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Ninety-Nines Celebrate 80 Years Advocating for Women Pilots

Amelia Earhart autographed this picture to the Women’s Club of Kansas City. Earhart was born in Atcheson, Kansas, where her birthplace is now a museum.

Amelia Earhart raced in the 1929 Women’s Air Derby, whose participants would help form The 99s.

November 5, 2009 —”The women are going to organize….we don’t know what for.” Eighty years ago, on November 2, 1929, an unknown newspaper columnist wrote those words about 26 women who planned to convene an organizational meeting at an airport on Long Island, New York, that would eventually lead to the formation of the Ninety-Nines, an organization dedicated to helping women pilots. Air racers like Amelia Earhart, Phoebe Omlie, and Blanch Noyes were motivated to act months earlier by some attempted chicanery at the Women’s Air Derby - mostly fueled by prejudicial perceptions of women pilots’ abilities.

Non-pilots, such as Clare Studer, a public relations official at aircraft maker Curtiss-Wright, as well as her pilot friends, Neva Paris and Fay Gillis, were also angling to start a women pilot’s group to increase public acceptance and to improve skills and opportunities for women.

At the first meeting Paris was selected as temporary chairman until elections could be held. The group set forth a purpose which was “good fellowship, jobs, and a central office and files on women in aviation.” A press release announcing the 80th anniversary noted that membership was open to any woman with a pilot’s license. “I would hope we have given them a sisterhood, a group of women supportive of their efforts,” said current president Susan J. Larson.

The process of naming the organization yielded some colorful suggestions including: The Climbing Vines, Noisy Birdwomen (a reference to the Quiet Birdmen which does not allow women members), Homing Pigeons, and Gadflies. Eventually Earhart and Jean Hoyt proposed the name of the organization be taken from the number of charter members, which originally was The 86s, then The 97s, and eventually the 99s. After a fractious few years caused by turmoil after a plane crash killed Paris, the group finally coalesced around Earhart when she was elected president in 1931.

“Amelia Earhart was not threatened by any woman, rather it was a part of her to support them, to make them the best they could be,” Larson said. “The 99s proceed in that exact same way. We support other women in their goals in Aviation.”

Today The 99s boast a total worldwide membership of 5,000 in 14 countries. A scholarship fund formed in 1940 has grown to over $4 million and has awarded 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. The ranks of the 99s over the years have been filled with some very notable women who have contributed significantly to aviation. 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.

EAA Radio Interview with 99s President Susan J. Larson

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