Eye of Experience #21:
The Ninety-Nines — Preserving History and Safety

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Most people think of the Ninety-Nines as merely a social club for women involved in aviation, but it's far more than that. Instead, the national organization and local chapters are deeply involved in helping preserve aviation history in the U.S. as well as serving the aviation community wherever and whenever they can. AVweb's Howard Fried explores two examples of the Ninety-Nines' fine work.

Eye Of ExperienceWhen the United States was celebrating its 200th anniversary back in 1976, the Chairperson of the Ninety-Nines asked Fay Gillis Wells, one of the original organizing founders of the Ninety-Nines, to come up with an idea to participate in the celebration. Fay's answer was the International Forest of Friendship. Fay, who has outstanding skills at getting people to do things, somehow talked the City of Atcheson, Kan., birthplace of Amelia Earhart, into donating the land and convinced the Ninety-Nines, the International Association of Women Pilots, to pay for the work. It was certainly fitting for the president to assign this task to Ms. Wells, as she is a true pioneer aviator, and was the Ninety-Nines' first secretary. It is also fitting that this park and forest is located at Atcheson and sponsored jointly by the city and by the Ninety-Nines, since the city was Amelia Earhart's birthplace and Earhart, of course, was the first president of the Ninety-Nines.

The International Forest of Friendship

Why the "International Forest of Friendship"? Well, in part because the organization's motto is "World Friendship Through Flying." In this beautiful park, a tree from every one of the 50 states and most of the countries of the world has been planted, and a genuine forest has grown with a real international flavor. There is even a "moon tree" grown from a seed taken to and brought back from the moon by one of our astronauts. The moon tree is located near the entrance to the park and the Fay Gillis Wells Gazebo, and is surrounded with granite plaques on which are engraved the names of our astronauts.

Bronze Statue of Amelia Earhart with Fay Gillis Wells Gazebo in the background
Bronze Statue of Amelia Earhart with Fay Gillis Wells Gazebo in the background.
 

At the entrance to the park is a lovely, large gazebo, dedicated to Fay and named the Fay Gillis Wells Gazebo. Adjacent to the gazebo is a life-sized bronze statue of Amelia Earhart. Meandering through the forest so that it comes close to each of the state and country trees is a concrete path called "Memory Lane." Embedded in this concrete walk are granite plaques engraved with the names of men and women who have made some kind of contribution to aviation. Each year a few outstanding aviators are selected to be added to the list of honorees who have their names engraved on new plaques embedded in the path, and although the plaques are reminiscent of headstones in a cemetery, persons both living and deceased are honored in the Forest.

Such luminaries as, General H. H. (Hap) Arnold, former President George Bush, Lt. Gen. Claire Lee Chenault, Jacqueline Cochran, Glenn Curtis, Lt. Gen Benjamin O. Davis, General James (Jimmy) Doolittle (my personal aviation hero), former President Dwight Eisenhower, William (Bill) Lear, and Charles A. Lindbergh, to name just a few, have been honored by being memorialized in the forest.

The International Forest of FriendshipIn late June of each year, there is an impressive weekend-long ceremony at the Forest to enshrine a few new honorees, who have been nominated by various recognized aviation bodies and approved by the board of trustees. There is a banquet, highlighted by a prominent aviation speaker on Saturday. Then on Sunday, the induction ceremony is conducted at the Forest, with a brief rundown of that person's contribution to aviation and the presentation to the honoree, or his or her heirs, a wall plaque and photo of the granite stone. During this ceremony there is a parade of flags from all over the world and all the states of the Union. Participating in this parade are Boy Scout troops from Atcheson and representatives of the Atcheson Police Department.

The 1999 ceremony was held on June 19th and 20th. The Greater Detroit Area Chapter of the Ninety-Nines nominated one of my students to be honored with a plaque in the forest, and I was asked by the chairperson of the chapter to write the brief bio that is published in Atcheson's daily newspaper, The Atcheson Globe, and read at the induction ceremony. Here is what I wrote:

Susan Siporin

Sue Siporin's contributions to aviation are far too numerous to even list in the limited space allotted, so all that can be done here is to highlight just a few of them. She donates her time, talent, and airplane (a full-deice Seneca II) to fly for Mercy Med Flights, Inc. For over 3 years she served as secretary to this group. Sue has been a member of the Greater Detroit Area Chapter of the 99s for 22 years and has held every office except treasurer. She chaired the chapter in 1988-89 and under her leadership it grew to become one of the most active of all the 99s. She has also flown children to Camp Catch-A-Rainbow, a camp for kids with cancer as well as regularly flying handicapped children for Challenge Air, and for many years she has used her airplane to deliver Christmas gifts to needy children in the Spirit of Good Cheer program. She has participated in the SMALL race on numerous occasions as well as the Michigan Air Tour. She speaks (and arranges) for other speakers to classes in the local school system. The Greater Detroit Area Chapter of the Ninety-nines nominated her for the Governor's Service Award, which she was awarded in 1996. She is a long-standing member of EAA Chapter 13, the longest continually running chapter in the United States. And all these are merely a few of Susan Siporin's accomplishments in the field of aviation.

Susan SiporinAnd now, if you will forgive me, I will inject a personal note. I first met Susan when she was a young college girl, and although she never knew this, I got the (mistaken) impression that she was a stuck-up snob. She appeared to be cool and aloof, and I was sure she didn't like me. Several years later when I was a volunteer flight instructor in the Pinch Hitter Program run by the Greater Detroit Area Chapter of the Ninety-nines, one of my students remarked, "Boy, I understand I'm lucky to have you for my instructor. My response was, "Where did you ever get an idea like that?" "That lady over there says you're the best!" and she pointed at Sue. Needless to say I was shocked.

A year or so later Susan showed up at my office and said she wanted me to train her for an instrument rating, a multiengine rating and a commercial pilot certificate (at that time she held a bare bones private pilot certificate). I thought to myself, "Oh Boy! This is going to be an extremely difficult project. She's going to want me to open up her head and pour it in. I'll have to do all the work for her, but as long as her pocketbook and my patience hold out I guess I can do it." I have to tell you that I've never been so pleased to be wrong in my entire life. Susan turned out to be an absolutely outstanding flight student. She did her homework and came prepared. I would demonstrate a maneuver or principle and then she'd do it, and do it right the first time! It was a joy to instruct her, and since that time she and her husband, Sandy, have become good friends of mine. If anyone is deserving of enshrinement in the International Forest of Friendship it is Susan Siporin.

I have been attending the induction ceremony at the Forest for the past several years as has Susan. Needless to say, it brought me great pleasure to write this tribute to Susan, and an even greater pleasure was observing the surprise, even shock, when she arrived at the forest for this year's celebration and found that she was to be an honoree.

The GDAC

For many years I had been laboring under the impression that the Ninety-Nines is a sort of social club for women who have some kind of (possibly remote) relationship to the world of aviation. I'm sure this is true of some chapters and some members, but I was in for a real awakening when I became aware of the Greater Detroit Area Chapter of the Ninety-Nines. This particular group is made up of active aviators who actually do things, good things. Some examples include painting compass roses on the run-up pads of airports all over Michigan, raising money to sponsor aviation scholarships for deserving young women, and providing speakers for school programs. They also sponsor and participate in aviation safety programs throughout the year, and every spring they have an all-day safety forum for VFR pilots and another one in the fall for IFR pilots.

The Pinch-Hitter Program

But most impressive of the many things the GDAC does is the Pinch-Hitter course they offer annually in May. They literally take over the tower-controlled Ann Arbor, Mich., airport for a weekend and, using AOPA's structured curriculum, which includes four hours of ground instruction, four hours of flight instruction, and four hours of debriefing, they teach a bunch of non-pilot, frequent passengers (usually spouses), sitting in the right seat, to find an airport and get the airplane on the ground without hurting themselves or anyone else and without bending the metal. And it is all done with volunteer help.

Ninety-Nines BannerOrganizing this program is an absolutely monumental task. Enrollment is limited to thirty, broken up into three groups of ten pinch-hitters. While one group is receiving ground instruction (from a member of the Ninety-Nines who is a certificated ground instructor), another is flying with a volunteer certificated flight instructor, and a member of the Ninety-Nines is debriefing the third group. The pinch-hitters supply the airplanes, and every attempt is made to match the pinch-hitter with a debriefer who flies the same make and model. Each pinch-hitter must also be paired with an instructor who is familiar with the make and model airplane they fly. Paperwork for the airplanes (including annual inspections, insurance, etc.) must be carefully checked. For the most part, each flight instructor has two students, occasionally only one, and sometimes as many as three.

For 13 years, I have volunteered my talent and my time for a weekend to teach in this program. Because of my experience with a wide variety of general aviation aircraft, I have used a Cessna 414 (a pressurized twin in which I taught the student to use the autopilot to find an airport), a Cessna 180 with a STOL kit, and a TriPacer.

Job Satisfaction

GDAC loogOne of the most gratifying experiences I have ever had as a flight instructor occurred at the GDAC Pinch-Hitter course several years ago. A man had brought his wife and 15-year-old daughter in for the program in a beautiful old Stinson Station Wagon (a wood and fabric four-place taildragger). If the daughter had had a student pilot certificate, I could have soloed her. She was that good. Her mother, the guy's wife, was another story altogether. The poor woman was so uptight and nervous that she had to excuse herself and go to the ladies room to barf before we ever got to the airplane!

When we finally took off, she crossed her arms across her chest and refused to touch anything! I abbreviated that session by merely flying around the pattern and landing. Of all my accomplishments as a flight instructor, I am most proud of the fact that by the end of the second day of flying (her fourth hour), I had that woman landing that airplane unassisted! And I'm sure that if she is ever flying as a passenger with her husband and becomes incapacitated, she will keep her cool and get the airplane on the ground with little damage and no injuries. She may run off the runway, but nobody will be seriously hurt and the airplane won't get seriously bent.
I am a great believer in the value of this program. Over the years, the pinch-hitter program has been credited with several saves when a pilot could not complete a flight and a passenger who had been through the program has taken over and brought the airplane safely home to mother Earth.

These are but two examples of the fine work performed by the Ninety-Nines.

Blue skies and sunshine to you all.


Usual Boilerplate: If you have a comment regarding this column, please post it here rather than sending it to me by direct email. That way others may benefit from your input