Women pilots had been barred from participating in the celebrated Cleveland Air Race, so in 1929 they decided to start their own. The Air Race Classic was instantly met with public criticism, with the women almost being forced to each fly with a man, but they refused to race under such conditions.
Despite the obstacles, 20 women pilots started the 2,700 mile race from Santa Monica, California, and, with Will Rogers serving as starter, raced to Cleveland, Ohio. The racers included Amelia Earhart and film pilot Ruth Elder as well as women who had been drawn to the rare opportunity in a heavily male world of aviation.
Some pilots soon faced problems, including from suspected sabotage, and one pilot caught typhoid fever. Another had a fatal crash. Yet 14 finished, an impressive number for any long distance air race in the early days of flight. Following the race, the women reconvened in November of that year and decided to start the first women pilots organization. They sent letters to each of the 117 women pilots in the country and heard back from 99. Thus the Ninety-Nines International Organization of Women Pilots was formed.
Their headquarters is now in Oklahoma City near, coincidentally, the Will Rogers World Airport, and on their second floor is a museum dedicated to women pilots. There are displays on Harriet Quimby, the first woman to get a pilot’s license in the United States; Bessie Coleman, the first African American female pilot; Tiny Broadwick, the first woman to jump with a parachute from a hot air balloon; Bassica Raiche, who built her first biplane in her living room; early German aviatrix Melli Beese; and women in the space program like Sally Ride.
There are also numerous personal objects belonging to Amelia Earhart, who was the first president of the Ninety-Nines. These include her good luck scarf and elephant bracelet, which were left with her mother before her last flight, as well as her goggles and even a lock of her hair.
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