Alverna Babbs challenged the Civil Aeronautics Administration in 1944 for a waiver to earn her student pilot’s license. The CAA was reluctant due to Babb’s disability—a double leg amputation at the age of 13 months. With her own persistence and the assistance of Roscoe Turner, Babbs earned her waiver and her full pilot’s license in 1946, the first person with a disability to do so (as documented in the previous blog in this series celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act). After remarrying and having children, Alverna Williams took a 30 year hiatus from flying. She returned to aviation in the 1970s, determined once again to take her place in the sky.
The Ninety-Nines and the 30th Anniversary Powder Puff Derby Commemorative Flight
Alverna marked her return in 1973 by joining the Ninety-Nines, an organization founded in 1929 by Amelia Earhart, Ruth Elder, Viola Gentry, Phoebe Omlie, and Louise Thaden, and others, to promote women pilots and to encourage other women to fly. She was now living in Grand Prairie, Texas, and the Fort Worth Chapter announced her as one of their newest members in the March/April 1974 issue of organization’s newsletter, the Ninety-Niner. She continued to hone her skills by taking an instrument ground course at Mountain View Junior College in fall 1975.
By 1977, Alverna was ready to fly cross-country solo again and set her sights on the 30th Anniversary Powder Puff Derby Commemorative Flight from California to Florida in June. She found that potential sponsors were put off by her disability and appearance, commenting to the Washington Post, “It’s kind of hard to find a sponsor when you don’t look like Farrah Fawcett-Majors.” She was able to raise the money with assistance of her family, friends, and fellow pilots.
Unfortunately, Alverna’s plan to travel solo was dashed by a fuel leak early in the flight. Marion Burke helped Alverna make her way to El Paso, where Suzanne (Sue) Parish volunteered the rear cockpit of her North American AT-6. Parish had been a member of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) during World War II. Sue and Alverna completed the flight successfully, even stopping on a friend’s ranch so that they could acquire a parachute for Alverna.[i]
Alverna’s participation in the 1977 commemorative flight garnered her many accolades and new friends. She met Jerrie Cobb, one of the 13 women recruited by Dr. Randy Lovelace in 1960 to undergo astronaut training. After the progam’s cancellation, Cobb had relocated to Amazonia, where she flew humanitarian missions, ferrying medicine and supplies. Alverna joined her on one of those South American flights. The Wheelchair Association honored Alverna at their annual banquet in Florida and she was also named “Lady Ercouper of the Year.” The city of Grand Prairie officially declared November 7 to be “Alverna Williams Day.” Her year was capped off on December 15, 1977, when Texas Representative Dale Milford had an honorarium read into the Congressional Record for “A Remarkable Woman—Alverna Williams.”
In addition to the Ninety-Nines, Alverna Williams was a member of many other aviation organizations, including the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), Ercoupe Owners Club, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), and Silver Wings. She often expressed the sentiment inscribed in the foreword to her 1944 autobiography: “Although many would consider my handicap a calamity, it has in no way hindered me from living a normal, full, and enjoyable life….What I have done, anyone can do!”[ii]
Alverna Bennett Babbs Williams passed away on March 7, 2007.[iii]
Re-finding Alverna Williams in the National Air and Space Museum Archives Collections
The accomplishment that Alverna Williams mentioned most often in later interviews was that the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum hung her portrait in the new General Aviation Gallery. As a reference archivist for the National Air and Space Museum Archives, I first heard of Alverna through a request from a patron. She was researching her mother, a pilot with paraplegia, and wanted to learn more about her mother’s hero, but she only knew the first name—Alvera. I quickly fell down the rabbit hole of research!
A quick search of the Archives’ Technical Reference Files (and a fortuitous misspelling on my part) found the subject heading: “Babbs, Alverna.” The contents of the file were brief—one 1944 newspaper clipping, smaller than my hand, about her attempts to earn a student license. This was clearly the woman I sought! I moved to our collection of Ninety-Nines History Books. I didn’t find Alverna Babbs, but I found Alverna Williams in the newsletters from the 1970s. And, of more interest to me, there was a photograph of her posing with her photograph in the National Air and Space Museum.
The General Aviation Gallery is long gone, so I wondered what happened to the photograph. Many of the images from older galleries have ended up in the Archives’ Videodisc Collection, catalogued in our in-house database. This should be easy! But there was no Alverna Williams or Babbs in our image database. Knowing that she posed with her Ercoupe, I made my way through 232 catalogued aircraft images. And there it was, exactly as it was in the tiny photo behind her head in the 99er! But I was dismayed to see that a person (probably in the early 1980s) had misidentified the photograph as aviation pioneer Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock.
Looking at other photographs, I could see a slight resemblance to Mock, but the overarching source of the error was evident in the caption: “Jerrie Mock kneels on her airplane wing.” It probably hadn’t even occurred to the captioner that the photo could feature someone with a disability, such as Alverna Williams’.
Immediately, we recaptioned the photo with Alverna’s correct name, also adding the subject heading “Persons with Disabilities in Aviation and Space Science.” We also updated her biographical file heading to “Babbs (Williams), Alverna Daisy Bennett,” reflecting the various names under which she lived her life, giving more weight to those she flew under as well as acknowledging her official registered name at the time of her death, “Alverna Daisy Williams.”[iv] Alverna Williams flies again in the National Air and Space Museum Archives.
“I have no legs, but I do have wings.” Alverna Williams, 1977
[ii] Alverna Babbs and Louis “Speedy” Babbs, The Life Story of Miss Alverna and “Speedy” Babbs: Stars of the Dare-Devel Circus, Cincinnati, Ohio: Sidney Printing Works, 1944. I’ve only found two copies: one in Special Collections and Archives at California State University Northridge and the other in the Roscoe Turner Papers, University of Wyoming. American Heritage Center.
[iii] Ancestry.com. U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2014.
[iv] Spurred on by this story, I’ve spent the past year researching the history of Alverna Bennett Babbs Williams from the 99ers newsletters to the Roscoe Turner Papers in Wyoming (many thanks to their archivists in a difficult time) to ProQuest Newspapers to Ancestry. Current conditions have made additional research difficult. I’m still waiting to hear from the archives of the Ringling Brothers Circus. I also would like to determine if there is a copy of the 1946 short film Wings of Courage, produced by Thomas Mead, featuring Alverna and her Skyfarer in the Library of Congress. Finally, in 1977, Alverna Williams mentioned she was writing a book on her life entitled Flying Solo. I haven’t found it to be published, but I would be curious to see if the manuscript is still extant.