Flying with the 99s

Westbound over Irondequoit Bay. Photo courtesy of Frances Englund
by Laurel C. Wemett

Many young people dream of flying. When Samantha Horne was 15, her younger brother was working on his Boy Scout aviation merit badge. Their father arranged for him to take a “Young Eagles” flight, his first ride in an airplane, offered free to youngsters ages 8 to 17 to introduce them to the world of aviation. “Afterwards, the pilot offered to take me and my sister up,” recalls Samantha, now 21. After that flight the Avon teen knew flying was something she wanted to pursue, and over the next few years she succeeded in achieving her goal.

Horne’s interest in aviation was fueled by attending an aviation camp. “I got the chance to do workshops making a spark plug holder, a wing rib, and went for a ride in an airplane and a helicopter,” recalls Horne of activities at the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Air Academy camp in Oshkosh, Wisconsin for youngsters interested in aviation. “I was the fortunate recipient of the EAA Gathering of Eagles scholarship and began flight training in Kissimmee, Florida.” It took about a year and a half – while she was still in high school – to complete her private pilot’s license at age 18 in 2014. By January 2017 she received her Instrument Rating, thanks to the generosity of an Amelia Earhart Memorial scholarship from the Ninety-Nines (99s), an international organization of licensed women pilots and women student pilots. The instrument rating enables Horne to operate aircraft in all types of weather conditions. Now a commercial license is in the young woman’s sights along with her long-term goal to work in the management side of aviation. After receiving her BS from SUNY Brockport in August 2017, she will go on to study for a Masters in Business Administration at SUNY Oswego.

The Ninety-Nines

Horne is one of the youngest members in the Finger Lakes Chapter of the 99s, which offers women fellowship through flight along with scholarship opportunities and activities honoring female aviation history. The group began in 1929, when 99 of the 117 women who held pilot licenses at that time joined and formed an organization named for the 99 charter members. In 1931, the famed aviator Amelia Earhart became its first elected president. Membership in the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization is available to female pilots (current or not) or females holding a current student pilot certificate. The group’s headquarters are in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The Finger Lakes 99s chapter is one of 154 chapters worldwide and part of a geographical “Section” that covers both New York and New Jersey.

The Finger Lakes Chapter, centered on Rochester, extends from Lake Ontario to the New York/Pennsylvania border, westward halfway between Rochester and Buffalo, and eastward half way between Rochester and Syracuse. Currently there are 18 members in the chapter, which was chartered in July, 1973. Seven either own their own planes or fly planes owned by relatives. The youngest member is 16 years old and the oldest member is in her 80s.

Activities are often held in conjunction with and support of the Western New York and the Central New York Chapters and the New York-New Jersey Section of the 99s. The Finger Lakes and Western New York 99s kicked off the National Warplane Museum’s Air show in July with a flying/driving poker run that finished at the Airshow grounds. In 2018, the 99s will assist with the 42nd Annual Air Race Classic (successor to the Powder Puff Derby) which promotes the tradition of pioneering women in aviation and will make its last stop at the Penn Yan Airport.

The Dream of Flying

The reasons women pursue the dream of flying are varied, and those who succeed represent only a tiny percentage of aviators worldwide. Often they are employed in other careers and fly for pleasure, while others become professional pilots for airlines, industry and government. Janet Sarbou, a Director of the New York-New Jersey Section of 99s and chair of the Finger Lakes Chapter, learned to fly in Nebraska and while she no longer taxis a plane along a runway, she believes “flying saved my life.” Getting her pilot’s license at age 42 restored her confidence, giving her courage to leave a bad marriage, and to complete her BA degree. She found a job as a civilian working at the Department of Defense, joining 99s chapters wherever she lived. Sarbou enjoys the friendships and the opportunity to inspire student pilots.

“Just teach me how to land,” was what Judy Stiles of Keuka Park said to her flight instructor. Stiles’ late husband had a pilot license and purchased a plane with the couple’s neighbor. She wanted to be prepared to take over the controls should an emergency arise. However, the occupational therapist fell in love with flying. “Most pilots comment that the world looks smaller,” says Stiles, a Finger Lakes 99s member since 1975. “It makes problems seem insignificant. It provides a chance to get away from life’s setbacks and to appreciate a beautiful world.”

“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to fly,” admits Frances Englund of Fairport, who now works as a certified pharmacy technician. She joined the Finger Lakes 99s in 2007, serving in a number of chapter positions, including scholarship chairperson. As a youngster, Englund remembers donning a red towel as a cape and jumping off the arm of a sofa. In 1984 she earned her private pilot certificate, flying on and off for several years. Then in October 2014, she fulfilled a dream of owning her own plane when she bought a Cessna 172. “It was a great feeling flying my own airplane. I chose that model because it has a high wing, making it easier to get in and out.” Englund keeps the four-seat, single-engine plane at the Williamson-Sodus Airport, a location that affords the pilot and her passengers spectacular aerial views of Lake Ontario and beyond.

Normandy 70th Anniversary

“I love to fly – the freedom of it – you’re in control,” says Naomi Wadsworth, another Finger Lakes 99s chapter member. “There’s a grace and beauty to it; you see things you don’t otherwise see,” explains the Mt. Morris resident who owns her own custom-designed dance wear business, Naomi Designs. She became a student pilot in 1979 and earned her private license in 1981. Wadsworth’s commercial license in 2003 permitted her to fly cargo and commercial aircraft. Wadsworth gained unique experience flying vintage aircraft that her family and friends collected for the National Warplane Museum, formed in 1982. Located on the grounds of the Geneseo Airport in Livingston County, the museum boasts military aircraft from World War II and the Korean War eras. “It was a great opportunity for someone like me to get experience on how to fly huge airplanes and to become a good pilot,” says Wadsworth.

Wadsworth shared her memorable flight for a D-Day commemoration at the annual New York-New Jersey 99s Section meeting in May 2017, hosted by the Finger Lakes 99s at the Penn Yan airport (KPEO), the largest airport in the Finger Lakes. In 2014, Wadsworth was one of four pilots on the Whiskey 7’s seven-day flight to France for the 70th anniversary of the storming of Normandy during World War II. Known as Whiskey 7 because of its markings, the airplane was one of the original troop carriers that dropped paratroopers over coastal France in advance of the amphibious invasion when that country was occupied by German forces. Wadsworth was at the controls of the twin-engine, propeller-driven C-47 military transport at the takeoff for its journey.

Naomi’s brother Craig Wadsworth, a U.S. Air Force veteran and commercial pilot, did maintenance as well as flying to Normandy. The trans-Atlantic crossing included stops in Maine, Labrador, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland and Germany. Wadsworth says a highlight of the experience was meeting people at each stop and ultimately receiving the gratitude and love of the people in Normandy.

Dawn Seymour of Bristol, a member of a 99s chapter in Arizona, was among those on hand to hear Wadsworth’s talk in Penn Yan. Seymour, a friend of the Wadsworths, flew 700 hours in a B-17 during World War II as a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot (WASP). She celebrated her 100th birthday on July 1.

Blanche Stuart Scott (1885-1970)

While 99s member Judy Stiles no longer flies, apart from a commercial flight to visit family each year, she enjoys impersonating the early aviator Blanche Stuart Scott at special events. Scott was born and lived much of her life in Rochester. She was the first American woman to solo an airplane and the only woman taught to fly by Glenn Curtiss in a Curtiss Pusher in Hammondsport. The Finger Lakes 99s has been active in educating the public about Scott’s contribution to aviation. They re-created Scott’s tailored satin flight suit, lucky red sweater, and plush flight cap for a mannequin flying a Curtiss Pusher as part of a permanent display in the main terminal at the Greater Rochester International Airport. Vet Thomas of Hilton, who has a background in CAD/CAM and machining, was commissioned by the Geriatrics Pilot Association to fabricate this exact replica of the original Curtiss Pusher built by Glenn Curtiss in 1911. A second display features Scott at the Glenn Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport.

A Helping Hand

In addition to the camaraderie, the Finger Lakes 99s Chapter supports women in aviation by providing mentors and financial support. Each year a scholarship is given to a girl to attend one of the two aviation camps in the area. Englund mentors and guides applicants through the process of applying for such scholarships.

The international 99s organization established the Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship fund in 1940 as a living memorial to the 99s first president. The fund provides for flight trainings, advance ratings, and even research grants. “If the application is approved at the chapter level, I’m the one who writes the chapter recommendation letter,” says Englund.

“When I started flying there still was not a great acceptance of women in the cockpit,” admits Wadsworth. However, after 37 years of flying she says the prejudice against women pilots has lessened. “I don’t see that now but it’s still not easy – you have to get a tough skin,” and adds, “you must work your way in.” Membership in the 99s offers “opportunities to mentor new members; to pass on what I have learned over all my years of flying – to avoid pitfalls. You can’t just ‘book read,’ you have to experience,” says Wadsworth.

“Women have more challenges in aviation and are supportive of each other,” says Englund. “In this section (of 99s), I never met anyone not willing to lend a helping hand. We’re very affirming of each other.”

Several weeks before the publication of this issue, Dawn Seymour passed away. She will surely be missed.

To learn more:
99s, International Organization of Women Pilots
New York-New Jersey 99s, International Organization of Women Pilots
Finger Lakes Chapter of 99s
National Warplane Museum
Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA)
Glenn Curtiss Museum

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