The 99s — Women Pilots — Mark 90 Years

Saturday night, November 2, I dined with 75-plus fellow members of The Ninety-Nines, Inc., the international organization of licensed women pilots.  A smattering of husbands, fondly known as 49-and-a-halfs, joined us.  Our host: the 99s Museum of Women Pilots (MWP), located in Oklahoma City. Our mission: to celebrate and remember the 99 women pilots who founded our organization on November 2, 1929 — 90 years ago to the day.

On that day in 1929, twenty-six women pilots attended the first meeting.  Curtiss Airport, in Valley Stream — a village on New York’s Long Island — was the setting for the gathering. Bad weather prevented flying in, so most of the women traveled there by car or train.

Ninety-Nine Women Pilots Respond

Neva Paris was elected  temporary chairman. A makeshift tea service — a toolbox on wagon wheels —
was wheeled in and the 26 paused to enjoy a hot drink, probably most welcome in the cold, drafty hangar. Discussion — whether to form a women’s flying organization — followed. The idea had merit. They drafted a letter to be sent to all 117 of America’s licensed female pilots inviting them to join. Paris, Frances Harrell, Margery Brown,  and 21-year-old Fay Gillis, acting as scribe, signed the letter. Ninety-nine responded and joined. Ultimately, the women took “Ninety-Nines” as their name in recognition of their charter membership.

The Ninety-Nines elected the most famous woman pilot of the day, Amelia Earhart, their first president and Louise Thaden, another well known and much respected aviatrix, secretary. Thaden had won the first Women’s Transcontinental Air Race — dubbed the Powder Puff Derby — flown in mid-August that same year. The race led directly to the November 2 meeting. (A story for another blog post.)

So, 90 years later, on November 2, 2019, we modern-day Ninety-Nines toasted our beloved 99 pioneering charter members.

On the left is a photo of the museum’s bust of Amelia suitably adorned with a 1920’s style chapeau.

Knowing Fay and Nancy Was a Gift

I was fortunate enough to know two of our charter members personally. I had the privilege of working with Nancy Hopkins Tier, beginning in 1990, at the International Women’s Air and Space Museum, then located in Centerville, Ohio. [It now resides in Cleveland.] Nancy was the Chairman of IWASM’s Board of Trustees.

Through IWASM, I also met Fay Gillis Wells — a museum trustee — and the woman who, in the 1970s, founded the International Forest of Friendship in Atchison, Kansas [See my blogs from October 9th and 18th this year.]

Joan Hrubec, executive director of IWASM, and I teamed up with the head of production at our local Cable Council Community TV station, Dave Gordon, to produce, film and televise interviews with both women — as well as several others over a four year period. They brought aviation history up close and personal to our studio audience as well as people out in the South Dayton Suburban communities. The shows are still telecast for the ever-changing local audiences.

I also had the privilege of introducing Fay to my Women in Communications group in Dayton. I invited  Fay — a foreign correspondent in 1930s and during World War II and later a Washington D.C. print and broadcast journalist — to be our meeting speaker. She blew my fellow local journalist friends away with her tales from the past. They LOVED her!

Then I Met Betty Huyler Gillies

Betty Huyler Gillies as a young pilot.

At the Forest of Friendship in Atchison, Kansas, in 1992, it was my privilege to meet charter Ninety-Nine Betty Huyler Gillies. I particularly wanted to meet Betty because she commanded the WASP squadron of women ferry pilots stationed at New Castle Army Air Base in World War II.

My desire to “be there” this November 2, drove me to Oklahoma City to attend the 90th anniversary dinner with my fellow 99s. It was a momental moment in history for women pilots. And I first learned about this remarkable story when I read about Amelia Earhart. That encounter between the pages of a book, when I was 13,  led to my lifelong interest in aviation and the part women played in it.

My association with the WASP, the women that flew in World War II, also began at IWASM in 1990. That encounter completely changed my life. And — in turn — 29 years later, led to my presence at the 99s Museum of Women Pilots in Oklahoma City, November 2, 2019.

I joined the Ninety-Nines in July 2011. I earned my pilot’s license July 1 that year and officially signed up at Oshkosh four weeks later at the 99’s booth.

Ninety-Nines Archives and Preservation

As I’ve researched and written about the WASP over the past 20-plus years, I have visited several museums and archives in pursuit of material for my various books. I’ve developed an understanding of the archival process and have come to appreciate what all goes into it. I’ve worked directly with the WASP Archive at Texas Woman’s University since 2000 doing WASP oral histories, and writing and editing the WASP News.

A year ago, the Ninety-Nines put out the annual call for members interested in serving on the board of trustees for the Museum of Women Pilots — MWP, for short.  I wondered if I would be a good fit for that job? Given my work over the past 20 years with other facilities that preserve the history of women pilots, I decided to put my hat in the ring.

Thanks for reading my blog!

Read Sarah’s books about the WASP Pilots of WWII. See them all on Amazon:

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