International Women’s Air & Space Museum (IWASM)


Centerville OH ’86-’98; Cleveland OH ’98 to Present

“When did you first become connected with IWASM?” Heather Alexander, IWASM administrator asked me a few days ago. IWASM stands for International Women’s Air and Space Museum. “It was 1986,” I told her. The museum had just opened in Centerville, Ohio, three blocks from my home.

I was, at that time, the editor of the Centerville-Bellbrook Times, a twice weekly newspaper covering south suburban Dayton, Ohio. Three women asked to speak to me about doing an article in the Times about the new museum. All three were pilots and they immediately got my attention. Little did they know they wanted to talk about a subject that long ago grabbed my interest.

At 13, I read about Amelia Earhart and was, thereafter, thoroughly entranced by her story. These three women brought me stories of her and many more women pilots of the 1920s and ’30s and beyond. A museum dedicated to them and their fascinating ever-growing history had become part of my community. WOW!!!

(Left) Centerville Mayor Shirley Heintz and IWASM President Nancy Hopkins Tier sign 1986 Memorandum of Understanding at the Museum.

Joan Hrubec, the museum administrator, became my close friend and prime go-to person for answers to my history-of-aviation questions for the next 20 years. IWASM President Nancy Hopkins Tier, then in her 70s and still flying, was a charter member of the Ninety-Nines, the Organization of Women Pilots. She was there in the room with Amelia and others for that momentous first meeting November 2, 1929. Completing the triumvirate visiting me that day was museum executive vice president B Steadman, best known as one of the Mercury 13. In 1960-61, she was one of 13 women pilots who successfully passed the same testing as did the original six U.S. astronauts.

Right: Joan Hrubec, Carol Gallaten, B Steadman—1988.

I Was in the Company of Women’s Aviation Royalty!

My relationship with IWASM began that day and still continues today. Of course the Centerville-Bellbrook Times ran the museum’s story.

My association grew over the next three years. I met more women pilots including another charter 99, Fay Gillis Wells. I wrote recently of meeting my first WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) Nadine Nagle and my first WAFS (Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron) Nancy Batson Crews — both through IWASM.

Below: Nancy Tier celebrates IWASM’s one year anniversary in Centerville.

I left the newspaper in 1989 to explore a writing career on my own. In 1990 I went to work for the museum as a ten dollar an hour / ten-hour-a-month contractor. Fortunately, for my fledgling freelance writing business, I had two better paying clients. But this one I loved. It was pure fun, done for the sheer enjoyment. Later, I became a volunteer advisor, a position I hold to this day.

A Move to Cleveland in 1998

IWASM left Centerville in 1998 to move to Burke Lakefront Airport on the southern tip of Lake Erie in Cleveland. They needed more space. Another pressing reason was Joan and the new President, Connie Luhta, both lived in Cleveland. The long-term commute, including the apartment they had to keep in Centerville, was expensive.

At Burke, the exhibits are spread out along the concourse — actual displays, including an airplane. Glass cases contain trophies, artifacts, written accounts of what they are and who donated them. One currently holds a replica of the gown worn by the diminutive Katharine Wright when she and her famous brothers, Orville and Wilbur, met President Taft, June 10, 1909.[1] The original, a gift from the Wright family when the museum was in suburban Dayton, has been displayed in the past.

First Women’s Air Race: 1929

The women who flew in “the teens” during World War I are featured. Then came the Roarin’ ’20s with Amelia, Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie, and Louise Thaden, winner the first women’s air race, the Powder Puff Derby in August 1929. That famous race led to the creation of the Ninety-Nines. The 20 women who flew the Powder Puff Derby began the discussions of a woman pilot organization during their evening stops along the route of the race.

(Suggestion: read Gene Nora Jessen’s The Powder Puff Derby of 1929.)

The 1930s brought us Helen Richey, Bobbi Trout, Fay Gillis Wells, Ruth Nichols, Nancy Love, Jackie Cochran, Betty Huyler Gillies and many more. The 1940s brought us the WAFS and the WASP.

The big story in women’s aviation from 1947 through 1977 was AWTAR (the All-Woman’s Transcontinental Air Race). The best of America’s women pilots and many from other countries competed in that annual race. And with Sally Ride’s journey into space in 1983, the growing corps of women astronauts became a huge part of the IWASM story — thus the “Space” designation in the title. Retired astronaut Cady Coleman, then an Air Force officer, was directly involved with IWASM in the early ’90s prior to joining NASA.

                                                 Right: Joan and B fly the AWTAR in 1955

Joan and I introduced our videotaped “Women in Aviation” lecture series in Centerville in November 1990 featuring Nancy Tier. B Steadman spoke to us in January 1991, and a panel of International Women Airline Pilots representing their organization, ISA+21, gave our March 1991 presentation. Mercury 13 (November 1991) and WASP (January 1992) panels followed.

Enter Women Military Pilots

Desert Storm introduced IWASM to the “new” female military. Army Medivac helicopter pilot Ann Patrie and nurse/paramedic Lori Combs joined us for the evening in November 1992. Their Desert Storm exhibit is displayed in the concourse. Also part of that panel was Air Force C-141 transport pilot Captain Kathy Gotch (Staiger). These women flew in Desert Storm (Jan/Feb. 1991) marking women pilots’ entry into active participation in military flight, BUT their role still was non-combat. That was about to change in 1993, with Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS).[2]

Emily Howell Warner, the first woman jet-age airline pilot (1973), spoke to us. Aerobatics champion Patti Wagstaff came to speak and our own museum board member, WASP Caro Bayley Bosca, joined her for the presentation. Caro was the women’s aerobatic champion back in the early 1950s.

Three of Us Remain from the Centerville Days

My direct involvement ceased when the museum moved to Cleveland, but today, I’m still an adviser, life-member, and loyal supporter. Joan, Nancy Tier, B, Nadine, and Caro all are gone now. Connie Luhta, Board secretary Susan Schulhoff Lau, and I are the remnants of the Centerville days. Heather and a whole new crew run the operation in Cleveland.

      Right:  Wall of Women Astronauts, Cleveland

The museum’s collection includes artifacts, photographs, articles, textiles, artwork and paper items relating to the history of women in aviation and space. Finding aids for some of the collections are available online. If you are conducting research on women in air and space, the Fay Gillis Wells Research Center is an excellent resource. Check with the museum for information.

Please visit the museum at Burke Lakefront Airport, Room 165, 1501 N. Marginal Road, Cleveland, Ohio, 44114: Phone: 216-623-1111; Website: Do yourself a favor,  get on the email list for the monthly newsletter. They have a great aviation-focused gift shop!



[1] At a ceremony at the White House, Washington, D.C., June 10, 1909, President William Howard Taft presented Aero Club of America gold medals to the Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville. Katharine, too, was invited.

[2] The U.S. Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) was established in 1951 by Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall. Its members are civilian women and men appointed by the Secretary of Defense to provide advice and recommendations on matters and policies relating to the recruitment and retention, treatment, employment, integration, and well-being of women in the U.S. Armed Forces.

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One Comment

  1. I love this write up! I totally forgot that the museum was in Centerville originally! I used to live in Bellbrook for a time and was back there on leave from navigator training and bought a cool bag (I still have it) to take back to TX with me! I remember loving that the museum existed! Thanks for jogging my memory!

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