by Davide Montebruno
The Powder Puff Derby was the world’s first all-woman air race; a 2,300-mile, nine-day odyssey from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio which began August 24, 1929. Twenty of the roughly 100 women who then held pilot licences in the United States participated, and of them fifteen finished the race on September 2nd. After the days’ festivities, finalists including Amelia Earhart, Neva Paris and race winners Louise Thaden and Phoebe Omlie gathered under the deserted bleachers to discuss their future in aviation. Although the spectacle of an all-woman air race was a big draw, it did not translate to flying jobs for women. Not content to let the matter stand, these bold and independent women agreed to meet again to formalize their association and support each other’s talents.
Just three months later, in November of 1929, invitations were extended to every female pilot in the United States, 86 of whom agreed to join the new association. Ultimately, 26 pilots converged on Curtis Airport, on the outskirts of New York City. Neva Paris, a Curtiss School of Aviation pilot, had made arrangements for the assembly at one end of a busy engine-repair hangar. A tool cart was used for tea service. Their first order of business was to elect Neva Paris interim chairperson of the new association, in recognition of her efforts to organise the meeting.
While the members agreed unanimously on the mandate of promoting employment for women pilots, naming the new association was another matter. Some initial suggestions were The Climbing Vines, Gadflies and Homing Pigeons, but none captured the grandeur they hoped to project. Amelia Earhart and Jean Davis Hoyt suggested naming the group after the number of charter members. The title the 86s was temporarily adopted, and over the next few days, as word spread, that number increased to 97 and finally to 99. The name Ninety-Nines stuck thereafter, though membership continued to grow into the thousands and, eventually, chapters spread to 35 countries around the globe.
In 1950, five Canadian women created their own chapter in Ottawa, when membership was opened internationally. Five charter members established the First Canada Section in Ottawa and, the following year, six pilots in Lethbridge founded the Alberta Chapter.
The first 99s meeting in Winnipeg took place on May 26, 1971. Rosella Bjornson, who would shortly become Canada’s first woman airline pilot, was elected the first chairperson of the Greater Winnipeg Chapter. The Winnipeg Chapter focused heavily on education, and sponsored dozens of presentations and training seminars each year to support the rapidly expanding community of women pilots in the city. The chapter in Winnipeg eventually expanded to become the Manitoba Chapter, and offers the annual Rosella Bjornson flight training scholarship, to assist private pilots in attaining their commercial rating.
A permanent display of uniforms worn by early women pilots can be viewed at The Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada. To learn more about this subject, check the Windsock Giftshop for the book No Place For a Lady by Shirley Render, the comprehensive story of women pilots in Canada from 1928-1992.
In the photo are (left to right): Helga Valousek, Rosella Bjornson, Pat Chudley, Gail Duncan and Kate Dougherty—the five founding member of the Winnipeg chapter of The 99s.