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
Claire Mae Fahy
Mary von Mach
Blanche W. Noyes
Evenly “Bobbi” Trout
Vera Dawn Walker