We know that our organization started out with ninety-nine members back in 1929. And unless we have lived our lives out in the back woods somewhere, we also know that Amelia Earhart was one of the ninety-nine. Inarguably, she was, and still is, one of the most well-known women pilots ever. You can ask just about anybody you meet and they will know her name.
Life has a way of doing that to certain people with or without their consent. She wasn't the most talented or flamboyant woman pilot of her day but she did capture the spirit of the times with her shy grace and flying adventures. She was in the right place at the right time for fame to find her. We today have benefited from the fact that she used her fame to further women's position in aviation. She promoted aviation and The 99s in her public appearances, through her writings and in her flying. She had many aviation firsts and one last adventure that ended somewhere short of Howland Island and made her a legend.
But what about the other ninety-eight?
How many of us know about Neva Paris? Her death in early 1930 played a major role in the almost two year delay in the first election of officers. Or Ruth Elders? Five months after Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, she and George Haldeman took off for Paris in a Stinson monoplane named "The American Girl". They made it to within 360 miles of the Azores when an oil leak forced them into a water landing and rescue by a Dutch oil tanker. She eventually went on to a successful acting career in Hollywood.
Born Gladys Livingston Berry in 1904, she was one of seven children of impoverished parents. At eighteen she married Lloyd O'Donnell, a handsome car salesman who flew airplanes for fun - an activity that struck great fear in Gladys. Shortly after their marriage and with two small children, he decided to make aviation his career and started The O'Donnell School of Flying in Long Beach much to her chagrin. She didn't like this new turn of events, being terrified that something would happen to Lloyd. Life continued this way until she became captivated by the exploits of Charles Lindbergh as he crossed the Atlantic and she surprised everyone when she decided to overcome her fears and become a pilot herself.
She soloed after 10 hours and in 1929 at the age of 25 she became the first licensed woman pilot in Long Beach, California. With only 40 hours of flying time, she was a participant in the Air Derby of 1929. Not only that, she came in second behind Louise Thaden. She had a strong showing in three other events at the Cleveland Races and won it the following year. Over the next few years, her skills increased as well as her popularity and she became a well-known air race participant, often finishing in the top spots.
Gladys was named governor of the Southwest Section at the organizational meeting of The 99s on December 14, 1929 in New York City, re-confirmed at The 99s first national meeting held at the races in Cleveland in September 1930 and served in that capacity until Margaret Cooper was elected governor in 1931. She was elected as international Vice-President for the 1933-35 term, served on The 99s Executive Committee, was Air Marking Chairman and LA Chapter Chairman when the Southwest Section divided into two chapters.
Always known for her organizational skills and unwavering dedication to the causes she believed in, Gladys became more and more involved in politics even as she continued to fly. In 1937, she was named to the Republican National Program Committee and her political star continued to rise. She eventually became the president of The National Federation of Republican Women with an office in Washington DC. - this was the highest post that could be reached within the women's clubs. She was active in the Republican Party until her death from cancer in 1973.
We owe a debt of gratitude to those early women pilots. Without their dedication and perseverance some of us might not be flying today.
While trying to learn more about the charter members of The Ninety-Nines, I made some interesting discoveries. One is that we are and always have been a group of strong-willed women. To fly then took amazing courage and to fly today, in our more complicated world, takes courage too.
The same is true of The Ninety-Nines as an organization. Looking over the minutes of some of the early meetings makes for very good reading. It wasn't "roses, roses, roses" then and it won't be today. And thank goodness for that! Something else that I found was that there is very little information available "out there" about the early women pilots. I'm not talking about Amelia Earhart or Louise Thaden but the lesser know women pilots. Searching on the internet provided surprisingly little information which left me to dig through many books to put together what little I could. And it brought home the words from our Mission Statement to "preserve the unique history of women in aviation." It's a worthy cause.