THE NINETY NINES

English: 1931 National Air Race poster

THE NINETY NINES

 Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer

If you have been reading my blogs, I’m sure you have noticed several references to The Ninety Nines. This article will explain just who they are and what they do.

In 1929, the first All Women’s Air Derby was held during the National Air Races. It attracted 20* brave, adventurous young women, and covered 2,759 miles. The race began at Santa Monica, California, and ended in Cleveland, Ohio. To qualify as a racer, the women had to have a minimum of 100 flight hours, at least 25 of which had to have been on cross country flights. These were the same requirements for men competing in National Air Races.

In the early days of aviation there were not many women pilots, but most of the women had met at previous events. They were a tight band and looked forward to this first real race for women. It was a chance to prove their skills to the general public. They took this event very seriously and were somewhat upset when the humorous commentator, Will Rogers dubbed it, “The Powder Puff Derby.” On August 18, 1929, nineteen pilots took off, one more left the next day. Fifteen of the women arrived in Cleveland, 9 days later.

Almost every pilot had some kind of problem during the race. Tragically, Marvel Crosson was killed when she crashed in Gila River Valley. Her crash was attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning. When it was learned that she had been killed there was a public outcry to cancel the race. The women got together and decided the best tribute to Marvel would be completing the race, which they did. Blanche Noyes had to put out an onboard fire while over Pecos, Texas, but she kept going. One got lost and wound up in Mexico. Bobbi Trout had to perform repairs on her airplane. Margaret Perry caught typhoid fever. Ruth Nichols crashed. Clara Trout’s wing wires were eaten through, and many believed that was caused by sabotage with acid. Pancho Barnes crashed into a car that drove onto the runway.

In Cleveland, a crowd of about 18,000 people had gathered to greet the pilots at the end of the race. Louise Thaden finished the race first and won the ‘heavy class.’

At the end of the race, the pilots decided that women needed some type of support organization. At that time there were 117 women pilots. This letter was sent to each of them:

Dear Licensed Pilot:

On talking it over among ourselves and the other pilots whom we already know personally, it seems that the women pilots in this country should have some sort of an organization- our own QB, Early Birds or NAPA.

It need not be a tremendously official sort of an organization, just a way to get acquainted, to discuss the prospects for women pilots from both a sports and breadwinning point of view, and to tip each other off on what’s going on in the industry.

We would not need a lot of officers and red tape machinery. It seems to us that a secretary to keep the records and report our activities to those key points where they will be helpful in keeping us in touch with openings, and a chairman to preside would be all that we need in the way of officers.

We might better also have a little constitution, brief, simple, and not too ironclad. Then we need a name and a pin. Attached is a tentative suggested constitution. Look it over and append any suggestion which may occur to you.

Could you attend an organization meeting on November second around three o’clock in the afternoon at Curtiss Field, Valley Stream, L. I.? Come in plenty of time to meet and have dinner at the field at 6:30. If the problem of getting from New York to Valley Stream bothers you, a couple of us have cars and have put our phone numbers down beside our names.

Please write and say: Yes, coming ; or No, not coming – attaching your modifications, etc., to the tentative constitution. Several pilots with whom we have talked are planning to fly in. We’re not particular whether you come by train, by automobile, or on two legs or just by mail. But we do hope you’ll put in some kind of an appearance at the organization meeting of licensed women pilots.

The letter was signed by Fay Gillis, Marjorie Brown, Frances Harrell, and Neva Paris. Ninety Nine women responded and became charter members, and that explains the rather unusual name!

They met November 2, 1929 at Valley Stream, Long Island in a hangar at Curtiss Field. Fay Gillis served tea and cookies, while wearing her helmet and flight suit, along with Viola Gentry who had just been released from a hospital following a crash. A columnist reported, “They are going to organize – we don’t know what for.” But, organize they did. To support and encourage each other, and other women who were interested in flying. In December, 1929, Neva Paris wrote, “with such splendid response for membership, we feel sure our organization is destined to accomplish meritorious service.” Amelia Earhart said, “If enough of us keep trying, we’ll get someplace!”

And, we have gotten someplace! Women are now flying everything from hang gliders to blimps to airliners to space shuttles. Personally, I have been a member of the 99s for a little over 32 years. It is a group of women in all phases of aviation, from beginning student to astronaut. They sponsor scholarships, maintain the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, in Atchison, Kansas, conduct and sponsor pilot seminars for both men and women, and are very active in aviation safety and education.

The Ninety Nines Mission Statement is: “The Ninety-Nines is the international organization of women pilots that promotes advancement of aviation through education, scholarships and mutual support while honoring our unique history and sharing our passion for flight.”

It is truly an international organization, and is active in over 35 countries. To learn more about them, go to: www.the ninety-nines.org

* The list of pilots flying in the 1929 “Powder Puff Derby:”

Florence “Pancho” Lowe Barnes

Marvel Crosson

Amelia Earhart

Ruth Elder

Claire Mae Fahy

Edith Foltz

Mary Haizlip

Jessie Keith-Miller

Opal Kunz

Mary von Mach

Ruth Nichols

Blanche W. Noyes

Gladys O’Donnell

Phoebe Omlie

Neva Paris

Margaret Perry

Thea Rasche

Louise Thaden

Evenly “Bobbi” Trout

Vera Dawn Walker

 OUR HELP IS IN THE NAME OF THE LORD, WHO MADE HEAVEN AND EARTH PSALMS 124:8
Nancy Welz Aldrich
Available for speaking engagements

9 Responses to THE NINETY NINES

  1. John & Kay Guhlin says:

    Nancy, Kay and I read the 99’s article. Not being pilot’s we did not know anything about the group.
    We remember there were some of the get together here in Leakey when Eunice was still alive.
    Good article and know we know something about the 99’s.
    John & Kay Guhlin
    Leakey, Texas 78873

    • Nancy says:

      Yes, Eunice had been a member of the 99s back in the 40s. She flew out of the ranch there in Leakey. Once I found out that she was a pilot, I introduced her to the San Antonio 99s, and we had several parties at her ranch. She was quite a lady. She flew her Navion all around the country for her father’s business. Thanks for reading the article and the note.

  2. B. A. Waltrip says:

    Nancy, you are the greatest! I’ve known one or two of the early 99’s (in their later years!); It is a true pleasure to see their names listed in recognition of their achievements again. I can recall having seen most of the original members’ names many times, and it was expecialy nice to see a number who’s names were not as familiar to me. Thank your for listing every one of those wonderful pioneering ladies. Please continue posting your fascinating hangar stories! LT B. A. Waltrip, USN (Ret.)

  3. Nancy says:

    I have also met some of them. They were an interesting group of ladies. some of them pretty eccentric, but all interesting. They have my admiration!

  4. Gloria Blank says:

    Also being a 99, I can truly say, “This is beautifully written”. Thanks, Nancy.

  5. Nancy says:

    Thanks, Gloria. I’m glad you liked it. You have spend over half your life dedicated to the 99s, and they would not be the same without you. I thank you for all you do! You are a trooper.

    • Alice Foeh says:

      Nancy, Thanks so much for the article….I have been a 99 since 1970 and feel that we are a unique sisterhood with different levels of experience and training. We meet women pilots from all over the world and we all feel it is such a privilege and honor to be able to fly and to have many, many friends who have the same interests. We encourage young women to learn to fly and to join us in our many educational endeavors. We send out the word to all woment pilots to join the 99s and/or the San Antonio Chapter.

  6. Faustino Cordova Haros says:

    Thank you for the article, i liked it

  7. Charlotte Alexandre says:

    Nancy, Are you aiming to write articles on each and every one of the the 99’s?

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