By Kelsey Lamkin, Graduate Assistant
Amelia Earhart might be the most famous woman aviator in history, but in Tennessee, we have our own sheroes.
The Ninety-Nines was founded in 1929 to encourage and support women aviators. Tennessee established its own chapter on August 9, 1940 with five charter members: Pearl Fancher Brock, Chairman; Louise Carson, Vice Chariman; Ruth Bowler, Secretary Treasurer; Ruth Wolfe Thomas; and Millie Ownby. The first year saw tremendous interest in the state as membership more than doubled.
The Ninety-Nines dazzled the nation in its early years, conducting air shows and showing amazed citizens what women were capable of. But the events of December 7, 1941 interrupted such aeronautical displays and plunged the nation into the realities of World War II. The next day, all pilot certificates were suspended, casting doubt on the future of the organization. Many Ninety-Niners jumped at the chance to serve their country, and some even gained national recognition for their efforts.
Cornelia Fort worked as a flight instructor in Hawaii and witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Ninety-Nines received correspondence from Fort about her near-collision with a Japanese plane. She wrote that she was “especially angry at them for blasting [her] beautiful job right out from under [her].” Read Fort’s full news report for the March 1942 Ninety-Nine Newsletter below. Tragically, she was killed in action in 1943, which distinguished her as the first woman to die in military service during World War II. The Cornelia Fort Airpark was named to honor Nashville’s first female licensed pilot.
The national chapter of the Ninety-Nines remains active today, and their mission statement is “to preserve the unique history of women in aviation.” For more information on the national chapter, visit their website: https://www.ninety-nines.org/.