Richey was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. She graduated from McKeesport High School in 1927. Her father, Joseph B. Richey, was superintendent of schools in McKeesport from 1902 to 1935. During her teens, Richey was one of the few girls in McKeesport who wore pants. She learned how to fly a plane at age 20. Her father bought her a plane when she obtained her pilot's license.
In 1933 Richey partnered with another female pilot, Frances Marsalis, to set an endurance record by staying airborne for nearly 10 days, with midair refueling. In 1934 Richey won the premier air race at the first National Air Meet for women in Dayton, Pennsylvania. Also in 1934, Central Airlines, a Greensburg, Pennsylvania–based carrier that eventually became part of United Airlines, hired Richey as a pilot; she made her first regular civil flight with them on December 31, taking a Ford Trimotor on the Washington to Detroit route. She eventually was forced to step down from the cockpit by the all-male pilots union.
In May 1936, Helen Richey, flying a light plane, set an international altitude record for aircraft weighing under 200 kilograms (440 lb). She reached 18,448 feet (5,623 m) during a flight from Congressional Airport to Endless Caverns Airport in New Market, Virginia. Richey flew the same plane that Benjamin King had flown to break the record previously.
After leaving Central Airlines, Richey continued to perform at air shows. In 1936 she teamed with Amelia Earhart in a transcontinental air race, the Bendix Trophy Race. Richey and Earhart came in fifth, beating some all-male teams. Later, Richey flew with the British Air Transportation Authority during World War II.
- "Helen Richey: Biography". McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center. Retrieved 2013-11-17.
information from Helen Richey Memorial Plaque and her biography Propeller Annie, By Glen Kerfoot
- Pelletier, Alain (2012). "Window dressing only..: Helen Richey (1909-1947)". High-Flying Women: a World History of Female Pilots. Sparkford: Haynes. p. 117. ISBN 978-0-85733-257-8.
- "Miss Richey Seeks Record". Washington Evening Star. May 9, 1935. p. 20.
- Lynch, Adam, "Hometown Heroine," Aviation History, March 2012, p. 56.
- "Girl Flyer Sets Altitude Record". Washington Evening Star. May 10, 1936. p. 3.
- Belser, Ann. (2006, September 7). Historic McKeesport aviator to be profiled in documentary. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette[dead link]
- Helen Richey bio at San Diego Air & Space Museum
- "Helen Richey: First Female Airline Pilot" at Women In Aviation Resource Center
- Helen Richey Collection at San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives