, and the need for military secrecy placed publishing obstacles in the way of their written work and photographs. Their flight plans largely crossed over most European areas which became battle sites. The last stage of their journey began in Vienna and continued via Münich on towards Warsaw, Königsberg, Riga, Tallin, and Helsinki before returning to Stockholm, thereby covering cities and stretches which had already fallen victim to the war that autumn.
During Sweden’s period of military preparedness both Birgit Thüring and her husband were called up to serve as target-markers, or pathfinders. They were stationed on the island of Gotland and their pathfinder flights involved targets for directed air defence exercises. They flew in open cockpits, dressed in leather headgear and driving goggles to protect them from the icy winds and temperatures which frequently reached -30C degrees. After the war ended the couple set up their own flying taxi company, AB AVIA. Birgit Thüring now began to fly all over Sweden and even over war-torn Europe, as far south as Spain.
Being a pilot was primarily a male profession. This was made clear to Birgit Thüring, despite her extensive flying experience, when she applied for a job at AB Aerotransport (ABA, now known as SAS). Her dream of becoming a commercial pilot of a large passenger plane was never realised. ABA’s reasons for rejecting her were that the passengers would lose confidence in the company if it employed a female pilot. Similarly, all the pilots at Transair – except for the boss Karl Gustav von Rosen – opposed the idea of giving Birgit Thüring a job as a pilot. Later on she wanted to become an air-traffic controller but then the national Luftfartsverket (aviation authority) said no. According to the authority her salary would be completely different and this might cause the male air-traffic controllers to go on strike.
Thus Birgit Thüring was unable to fully realise her dreams as an aviator. Instead she made major contributions towards ensuring that the female pilots who came after her would not suffer from being disqualified. She was also involved in setting up Sveriges Kvinnliga Flygares förening (female pilots’ association of Sweden), in which she made significant contributions towards achieving pay equality for male and female pilots.
In 1969 Birgit Thüring was awarded the Aftonbladet newspaper achievement medal for her efforts in aviation. Compared to the “heroic” acts of male pilots which had previously determined the awarding of the medal Aftonbladet believed that Birgit Thüring’s efforts were of another order entirely. In her case it was instead the absence of incidents during the thousands of take-offs that she had undertaken on behalf of national defence which was considered worthy of merit. She had quietly made a fantastic contribution but now “given the publicity she withdrew into her shell. But then she laughed: perhaps all these write-ups can show that women can also fly and so I will have to serve as some kind of symbol.”
Birgit Thüring died in 1984 following a period of illness. She was 72 years old. She is buried at Visby northern cemetery.