Whether they’re supporting young girls through scholarships to Space Camp, or honoring women pilots who served in World War II, there’s an organization of women that supports the joy of flying in all of its forms.
The group, which calls itself The Ninety-Nines Inc., got its start in 1929.
It began when some female aviators wanted to have to a long-distance race, said Marilyn Shafer, of Land O’ Lakes, who is a member of the Florida Suncoast Chapter of the group.
“It was supposed to start out in California and go over the mountains,” Shafer said.
“The men didn’t want the women doing that because it was too dangerous for women to be able to get over mountains safely,” Shafer said.
The women decided: “We’re going to do it anyway.”
Through the race, the women discovered how fantastic it was to have the support of each other, and they decided to form an organization of female aviators.
“They sent out formal letters to every licensed woman pilot in the United States. I want to say there was about 129, and 99 of them replied,” Shafer said.
They tossed around some names.
In the end, they chose to honor the women who wanted to be part of the new organization. So, they called themselves The Ninety-Nines.
Amelia Earhart was the group’s first president.
Over time, the group has spread its wings — substantially. It’s now an international organization with about 4,900 members, Shafer said.
“Our mission is advancement in aviation, through scholarship, education and support, while we keep in mind where we started — our history,” Shafer said.
The Suncoast chapter includes a wide swath of territory, including Pasco County and going from Crystal River to Sarasota, from Ocala over to Winter Haven.
The chapter has roughly 60 members, including commercial pilots, military pilots, general aviation pilots and student pilots.
The group sponsors two scholarships a year for girls, in grades four through six, who would like to attend Space Camp. This year’s deadline for applications is April 2.
The chapter also is involved in other educational activities.
“We just finished a Girl Scout Aviation Day over at Clearwater Air Park. Girl Scouts came in. We had different stations. They got to build an airplane. They got to set off rockets,” Shafer said.
The girls also had a chance to learn about experimental airplanes and to see how an airplane is built.
Besides all of that, they were able to climb into an airplane, put on the headphones and have their photo taken while they were sitting at the controls, Shafer said.
Every year, the chapter honors members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, also known as WASPs, at the annual Fun ‘n Sun International Fly-in & Expo, an event in Lakeland.
The number of WASPs is dwindling, Shafer said.
“They were the women who served during World War II. They flew airplanes, trailing a target for the men on the ground to practice live ammunition training in shooting things out of the sky,” she said.
They delivered newly built airplanes to the East Coast, so men there could use them in Europe,” she said.
“We have very few left. We try to bring each of them that are interested, and a companion, and put them on Sun ‘ N Fun Radio. We have a luncheon for them, where they field questions,” she said.
This year the luncheon is on April 7.
Besides supporting female aviators, members of The Ninety-Nines have been involved in creating air markings — to help pilots in the air to know where they are.
“They divided themselves up into different sections of the United States, and they would climb up on barn roofs and paint the name of the town on the barn roof.
“Or, they would put up something on the ground with a mark, to denote their location, if you saw it from the air,” she said.
They still do that kind of work at airports, she said.
“Our big thing is our compass rose. We will do (paint) a compass rose with the cardinal points, North, East, South and West. It’s painted to magnetic north. It has to be approved. It has to be gridded by the airport authority,” Shafer said.
Shafer’s own fascination with aviation began very early.
“My dad was a Navy pilot and was killed when I was 5. He was taking up a plane for a test, and it crashed on takeoff.
“I’ve always been enthralled with airplanes,” she said.
She wanted to learn how to fly, but usually she didn’t have the time or money, or both, to pursue it.
“It’s not cheap to get a pilot’s license. It’s $5,000 or $6,000, depending on how dedicated you are and how fast you want to get your hours in,” she said.
At age 50, though, she decided to go for it.
She’s delighted she did.
“It’s absolutely wonderful. When you fly, it’s so freeing. You have your headphones on, and yes, you have contact with the ground. But, you don’t have that cellphone ringing, and ‘Oh, I should be doing housework …
“All you do is think about flying,” she said.
She does regret one thing.
She wishes she had joined The Ninety-Nines sooner.
“I thought I had to have my pilot’s license first to be able to join. And, that’s wrong.
“You can join the Ninety-Nines as a student pilot, and there are scholarships available,” Shafer said. “The Amelia Earhart Scholarship from our International Office in Oklahoma — if you get that, it pays for everything.”
More information about The Ninety-Nines Inc., and the Space Camp scholarship, can be obtained on the chapter’s website.
Published March 30, 2016