Ninety-nines Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An international club of more than 6,000 licensed women pilots from about thirty-five countries, with its headquarters in Oklahoma City

History

The Ninety-nines owe their beginnings to an air race, and they have been involved in air racing ever since. At the start of the 1929 Women’s Air Derby, from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio, the first airplane race in which women were permitted to compete, humorist Will Rogers remarked that it looked like a “powder puff derby.” Twenty licensed women pilots competed in the grueling nine-day race, flying fragile, unstable aircraft with unreliable engines.

After the race, Amelia Earhart, Gladys O’Donnell, Ruth Nichols, Blanche Noyes, Phoebe Omlie, and Louise Thaden gathered under the grandstand to plan the formation of an association of women pilots. Louise Thaden, winner of the race and holder of numerous flying records, served as secretary, and Blanche Noyes was treasurer. Opal Kunz served as acting president until Amelia Earhart was elected in 1931. The organization’s name, the Ninety-nines, was taken from its ninety-nine charter members.

In addition to the U.S. pilots, the original ninety-nine included Thea Rasche from Germany; Jessie Keith-Miller, from Australia; and Lady Mary Heath, from Ireland. Members came from all walks of life and included socialites, test pilots, nurses, housewives, and barnstormers.

Powder Puff Derby

The Ninety-nines are often identified with the Powder Puff Derby, officially known as the All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race. The first race, in the summer of 1947, was flown from Palm Springs, California, to Tampa, Florida, where the Florida chapter of the Ninety-nines was staging the Florida All-Woman Air Show.

Although only one of the two planes entered in the race actually finished, the 1947 Powder Puff Derby was the first of more than thirty annual derbies, which became so popular that the number of entrants had to be limited and qualifications raised. Government officials, celebrities, costumed comic strip characters, and aviation leaders participated in the Powder Puff Derbies as racers, workers, and contributors.

The Powder Puff Derby became an aviation icon, but the All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race Board decided that the 1976 race would be the last. Fuel shortages loomed, airspace was becoming more restricted, and costs were escalating. The 2,926-mile-long 1976 race stretched from Sacramento, California, to Wilmington, Delaware, with two hundred aircraft from all over the world competing. Encouraged by the Smithsonian Institution, a final commemorative race was flown in 1977, retracing the original route.

The members of the Ninety-nines continue to represent diverse occupations and interests, with a love of flying as their bond. For many members, flying is a hobby, but because of their mutual support and encouragement, an increasing number are enjoying productive aviation careers.

Organization

The headquarters of the International Organization of Women Pilots, located located at Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is run by an executive director and staff. Officers and the board of directors, who are elected every two years, volunteer their services. The president appoints committee chairs, who coordinate the group’s many activities. The local chapters and sections throughout the world are the soul and strength of the Ninety-nines. Their members work together to fulfill the organization’s mission.

Membership in the Ninety-nines is open to any female pilot who is licensed by the laws of her country. There is a special membership category for female student pilots. Husbands and significant others of Ninety-nines are affectionately known as Forty-nine-and-one-halfs. Members keep informed and in touch with an international bimonthly magazine, an annual directory, chapter and section newsletters, and an e-mail service.

Scholarships

The Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship fund is a living tribute to the Ninety-nines’ first elected president and inspirational leader. Established in 1940 by Betty Gillies and Alma Harwood, it has helped many hundreds of women reach their career goals by helping to pay for new flight ratings.

Contributions to the scholarship fund are invested and managed by a board of trustees, and awards are made from the earnings. Individual chapters and sections award their own scholarships and also contribute to the Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship fund. The first award of $150 was given to Patricia Gladney in 1941. As the fund has prospered into the twenty-first century, ten to twenty scholarships of many thousands of dollars each are presented at the international convention each July. From time to time, special research scholar grants are also awarded.

United Parcel Service was the first air carrier to participate in the awards in 1992. Since then, companies have awarded training that leads to employment in the airline cockpit for the young women.

Activities

One of the Ninety-nines’ highest priorities has always been the promotion of aviation safety. The Ninety-nines host most of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety seminars that are held throughout the country and conduct survival and flying companion courses, fear-of-flying clinics, and aerospace workshops for teachers. Ninety-nines volunteer their skills and airplanes for rescue missions, transporting patients, blood, organs, animals, and supplies.

Ninety-nines introduce young people to aviation by visiting schools, taking youngsters on flights and airport tours. They serve as judges and coaches for the National Intercollegiate Flying Association meets and for international proficiency competitions. They sponsor, direct, and compete in air races and rallies throughout the world.

Since 1935, Ninety-nines have, with the blessings of federal and local governments, volunteered their time and energy to paint airport names and other helpful information on rooftops and airport taxiways. In the days before pilots were able to make use of the electronic navigation aids that currently exist, airmarking was an important source of directional information. Ninety-nines continue to provide the vital service of painting markers and compass roses on airport surfaces so that pilots and mechanics can check the accuracy of aircraft compasses.

Historical Preservation

The Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, a cottage overlooking the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas, has been restored and preserved by the Ninety-nines and the city of Atchison. A National Historic Site, the home was built in 1861 and is open to the public. Led by charter member Fay Gillis Wells, the Ninety-nines and the city of Atchison also cooperated to create the International Forest of Friendship in Atchison.

In July, 1999, the 99’s Museum of Women Pilots was dedicated on the second floor of the International Headquarters Building in Oklahoma City. It secures and displays papers, personal items, and artifacts that highlight the accomplishments of women in aviation from 1910 to the present.

Bibliography
  • Holden, Henry M. Ladybirds: The Untold Story of Women Pilots in America. Mt. Freeman, N.J.: Black Hawk, 1991. A collective biography of female aviators from pioneers to the space age that includes formation of the Ninety-nines.
  • _______. Ladybirds II: The Continuing Story of American Women in Aviation. Mt. Freeman, N.J.: Black Hawk, 1993. A second volume of stories and photos of women succeeding in all facets of aviation.
  • Thomas, Julie Agnew. The Ninety-nines: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. Paducah, Ky.: Turner, 1996. A detailed history with photographs of the organization, its members, and their achievements.

Air shows

Amelia Earhart

Federal Aviation Administration

Safety issues

Training and education

Women and flight

Categories: History Content