Seventy-six years ago an airplane raced across the ocean with a woman at the controls. Today, it happens so often, no one notices.
On May 20, 1932 the world did notice and celebrated when Amelia Earhart became the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic. She challenged herself and triumphed, but at the same time Earhart broke down another barrier — she proved a woman can do most things a man can do if she sets her mind to it.
Earlier in 1928, Earhart had been chosen to fly with a crew of men to cross the Atlantic in a Fokker trimotor named “Friendship.” She had earned her pilot’s license and was qualified to fly, but instead sat in the cabin, relegated to keeping the log. On landing, crowds swarmed the aircraft just to get a glimpse of her, and although she never took the controls, Earhart was heralded as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. She downplayed her role with the press, likening herself to baggage along for the ride. But she knew she could do it by herself and vowed one day to try.
She kept that promise four years later. On that May of 1932 in her shiny red Lockheed Vega, Earhart lifted off from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland bound for Paris — the same destination of Charles Lindbergh’s transoceanic solo in 1927.
The biography, “Amelia Earhart” by Doris L. Rich, describes Earhart’s solo flight which was fraught with problems from the beginning.
Soon after takeoff, as the sun set, she encountered a severe electrical storm. While fighting to keep the Vega under control, her altimeter malfunctioned, and in the dark, she had no idea how low she was flying. Climbing higher only made matters worse. The colder temperatures froze the tachometer, and it was impossible to estimate speed or distance, which was critical to staying on course. Then exhaust flames from a crack in the engine manifold caught fire, but turning back was not an option. The airfield back at Harbor Grace was unlighted. Carrying a full load of fuel with flames shooting out the exhaust presented too much of a fire hazard, and her chances of surviving an emergency landing in the dark were nil. So she pressed on, estimating her altitude at 12,000 feet. At that height, her wings iced, putting the plane into a spin. She saw whitecaps on the water just before the wing ice melted, and she was able to pull up. For the rest of the flight she attempted to stay low enough so the wings wouldn’t ice, but high enough to use her instruments. In addition, the fuel gauge was broken, and she had no idea how much fuel was left. The tank leaked and dripped gas down her back, filling the cockpit with fumes.
After struggling for over 14 hours in the air, she finally spotted fishing boats off the coast of Ireland and rejected her original plan to fly to Paris. Amelia Earhart put her craft down in a farmer’s field at Londonderry, Northern Ireland, making her the second person and the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Her legacy remains and she serves as a role model for female pilots around the world.
To promote aviation careers for women and focus attention on their skills, in 1929 Earhart founded the women’s flying club known as the 99s. Named for the number of original members, today the group has chapters in every state with several in Florida.
Newly chartered in 2007, the Paradise Coast Chapter headquartered in Fort Myers, has a total of 22 members with flying experience all across the board. Some members are new pilots; others have been flying for 60 years. The women’s ages range from the twenties to the eighties, and they all share a sisterhood with Earhart — a love for flying.
“Earhart and all the early pioneering women pilots are great inspiration,” said pilot Terry Carbonell of Alva, Florida. Carbonell, who owns two airplanes and is an active member of the Paradise Coast 99s, had never thought about learning to fly until three years ago when her husband asked for a favor.
“My husband, Mario, has Alzheimer’s Disease,” she said. “He was a pilot from his youth in Cuba and cannot fly anymore because of the disease.”
After taking a flight in a light aircraft with a friend, Mario was thrilled and wanted to spend more time in the air. He asked Terry to get her pilot’s license, so she could take him up. She reluctantly agreed, knowing he’d be unable to help if anything went wrong. She studied and practiced, learning everything she could, and in 2005, at the “ripe old age of 44,” she earned her private pilot’s license. Today she’s logged over 950 hours, has a tail-wheel endorsement and a commercial instrument rating. She’s flown across the country twice and will soon complete her sea plane rating. This June, Carbonell will compete — for the second time — in the acclaimed women’s Air Race Classic. She’s accomplished all this in less than three years.
“I usually jump into anything I do with both feet,” she said.
In the Air Race Classic, a transcontinental speed competition for female pilots, the women have four days to race over 2000 miles competing for a purse of $15,000. The race begins this year in Bozeman, Mo., and ends in Mansfield, Mass.
Carbonell and her co-pilot for this year’s race, Theresa White, met last year in Oklahoma and immediately recognized they shared similar life experiences and philosophies.
“We hit it off like we were twins,” said Carbonell.
The two women will fly Terry’s Cessna 182, dubbed Wild Mama for the last letters of the airplane’s identification number.
“Some argue, however, that the name applies equally to the pilot,” said Terry with a laugh. In fact, the two women entered the race as “Team Wild Mama.”
Carbonell said racing boosts her confidence in her abilities, and she learns more about her airplane’s performance. Her 182 is equipped with up-to-date instruments for weather and navigation, but even so, the tasks of taking into account weather delays, mechanical difficulties and fatigue, while all the time pushing for speed, take flight planning and flying to a new level, she said.
For years female pilots often weren’t allowed to race with men, and when they were, any accident gave organizers an excuse to exclude women. Encouraged by the 99s, they formed their own competitions. Early races were nicknamed The Powder Puff Derby by humorist Will Rogers. These races attracted the great women pilots of the day — Pancho Barnes, Louise Thaden, Bobbi Trout and many others.
“I was quite amazed and impressed at what these women had to do just to get in an airplane to fly. How men thought women were inherently dangerous and how with nothing more that a compass, Rand McNally road map and sheer guts and determination, they made their way across the U.S. in the first Powder Puff Derby,” said Carbonell.
Anne Roethke, a member of the 99s since 1958, raced in the Powder Puff Derby twice in the ‘60s. Roethke learned to fly in a Piper Cub, a single-engine fabric airplane, called a “tail dragger” because the third wheel is set on the tail instead of the nose. Tail wheel airplanes are tricky to fly, especially for a beginner, but Roethke shrugged.
“I didn’t have a choice. I started flying in 1945 and there were no tricycle gears back then.” She flew search and rescue missions for the Coast Guard Auxiliary for 10 years. After logging over 6,000 hours in the air, Roethke no longer flies herself, but joins her fellow 99s aloft in their airplanes when she can.
“It’s my passion,” she said. “I love it.”
Not only is flying fun, but a good way to relieve stress, said Kaye Tucker, a Cape Coral snowbird from Wisconsin and a member of the Paradise Coast 99s. When the corporate world got too much for her, she’d retreat skyward for rejuvenation.
“When in the airplane, flying required my complete attention so I was able to escape reality for a couple of hours.”
This year she said she had the highlight of her flying experience — introducing her two grandchildren to the joys of flying.
Suzanne Nickerson, 99s member, learned the joys of flying herself as a very young girl. Her father, a former Navy helicopter pilot, gave Nickerson her first lesson in a Cessna 150 when she was eleven.
“I made my first landing on my sixth lesson.”
By age 14, she’d had enough instruction to fly on her own, but legally she had to wait two more years.
“I soloed on my 16th birthday and got my private pilot’s license on my 17th birthday,” said Nickerson. She got her instrument rating at 19. Today she’s logged over 375 hours in a multitude of different aircrafts, including the same T-28 her father flew in the Navy and has flown cross-country with him in a Bell 47 helicopter. Nickerson’s next two goals are commercial airplane and helicopter ratings. Time on the ground is spent restoring a 1942 Stearman open cockpit bi-plane with her husband, Chuck.
Charter 99s member, Judy Bowser, said when she urged her husband, Bob, to reinstate his seldom-used pilot’s license a few years ago, little did she know it would spark her own interest in flying. They both had VHF radio experience due to their love of sailboats, so the couple joined the Sundown Patrol, a group that uses a Sundowner’s airplane and pilot and three observers to search for stranded boaters. Her husband preferred Judy to be in the right seat since she could work the radio while he flew. That’s when the importance of being second in command struck her.
“I felt strongly if I was in the right seat, that I should know how to get us back should something happen to the pilot,” she said. She attended a Companion Course to learn how to operate the GPS, steer the plane, talk to the tower, and most importantly, land the airplane. One thing led to another, and she decided she didn’t want to have to ask a pilot to take her up.
“I wanted to learn to fly myself,” she said, so she completed her training and earned her license in April of 2004. She’s working on her instrument rating and hopes to be ready to compete in the Air Race Classic next year.
“If Amelia and other women could fly around the world and cross country, I feel I can fly cross country, too.”
Marco Island student pilot, Maria Molter, flew for the first time when she was 12 years old. The thought of piloting an airplane herself never crossed her mind until she started working at the Marco Island Executive Airport. Molter and her boyfriend began taking trips in his Beech Bonanza, and that led to her desire to learn. His airplane was too complex for a beginner, so she purchased a Piper Cherokee in 2005. At work, as Maria attends to her duties, she comes in contact with pilots from all over the country and often hears them call in before landing.
“I love to hear a female voice on the radio,” she said with a smile.
Not only do the 99s have fun together and share a common interest, but they reach out to adults and youngsters in the community to stimulate interest in aviation. They provide scholarships to help women finance lessons and act as positive role models to young girls.
“The 99s helped me see that women pilots are anything they want to be — instruction, commercial airline pilots, military pilots — they can have any flying career a man can have,” said Carbonell.
Amelia Earhart was ahead of her time. She demanded — and received — equal praise for her accomplishments in the air which laid the groundwork of respect for female pilots today.
“We have it so easy now. We have nothing to prove to the world,” said Terry Carbonell. “Amelia Earhart and her contemporaries did that for us.”