In 1929, a group of 99 female pilots (out of the 285 licensed female pilots in the United States) decided to form an organization for social, recruiting, and business purposes. Living in a society that limited the social and economic independence of women, these groups formed to provide women with mutual support in the aviation profession.
Thus were born the ninety-nine. The organization continues to exist today. This is the story of three of the many members.
Earhart helped form the Ninety-Nine and was the organization’s first president. By 1929 Earhart was already making a name for himself. The year before, she had been the first woman to be a passenger on a transatlantic flight, a flight that caught her international attention. However, Earhart was only getting started.
In May 1932, she was the first woman to cross the Atlantic solo, the second person after Charles Lindbergh to cross it and the first person to cross the ocean by plane twice. In August, she became the first woman to fly solo across the United States.
Earhart continued to set records and gain attention. She has tirelessly lectured across the country on topics such as aviation and women’s issues and has written for Cosmopolitan and various other magazines. She wrote about her flights and her career in books 20 hours and 40 minutes (1928) and The pleasure of it (1933).
In 1937, Earhart’s life was tragically cut short when her plane went missing as she attempted to circumnavigate the world. Earhart’s disappearance remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the 20th century, and it often overshadows her legacy as a courageous and dedicated aviator and enduring inspiration.
Record-breaking pilot Louise Thaden caught the attention of the United States in the late 1920s and 1930s.
A student in 1925 at the University of Arkansas, she had been interested in aviation long before learning to fly. In 1926, Thaden was working for the JHJ Turner Coal Co., but she spent so much time touring the Travel Air Factory that Turner introduced her to his friend Walter Beech, owner of Travel Air. Beech offered her a job with her distributor on the Pacific Coast, which she accepted. As part of her salary, Louise received flying lessons.
In 1929, she gained recognition as a competitive pilot when she became the first pilot to simultaneously hold the female altitude, endurance and speed records in light aircraft. In 1929, she won first place in the first annual Women’s Air Derby, from Santa Monica, Calif. To Cleveland, Ohio. Employed in 1930 as the director of public relations for Pittsburgh Aviation Industries and director of the women’s division of the Penn School of Aeronautics, she was instrumental in popularizing aviation while continuing to set new flight records. In 1935, fellow aviator Phoebe Omlie asked Thaden to join the National Air Marking Program as a field representative. Flying a Beech Staggerwing, Thaden won the Bendix Trophy in the 1936 Bendix Transcontinental Race, the first year women were allowed to compete against men. Later that year, she received the Women’s Harmon Trophy, an international award for Outstanding Aviator of the Year.
Thaden was a founding member of the Ninety-Nine, and in 1937 she became the National Secretary of the National Aeronautics Association. Thaden eventually returned to Beech Aircraft Corporation as a factory representative and demonstration pilot. His autobiography Wide and scared top was published in 1938, and she is also the author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles on the promotion of aviation.
Ida Van Smith
In 1967 Ida Van Smith founded a series of flight training clubs for children to encourage their involvement in aviation and aerospace science.
Born in North Carolina, Smith graduated from Shaw University and received an MA from Queens College. She became a teacher in New York City public schools in the areas of history and special education.
In 1967, at the age of 50, she finally realized a personal dream of learning to fly. After obtaining her private pilot license and instructor rating, Smith founded the Ida Van Smith Flight Club in Long Island, New York. Student training was conducted in an FAA-funded aircraft simulator and an operational Cessna 172. Soon there were more than 20 clubs across the country, with members ranging in age from 13 to 19. As a result, thousands of children have been exposed to aviation and many have pursued careers in aviation. Smith also produced and hosted an aviation cable television show and taught an introductory aviation course at York College, City University of New York.
After retiring from teaching in 1977, Smith remained active in its namesake clubs. She was a member of the Black Wings of the Tuskegee Airman, the Negro Airman International and the Ninety-Nines. She has published or featured in numerous educational, aeronautical and historical journals. Smith has received numerous awards for his contribution to aviation and the education of young people. Smith died in 2003.
This content was migrated from a previous online exhibit, Women in Aviation and Space History, which shared the stories of women featured at the Museum in the early 2000s.