Sold – Pioneer Papers of Women’s Aviation -From the Collection of the First Woman Pilot in Maine

Including a letter from Amelia Earhart on formation of The 99’s.

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On August 14, 1929, a 19-year-old sophomore at Wellesley College named Eleanor Spear received her pilot’s license and became the first woman pilot in Maine and one of just over a hundred women pilots in the United States. Her father was the president of Spear Aircraft Corporation and had a number of...

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Sold – Pioneer Papers of Women’s Aviation -From the Collection of the First Woman Pilot in Maine

Including a letter from Amelia Earhart on formation of The 99’s.

On August 14, 1929, a 19-year-old sophomore at Wellesley College named Eleanor Spear received her pilot’s license and became the first woman pilot in Maine and one of just over a hundred women pilots in the United States. Her father was the president of Spear Aircraft Corporation and had a number of planes, but her favorite was the Ryan, a sister craft to The Spirit of St. Louis. The feat of the young collegian, and the example she set for women, brought her recognition and attention from the aviation community and the public in general, and led to her receiving correspondence from notables, invitations to speak on flying, and solicitations to join aviation organizations.

She collected all of these materials in a file and retained it throughout her life. In January 2006, Eleanor died at the age of 95, surely one of the last of the pioneers of women’s flight. We were pleased to obtain her aviation file from her estate.

By November 1929, there were 117 American female pilots. Some of them thought that they should organize for mutual support and the advancement of women in aviation and the idea caught on. They were all invited to assemble for this purpose at Curtiss Field, Valley Stream, Long Island, New York on November 2. Quite a few came and they agreed to form an organization. Louise Thaden was elected secretary and she worked tirelessly to bring the group together. It became established on a firm footing and was named for the 99 charter members. In 1931, Amelia Earhart was elected president. Today, after 77 years, the 99’s have over 5,500 members in 35 countries. Spear’s file contains their initial contact and organizational materials.

On October 9, the invitation letter was sent out to all 117 licensed women pilots in the U.S. This Typed Letter Signed is Spear’s original letter. “On talking it over among ourselves and the other pilots whom we already know personally, it seems that the women pilots in this country should have some sort of an organization- our own QB, Early Birds or NAPA. It need not be a tremendously official sort of an organization, just a way to get acquainted, to discuss the prospects for women pilots from both a sports and breadwinning point of view, and to tip each other off on what’s going on in the industry. We would not need a lot of officers and red tape machinery…We might better also have a little constitution, brief, simple, and not too ironclad. Then we need a name and a pin. Attached is a tentative suggested constitution. Look it over and append any suggestion which may occur to you. Could you attend an organization meeting on November second around three o’clock in the afternoon at Curtiss Field, Valley Stream, L. I.?…Please write and say: Yes, coming ; or No, not coming – attaching your modifications, etc., to the tentative constitution. Several pilots with whom we have talked are planning to fly in. We’re not particular whether you come by train, by automobile, or on two legs or just by mail. But we do hope you’ll put in some kind of an appearance at the organization meeting of licensed women pilots.” The letter is signed by Fay Gillis, well known as an organizer and charter member of the 99’s, Neva Paris (who was killed in a plane crash three months later), Frances Harrell (who held the world’s refueling endurance flight record for women and was killed in a plane crash in 1935), and Margorie Brown.

The next item is an Autograph Letter Signed of Gillis, Curtis Flying Service stationery, no date but circa October 28, 1929. Both the sender and recipient had just received their licenses in August. What Gillis tells Spear perfectly illustrates the comradery and elan of the flyers in the early days of aviation. “Please pardon the informality but as one flyer to another we really should get together, the sooner the better, and Saturday has been chosen as the day of days when we’re holding the first organized meeting of licensed women pilots at Valley Stream, L.I. and we’d sure love to have you help us make this a bigger and better meeting…Why don’t you fly down Saturday and say hello anyway even if you can’t stay to the meeting…Please let us know when you expect to arrive and we’ll have the brass band…”

26 licensed women pilots gathered on November 2 at Valley Stream for the memorable meeting and their first photo in a hangar at Curtiss Field. Serving tea from a delicate teapot and cookies on a spare parts wagon were Fay Gillis, in her helmet and flight suit, and Viola Gentry, with a bouquet of mums presented her as she left the hospital after a plane crash while attempting an endurance record. Two weeks later, the entire group of 117 women received a second Typed Letter Signed by both Paris and Amelia Earhart reporting on the formation of the 99’s. “It was decided at the conference that the organization would be neither strictly frivolous nor entirely serious, that the social side should be emphasized but that problems that arise in connection with women in aviation should also be discussed and acted upon…The organization is to be very loose…The only purpose so far would be the tacit understanding that it is to interest women in aviation, and be a general clearing house of ideas. The club is independent of any commercial organization…Dues were tentatively set at one dollar…For the time being it was decided to meet at each other’s homes once a month…Please make an effort to be with us.”

On December 31, 1929, Opal Kunz wrote a Typed Letter Signed explaining why the club was needed and discussing the role of women pilots. Its most striking feature today is that the women were obviously bucking criticism from men who considered flying a male preserve, and felt the need to justify themselves. “The impression seems to have gone out that we girl pilots have some sort of conflict with the men pilots. This is exactly the opposite to the facts…We are not fighting for anything… we are trying to bring about a different attitude toward the girl in aviation, whereby, she is accepted as an equal rather than spoiled as something rare and very precious. So far the girl fliers have received much more gratitude than we deserve in proportion to our achievements. Our slightest accomplishment is hailed as a great feat…We believe that our girls can and will learn to fly as well as the average man, better than many…In this organization of ours it is hoped that we can encourage girls to enter flying schools with the determination not to accept any special consideration because of her sex…Women have a future in aviation only so long as we prove to be of value. This does not mean publicity value. At present our strong point seems to be that because there are so few of us doing this work, we receive more attention from the public and the press than men who do the same work, and better work….This will not always be true, for the world will gradually expect women to fly. It will no longer be news of first page interest when a woman takes to the air. When this time comes, girls will have to demonstrate their real ability on a large scale, if they expect to hold their own…By trying to eliminate the sex idea in flying, we are not seeking advantages, but are trying to learn more by working shoulder to shoulder with our men, and by becoming self-reliant, for when we fly solo they are not with us to help in case of emergencies. We have only our judgment to rely upon…It should be an inspiration to all American girls to learn to fly, to develop skill, and fit ourselves for the splendid work ahead in aviation.”

The next day, Neva Paris sent a letter enclosing the Constitution and By-Laws, reporting on their second meeting, and providing a ballot for election of officers. Members were appointed to represent six regions of the country and a Race Committee was established. “Some very favorable and dignified publicity was received in the New York newspapers,” she added, closing with the statement that “we feel sure our organization is destined to accomplish meritorious service.” The original one page constitution and the ballot remain present. The Constitution stated its purpose to “promote good fellowship among licensed pilots, to encourage other women to learn to fly, and to aid in the creation of opportunities for women pilots in the field of commercial aviation.” By-Law 1 provided “Women licensed by the United States Department of Commerce, Aeronautics Division, shall be eligible to membership and no others.” The ballot offered three candidates each for president, vice president and secretary/treasurer. Amelia Earhart was a vice presidential choice. The stamped, self-addressed envelope in which the ballot was to be returned to Kunz is still here, unused. Spear’s name is not on the standard list of the 99 charter members, but records of the organization from December 1929 and February 1930 indicate that she was indeed a member, so her status as a charter member of the 99’s is uncertain. She was also a member of another flight club geared to college students, so perhaps this limited her participation in the 99’s and led to inactive status. The last two letters from the group were dated January 13 and 15, 1930, the first (signed by Kunz) informing the women that Neva Paris had died and the second (signed by Anna Ward) saying that the group would have a booth at the upcoming New York Aviation Show.

At that time an effort was being made to encourage flyers to affiliate themselves with Aviation Country Clubs which provided facilities and a social gathering place. Spear’s feat entitled her to be approached, and she received a letter from noted pilot Ruth Nichols, dated October 31, 1929 on Aviation Country Clubs stationery. “I am writing to congratulate you upon having attained a pilot’s license. Having myself been flying for eight years, it is difficult for me to understand why more girls are not enthusiastic and crowding the airports. You and I know the fun they are missing…The way to educate people in the safety and practicability of flight is to bring them into close touch with it. For this reason, we are organizing a national chain of social flying clubs. Through the charms of country club atmosphere, people will be brought to the aviation field…Amelia Earhart and many other girls whom you doubtless know are all members of the club.” Aviation Country Club was very much a commercial enterprise and the cost was $60 a year, quite a sum then. Still present are the untouched membership application and a printed list of officers and members of the Clubs, with names like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt.

In another throw-back to past mores, others who saw opportunity in Spear’s achievement thought it best to approach not the woman herself, but her father. On October 25, 1929, Douglas Clephane, publicity director for Ryan Aircraft Corp., sent a letter to Mr. Spear stating “I believe that your daughter can do a great deal to help the progress of aviation…I would like to have a close-up of Miss Spear beside your Ryan…We can place such pictures in newspapers and magazines throughout the country…If Miss Spear would care to write an article outlining the interest of college girls in aviation, her own experiences in learning to fly, your own association with aviation, I am sure we can place it…” Thus, if Spear would arrange for his daughter to cooperate with some photos useful to Ryan’s publicity, Ryan would see that Spear’s business got a plug as well. Four days later, on October 29, 1929 (known as Black Tuesday because of the Stock Market crash that occurred that day), Spear wrote his daughter an ALS advising her on how to conduct her social life, telling her he is sending a plane for her to fly on the weekend, enclosing Clephane’s letter and asking her to write the article. She saved this correspondence along with a number of other letters relating to the publicity effort, as well as some newspaper articles about her (including one with a photo of her standing next to her Ryan aircraft). There is also a press release from Curtiss-Wright Flying Service listing all of the women pilots in the U.S. as of February 1930.

Included in the group is a fascinating four page typescript with handwritten corrections entitled “Radio Talk,” apparently written by her and containing her thoughts on flight and women’s place in it. Here is a brief exerpt: “…There are many reasons for women to become interested and take part in aviation…There are many positions for women in aviation, but as for having them fly commercially, some would probably raise the question as to whether they will be as efficient, competent, and in as much demand as men. I can’t see any reason why not…Marjorie Stinson, for instance, was teaching men to fly when women pilots were limited to a handful…The social part of it is extremely interesting…I am one of the charter members of the Wing and Prop Club of Boston…All women who have soloed are welcome to membership in our club, whose main purpose is to create more interest in aviation among women, which by the way is one of the things I hope to do tonight…I do not think there is any danger for passengers who take long-distance flights…As for flying a plane, I much prefer it to driving my Franklin roadster. I at least do not encounter quite as much traffic and can be high above the common, humdrum existence of ordinary everyday life, giving a feeling of freedom, temporary isolation and mastery…”

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