In 1929, a group of 99 women pilots (out of the the 285 licensed women pilots in the U.S.) decided to form an organization for social, recruitment, and business purposes. Living in a society that limited women's social and economic independence, these group formed for women to mutually support each other in the aviation profession. 

Thus the Ninety-Nines were born. The organization continues to exist today. This is the story of three of the many members.  

Amelia Earhart

In addition to her record setting, Amelia Earhart helped form the Ninety-Nines (National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, SI 79-6354).

Earhart helped form the Ninety-Nines and was the organization’s first president. In 1929, Earhart was already making a name for herself. The previous year, she was the first woman to be a passenger on a transatlantic flight, a flight which brought her international attention. However, Earhart was just getting started.  

In May 1932, she was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic solo, the second person after Charles Lindbergh fly across it at all, and the first person to cross the ocean by plane twice. In August she became the first women to fly solo across the United States.  

Earhart continued to set records and gain attention. She tirelessly lectured across the country on the subjects of aviation and women's issues and wrote for Cosmopolitan and various other magazines. She wrote about her flights and career in the books 20 Hours and 40 Minutes (1928) and The Fun of It (1933). 

In 1937, Earhart’s life was tragically cut short when her plane disappeared while she attempted to fly around the world. Earhart's disappearance remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the 20th century, and it often overshadows her legacy as a courageous and dedicated aviator and as an enduring inspiration. 

Louise Thaden

Louise Thaden was a founding member of the Ninety-Nines. (National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution)

Record-setting pilot Louise Thaden captured America's attention during the late 1920s and 1930s. 

A 1925 student at the University of Arkansas, she had been interested in aviation long before learning to fly. In 1926 Thaden was working for the J.H.J. Turner Coal Co., but she spent so much time visiting the Travel Air Factory that Turner introduced her to his friend Walter Beech, who owned Travel Air. Beech offered her a job with his Pacific Coast distributor, which she accepted. As part of her salary, Louise received flying lessons.  

In 1929 she gained recognition as a competitive flyer when she became the first pilot to hold the women's altitude, endurance, and speed records in light planes simultaneously. In 1929 she captured first place in the first annual Women's Air Derby, flown from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio. Employed in 1930 as public relations director of Pittsburgh Aviation Industries and director of the Women's Division of the Penn School of Aeronautics, she did much to help popularize aviation while continuing to establish new flying records. In 1935, fellow aviator Phoebe Omlie asked Thaden to join the National Air Marking Program as a field representative. Flying a Beech Staggerwing, Thaden won the Bendix trophy in the Bendix Transcontinental Race of 1936, the first year women were allowed to compete against men. Later that year, she was awarded the Women's Harmon Trophy, an international award given to the outstanding woman aviator of the year.  

Thaden was a founding member of the Ninety-Nines, and in 1937, she became the National Secretary of the National Aeronautics Association. Thaden eventually returned to Beech Aircraft Corporation as a factory representative and demonstration pilot. Her autobiography High Wide and Frightened was published in 1938, and she also authored many newspaper and magazine articles in promotion of aviation. 

Ida Van Smith

In 1967, Ida Van Smith founded a series of flight training clubs for children to encourage their involvement in aviation and aerospace sciences.  

Born in North Carolina, Smith graduated from Shaw University and earned a master's degree from Queens College. She became a teacher in the New York City Public Schools in the fields of history and special education.  

In 1967, at the age of 50, she finally fulfilled a personal dream to learn to fly. Once she had her private pilot's license and instructor rating, Smith founded the Ida Van Smith Flight Club on Long Island, New York. Training for the students was provided in an aircraft simulator funded by the FAA, and an operational Cessna 172. Soon there were more than 20 clubs throughout the country, with members ages 13-19. As a result, thousands of children were exposed to aviation and many pursued careers in aviation. Smith also produced and hosted a cable television show on aviation and taught an introductory aviation course at York College of the City University of New York.  

After she retired from teaching in 1977, Smith remained active in her namesake clubs. She was a member of the Tuskegee Airman's Black Wings, Negro Airman International, and the Ninety-Nines. She has published or been featured in many educational, aviation, and historical journals. Smith has received numerous awards for her contributions to aviation and youth education. Smith died in 2003. 


This content was migrated from an earlier online exhibit, Women in Aviation and Space History, which shared the stories of the women featured in the Museum in early 2000s. 

Related Topics Aviation Interwar aviation People Women Society and Culture
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