75 Years of History (1934 – 2009)
Amelia Earhart would be proud of our Michigan Chapter of The 99s, which has carried on the traditions set by that first gathering on Curtiss Field on Long Island, NY, for 75 years.
In 1929, Mary Von Mach flew the Bendix Derby (men and women pilots) and met many lady pilots from Michigan so, she decided a Michigan chapter should be formed. Thus, an extraordinary journey of 75 years began on February 17, 1934 at the Gratiot Airport (Roseville, Michigan).
The eight women pilots present became the Charter members; Mary Von Mach, also a Charter member of the national organization, Gladys Hartung, Mabel Britton, Helen Lehtio, Jeanette Lempke (Sovereign), Alice Hirschman (Hammond), Faye Davies (Kirk) and Margaret Horton. Gladys Hartung was appointed the Chapter’s first Chairman and Margaret Horton, its first Secretary-Treasurer.
The Early Years
The first project undertaken was to assist the Michigan State Department of Aeronautics in airmarking towns. Because of the lack of navigation instruments, pilots depended on airmarkings of roof tops, water towers, parking lots and hillsides. During the war, many of the airmarkings were erased, but in the late 1940s, airmarking was resumed. Now, in our 75th year, airmarking is flourishing with the leadership of Martha MacLeod, Nicki, her mathematically adept husband Richard Acker, and other aviation-oriented organizations. The chapter, in cooperation with other flying organizations, organized air shows and held monthly 99s meetings at airports around the State to gain recognition for women pilots and the state Department of Aviation.
A Chapter Scrapbook was decided upon to record the history of the Chapter through newspaper clippings.
An aviation lending library was begun with donated books, the first in The 99s organization. The national magazine Airwomen assumed the form of The 99s Newsletter and Chapter members Mabel Britton and Alice Hammond became the first editors.
On July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart lost her life, and as a living memorial to her Chapter members, Alice Hammond and Helen Montgomery proposed an annual scholarship to be named the Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship. In 1941, a resolution was proposed and approved at the 99s National Convention and the Amelia Earhart (AE) Memorial Scholarship became a reality. Today, there are 24 scholarships that comprise the AE Scholarships. One was created by donations for Alice Hammond and another formed from funds donated by Chris Winzer. Over the years, 14 members of the chapter earned AE Scholarships to further their aviation skills.
When Helen Montgomery set a national soaring record in 1938 for staying aloft 7 hours, for a distance of 26.4 miles, it was a big event because she was a woman.
Approaching and after the outbreak of World War ll, 99s devoted themselves to the war efforts. Mary von Mach was a B-24 engine inspector at the Willow Run Plant. Most of the Michigan Chapter joined the newly formed Civil Air Patrol. Alice Hammond became the Squadron Commander of the only, all women pilot CAP squadron in the nation. The pilots were all from the Michigan Chapter.
Many who were instructors at the time were contracted by the U.S. government to instruct Army pilots at bases around the country. Eloise Smith instructed Navy amphibian and seaplane pilots here in Michigan. Others were called into the WASP where they flew aircraft from the factories to the bases and returned with those needing repair and/or upgrading. Some were based in Rawsonville, MI. The head and founder of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS, forerunner of the WASP) was Nancy Harkness Love, who was born in Houghton, Michigan.
The Growth Years
After the war, as more women became pilots, the membership in the Michigan Chapter of The 99s grew rapidly. Monthly meetings were held at airports in different cities around southern Michigan. In 1946, the first Upper Michigan meeting was held in Sault Ste. Marie. In the 1980s, a two-day meeting and sightseeing tour was hosted in Calumet; in the 1990s, meetings in Marquette and Munising; in the 2000s, meetings in Marquette and Hancock.
As the Chapter grew in numbers, new chapters spun off. In 1973 – Lake Michigan Chapter, and in 1975 – Greater Detroit Area Chapter. By 2008, both chapters rejoined the Michigan Chapter. In 2006, some members in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Northern Wisconsin joined to create the Northwoods Chapter.
The AWTAR (All Women’s Transcontinental Air Race) started in 1947 and was managed by The 99s. Sometimes more than 200 planes participated in a course spanning 2500 to 2950 statute miles. Michigan 99s participated in almost every race. Bernice “Bea” Steadman pilot and Mary Clark 99s co-pilot won the race in 1966. That race was from Seattle, WA to Clearwater, FL – 2875 statute miles and was the second longest in AWTAR’s history. The last AWTAR flown was in 1977. Bea and Mary also won the International Air Race, known as the Angel Derby, flying from Florida to Havana, Cuba.
The first Southern Michigan All Ladies Lark (SMALL) Race was held in 1956 as a means of moving the Powder Puff Derby’s contestants from their terminus in Flint to the International Convention in Harbor Springs, MI. Its first Chairperson was Bernice “Bea” Steadman. The SMALL Race became an annual event, and the challenge was to state your fuel consumption and time around a 300 nautical course. As a testament to the skills of the women pilots, scores in the 99 plus the ten thousands was common.
In 1981, the SMALL Race became a Rally and turned coed. Chapter member Sammy McKay flew every Michigan SMALL Race, 36 consecutively, placing in the top three many times; something no one else had accomplished. Sammy received her pilot’s certificate in 1955 after being encouraged to fly by her husband, George, and flew her first of many air races in 1956. She went on to complete her Commercial certificate. After her last flight, the week before her death, she put her beloved Cessna N6174F in the shop for its annual, in anticipation of many more flights. Sammy went to new horizons on May 19, 1994, at the age of 78. Sammy flew many AWTARs, Angel Derbies, and Air Race Classics. She also flew the World Vintage Air Rally from London, England to Sydney, Australia. Sammy must be flying races in heaven.
In 2006, the Michigan SMALL Rally was retired in Traverse City on the 50th Anniversary. The traveling Paul Bunyan Trophy has a final location on Bernice Steadman’s mantle. It was a very sad but momentous day.
Another Kind Of Race – Amelia’s Around The World Flight Plan Finally Completed
In 1927, ten years before Amelia Earhart attempted to fly around the world, Mildred Doran, a 22-year-old Flint, Michigan schoolteacher attempted to fly to Honolulu, Hawaii to capture the Dole prize of $25,000. She, a navigator, another pilot, and a certifier took off from California with three other planes in the race for the money. Only two aircraft arrived in Honolulu. The others including Mildred’s plane vanished and were never found.
In 1964, Joan Merriam-Smith, at the age of 28, flew Amelia Earhart’s route around the world, in her twin Apache. She crossed the equator five times, covering 27,750 miles, in 200 flying hours spanning over 23 days. Major U.S. and international aviation organizations recognized her success.
Joan started her aviation career at 15, taking lessons at Wayne Major (now Detroit Metro). When interviewed, Detroit was her “hometown”; by 17, she had her Private Pilot’s license; at 18, her Commercial license, Instrument Rating and Instructor’s license. At 23, she was the youngest woman pilot in the country to receive her Air Transport Pilot rating.
Joan was also a test pilot for private industry. Unfortunately, Joan lost her life a few months after successfully flying Amelia’s route around the world when a wing fell off a turbo Cessna she was testing.
In 1967, Ann Pellegreno, a 30-year-old teacher from Saline, MI, with the help of a navigator, flew a Lockheed Electra, similar to Amelia’s, around the world. Because of the problems in the Middle East, she had to avoid all the Arab countries. Ann was successful in completing her flight around the world, but it did not replicate Amelia’s flight plan.
Mary von Mach Scholarship
In 1979, the Michigan Chapter voted to initiate a scholarship for Civil Air Patrol girl cadets. A year later, the Chapter Chair Mary Anglin designated the scholarship as a project for the chapter. Mary asked Claire Ojala to investigate making the Scholarship permanent.
To make the Scholarship permanent, it was necessary to incorporate and register with the State of Michigan and obtain a Federal 501(c)(3) status. A board of four would manage the scholarship; three members were to be former chapter chairmen and to keep the continuity of the project year round, one permanent trustee. The Michigan Chapter would fund it though fundraisers and donations from individuals, both public and private.
The scholarship is the opportunity of a lifetime for at least one cadet each year to explore aviation and discover aviation careers available. Qualified Civil Air Patrol female cadets are selected to attend a Power Flight Encampment, the summer of receiving the scholarship. Claire Ojala was selected as the Permanent Trustee, the other three members were June Beers, Mareda Babcock, and Nancy Miller. The 2009 members are Linda Langrill, Nancy Walters, and Gini Sutherland, with Claire Ojala, the permanent trustee.
In 1980, Mary von Mach, charter member of the Ninety-Nines passed away. The Michigan Chapter membership voted to name the scholarship The Mary von Mach Scholarship. The 37th Scholarship will be presented in this the 30th year of its existence. Many recipients are now in fields of aviation – officers in the USAF, USAF Academy Instructor, United Airlines Captain, corporate pilots, officers in the Civil Air Patrol, US Army Helicopter Pilot, CFI, and US Naval Academy midshipman. Others are now nurses, teachers, and a lawyer.
In 1991, The Civil Air Patrol awarded the Chapter the Brewer Organization Award, recognizing our commitment to the young female cadets.
Bea Steadman and the late Jane Hart (both Michigan Chapter members) successfully passed the Mercury screening tests for astronauts in 1962. As we know, the Mercury 13 women were never allowed to become astronauts. They passed the tests with flying colors, but a new rule was passed, requiring astronauts to attend jet school where women, at that time, were not allowed entry, thus, terminating the women’s space program. On May 15, 2007, the ladies in the space program finally received their recognition at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. In honor of their pioneering spirit and efforts in the advancement of women’s rights, the University awarded honorary doctorates to the Mercury 13 women astronauts.
Past International Presidents
Mabel Britton, Jeannette Lempke, Alice Hammond, Edna Gardner Whyte, and Bernice Steadman.
Past North Central Section Governors
Mary von Mach, Mabel Britton, Alice Hammond, Jeannette Lempke, Helen Whetherill, Thelma Lindzay, Eloise Smith, Becky Thatcher, Mary Clark, and Gini Sutherland.
The Michigan Chapter has hosted two International Conferences. In 1951, on Mackinac Island and in 1956, at Harbor Springs. Numerous North Central Section meetings have been hosted over the 75-year history of the chapter.
The Chapter hosted many races – The All Women’s Transcontinental Air Race, the International Air Race, the Air Race Classic, and the Bahama Grand Prix.
Thirty-three women were honored by the State of Michigan for having soloed before 1945. Mary West, Babe Ruth and Leah Higgins flew actively for over 50 years.
In 1981, Linda DeForest designed our chapter logo, a seagull in silhouette against the sky, a symbol of experiencing new things; flying higher and faster; daring to be different; bringing persistence and sharing with others what we learned.
The Michigan Chapter has honored 45 members in Memory Lane at The International Forest of Friendship (Atchison, KS) for their exceptional contributions to aviation.
Two members built their own planes with their husbands, Helen and Walt Suminski, a Cozy; Nancy and Ron Walters, a Glassair.
Honored in the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame
Mary Creason, Nancy Harkness Love, Mary von Mach, Babe Ruth, Alice Hammond, Ann Pellegreno, Harriet Quimby, Bernice Steadman and Jean Pearson.
During the past 75 years, our members have enjoyed a variety of careers in aviation and honors: Chairwomen of the Michigan Aeronautic Commission; first women aircraft control supervisor; aircraft controller; Managers of major city airports; Michigan Aeronautics Commission Safety Specialist; Editor of Michigan Aviation; Safety Counselors of the Year; cover girl of the 99 aviation calendar; Director of Aviation Flight Technology at Oakland University; First Officer of Northwest; Prop-jet Captain for Comair; Great Lakes Regional Accident Prevention Counselor of the year; Captain on United Air; co-pilots of major airlines; Flight Instructor of the Year; Corporate pilots; Certified Flight Instructors; Certified Instrument Flight Instructors; and Regional Director of the FAA.
Our members continue to work on the Chapter’s pet projects, update ratings, BFR, and next Phase. They still find time to fly for International Health, Daffodil Fly-Away for the American Cancer Society, Mercy Medical flights, Corporate Flying Angels, Camp-Catch-a-Rainbow; guardian angels to Future Women Pilots, speaking to school children, scouts, adult clubs, give tours and rides in our aircraft and flying EAA Young Eagles.
When leisure time presents itself, we fly races and the Michigan Air Tour just for fun.
One constant in most Michigan Chapter members’ life is the enthusiastic support of their 49½s, who support their flying activities and our chapter.
We as a chapter are fortunate to have ninety extraordinary Chapter Chairwomen who led us through our history. It could not have been an easy job with so many talented members. Our hats are off to you all.
Many of our mentors have flown to new horizons, but their inspiration has not diminished.
This information was excerpted from the archives of the Michigan Chapter of The Ninety-Nines, Inc. by Claire Ojala. It was published in the NCS Waypoint (July 2009).