“The women are going to organize … we don’t know what for.” --unknown newspaper columnist, November 2, 1929
Eighty years ago, 26 women pilots met in a hangar at Curtis Airport in Valley Stream, Long Island, NY, for the purpose of creating an organization “just for women pilots.”
Only two months before, at the conclusion of the inaugural Women’s Air Derby in Cleveland, OH, Louise Thaden, winner of the large engine class; Phoebe Omlie, winner of the small engine class; Gladys O’Donnel, Amelia Earhart, Blanche Noyes, and Ruth Nichols met under the spectator bleachers to discuss the race experience. There was suspicion of sabotage, attempts to shorten the race, and attempts to cancel the race, all because some felt that women shouldn’t fly or couldn’t withstand the rigors of long distance cross-country flying.
At the same time, non-pilot New Yorker Clare Studer, who worked in public relations at Curtiss-Wright, and a few friends including Neva Paris and Fay Gillis (Wells), also aimed to establish a group through which women pilots could work to overcome the “oddity” status they endured in order to achieve a greater level of respectability and public acceptance. Their objectives include helping women in “aeronautics research, air racing events, gaining aerial experience, and any other interest that will benefit the member and/or aviation.”Despite the competition, and probably because of it and the camaraderie the racers developed, a call went out to all 117 licensed women pilots to join this new group.
At that November 2 meeting, one attendee, Viola Gentry, was recovering from injuries received in an accident during an endurance record attempt. Fay Gillis arrived late in a greasy jumpsuit, having just finished working on her airplane. Jessie Keith-Miller from Australia gave the group its first international member, in the U. S. as a participant in the Derby.
Most arrived by car or train due to inclement weather. Neva Paris was selected temporary chairman. Membership eligibility and the purpose were decided upon: membership would be open to any woman with a pilot’s license, and the purpose was “good fellowship, jobs, and a central office and files on women in aviation.”
Choosing a name proved a little more troublesome. Suggestions included The Climbing Vines, Noisy Birdwomen (a reference to the Quiet Birdmen which does not allow women members), Homing Pigeons, and Gadflies. Amelia Earhart and Jean Hoyt finally proposed the name be taken from the number of charter members.Once The 86s, then The 97s, the new organization eventually became The 99s.
Not all was well in the early days. Opal Kuntz became Acting President until formal elections could be held. But before that could happen, Election Chairman Neva Paris was killed in a plane crash. Factions developed and the club operated informally until Amelia Earhart was elected president in 1931.
Other organizations for women pilots with various purposes have come and gone, some founded by 99s charter members:The Skylarks, The Betsy Ross Corps, Women Fliers of America, Women’s Air Reserve.
The 99s has since enjoyed a total membership of over 20,000 women pilots worldwide. With over 165 U.S. and Canadian chapters and 14 international sections such as Germany, Mexico, Israel, and Russia, 99s worldwide enjoy a community of friends, role models, and mentors in the largest and oldest international organization of women pilots.
True to the founders’ desire to help women pilots, The 99s established a scholarship fund in 1940. Named the Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship as a living memorial to the first president, the first award was presented to Pat Gladney in 1941. The continued stewardship by the scholarship trustees and donations from loyal 99s and others has resulted in today’s fund growing to over $4 million and awarding more than 500 scholarships to 99s for pilot certificates, aircraft category and class or type ratings, flight instructor certificates and ratings, aviation-related college degrees, and research grants.
As a direct response to the 2001 downturn in airline employment, Pro99s was developed as an email based forum where women pilots discuss job opportunities and issues particular to women professional pilots.
The success of Pro99s gave flight to the Professional Pilot Leadership Initiative, a formal mentoring program that offers one-on-one mentoring by an experienced woman professional pilot to help participants develop their pilot career and leadership ability.
Student pilots and members pursuing advanced ratings share successes and disappointments on the 99s Flight Training Forum. Flight instructors, designated pilot examiners, and experienced pilots moderate the forum.
For more information on The 99s, visit www.ninety-nines.org