Chicago Area Chapter History: The Way It Was 1934-2009
January 11, 1934, marked the birth of Chicago Area Chapter, then known as Illinois Chapter. Ruth Kitchel Wakeman was the first chairman, and many of the original members also belonged to the Chicago Girl’s Flying Club. The minutes of an early chapter meeting claimed that the chapter chairman “was able to fly to the meeting without having to make even one emergency landing.”
On September 19, 1937, the two clubs gave the third annual air carnival. “Not a wing-tip was scratched in this all-woman show, and 15,000 spectators were on hand at the Curtis Airport to give the little girls a hand.” 99 NEWSLETTER 11/1937 The show included competitive stunting, spot landing, cross country, comedy and novelty (“These girls hung out the wash on the struts of a Fledgling, then flew around the field.”), bomb dropping, novelty race, parachute jump, and more!
May, 1938: “…the brightest spot in the month has been Air Mail week. Some of us had the privilege of watching on May 15 the autogiro landing and take-off on the Chicago Post Office roof…The landing, on a small sheet metal ‘spot’, and takeoff in rain and hail were really thrilling to see. May 19 was the high spot of all, though. Municipal Airport (now Midway) was a beehive. Ships came in that had never been on that field before…Hindered by haze and scattered thundershowers, the Air Mail went through! The 99s were well represented…Alice DeWitt carried Uncle Sam’s Air Mail, and this weary pilot (Dorothy Ring), after dodging thunderstorms over most of northern Illinois, finally arrived in Moline by way of Kewanee (which is NOT on the course)…” 99 NEWSLETTER 6/1938
May, 1939, members heard “John Becker, air radio cop who is in charge of the control tower at the Chicago Municipal Airport, discuss the newly installed blind landing beam…which in time will be installed at all leading fields to allow planes to land regardless of zero-zero weather.” 99 NEWSLETTER, 3/1939
At this time, the chapter had at least 19 members including two transport pilots. In spite of meeting on an irregular schedule, “The chapter again contributed to the purchase of Christmas baskets which are given yearly to the needy.” This custom would stay with the chapter for many years.
February, 1940: “We also made plans for an Air Meet…Helen Budwash (of Harvey) suggested that we hold the meet at Dixie Airport…and she gave us some interesting data on all the improvements that have been made. One of the things they did was to build new hangars with facilities in them to accommodate fliers wishing to stop there over night. There is also a bunkhouse for girl fliers with a house mother to look after their comfort.”
Records of the Illinois Chapter are lost until 1948 when Elizabeth Morgan was Chairman and Illinois Chapter had 47 members. Betty’s husband designed the 99 costume-jewelry size pin, and Blanche Noyes, President, received the first one made. In the mid-1950s, Morgan’s became the official 99 jewelers.
In April of 1956, Regina Devine “reported on the National Air Age Education Convention. She discussed bringing aviation into the regular school curriculum by passing information from teacher to teacher.” It is interesting to note that in 1975 the chapter voted to support a program by the FAA in which they were asked to spread the word of aviation to the schools.
At the February meeting, motion was passed to raffle articles at each meeting, proceeds to go to the AE Fund. This raffle is still held at all meetings for general fundraising over half a century later.
In June of 1949, Esther Noffke (former WASP with 3,000 hours who had ferried B26s) became a member. In 1952, Esther, with Irene Leverton, presented the idea of an award or recognition to be given to those members who had done the most for the chapter (both in the air and on the ground), with a point system to be worked out. This would be the forerunner of the Achievement Award Contest that ran through the 1990s, complete with formal presentations at banquets.
In October, 1949, Bea Siemon became a member and in December’s minutes “suggested that our chapter send a unanimous membership letter to Washington Headquarters saying that we wish to oppose the airlines movement to have private pilots banned from control tower airports.” Was that letter ever sent?
On June 30, 1950, 99s participated in the Meigs Field Dedication on the lakefront of Chicago. “…Irene Leverton, in an Aeronca Champ Sprayer, “sprayed” the crowd with Jacqueline Cochrane’s “Pursuit” perfume. After seaplane and landplane flybys, 99 members modeled the latest in women pilots’ apparel and the final flyby planes dropped 5,000 ‘Flying Saucers’ on the crowd, some of which held free rides donated by local airport operators.” In the 1990s, members would participate individually in the Friends of Meigs group to save the mayor’s closing of Chicago’s Meigs Airport which finally occurred surreptitiously during the night of March 30, 2003, an event that not only tore apart a runway but also our hearts and permanently ended another viable part of aviation.
At the March, 1951, meeting: “Members were urged to obtain their third-class radio license. Following the meeting, TV Phonevision was enjoyed by all present and a delicious buffet supper was served.”
In 1953, Esther Noffke was the only woman in Illinois holding an ATR. Esther was active in airport management at Palwaukee Airport, Waukegan, Illinois, until her retirement years later.
In 1953, Doris Langher, the first woman to qualify as a Link trainer instructor for a major airline, had already spent 11 years keeping United Airline’s three hundred-plus, Chicago-based pilots brushed up on their fly jobs. However, Doris had been too busy the last 19 years of flying to learn to drive a car!
At the April, 1953, meeting, the speaker, a distributor for Aero Commander, explained in detail the use of the Omni and exhibited a set.
In October, 1954, the chapter voted to change the chapter name from Illinois Chapter to Chicago Area Chapter.
At a Christmas party in 1954, the evening entertainment was a quartet of girls who were with the same band that Chairman Sylvia Roth toured with during World War II. “While we think of Sylvia primarily as a flight instructor, these girls still think of her as a trumpet player first – pilot second!”
In April, 1956, Regina Devine told about the National Air Age Education Convention program that would inform the schools about aviation by passing curriculum from teacher to teacher. The chapter voted to sup-port the FAA-sponsored program, making presentations, introducing airplanes and giving rides to students and bringing aviation to Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.
In September, 1960, thirty-five women (chapter members) participated in the Chapter Air Meet at DuPage County Airport, West Chicago, Illinois. The meet included the following:
1. Cross Country: Just before each plane was flagged for takeoff, one of the officials handed them a sealed envelope which they were to open as soon as they were airborne. The envelopes contained an emergency problem of near-instrument weather conditions in which it was necessary for the pilot to fly the prescribed course and still stay aloft as long as possible without using more than her estimated gas supply. The formula: actual time divided by estimated time equals highest score wins. The winner was the girl who could stay aloft the longest without using more gas than she estimated for the trip. It was a situation in which most pilots who do cross-country flying will find themselves sooner or later.
2. A spot-landing contest was held with closed throttle, landing in full stall position on or past the line.
3. A bomb-dropping contest was held – two-pound flour sacks were dropped from an altitude of 400 feet at the intersection of the two diagonal runways – four planes were disqualified (two for flying below the 400-foot altitude and two for dropping their bombs too near the audience). Editor note: Standing in the target area is usually pretty safe.
4. The fourth event was the obstacle course. The object was to taxi between bamboo poles without touching them and park the plane correctly over a designated spot. Planes were handicapped according to their gear and wingspan.”
In June, 1962, a weekend activity was held at the Holiday Inn, Aurora, including a Saturday evening supper, Sunday breakfast, and a tour of the new FAA-ATC Chicago Center. A meeting followed lunch.
At a meeting in November, 1962, “a discussion in possible changes in our Chicago Area Chapter Air Meet was held, such as permitting the 49 1/2s to ride as copilots with women.” Editor note: No mention was made about the result, but it was no doubt changed at that time.
In May, 1964, the chapter voted to purchase an 8-inch plate that could be sold as a money-making project. The clear glass plate with square-cut nines engraved in the center was sold for several years.
In October, 1967, “Chairman Sue Roscoe introduced an idea proposed by members of the State Department Aeronautics Commission and FAA representatives who have invited 99s to help coordinate a women’s Illinois Small Race to celebrate the Sesquicentennial (150th Anniversary) of Illinois. It was asked how much support we would get in following years if we established such an event – matter was voted to be referred to committee to investigate and return a report.” This race was, in fact, held in May, 1968, in conjunction with the other Illinois chapters (Central Illinois and Quad Cities) and was called The IlliNines Air Derby.
After 34 years, the IlliNines Air Derby ended in 2001 with very few years scrubbed due to weather. The first years started with a maximum of 60 entrants per year and was so popular that a separate list of standby entrants was also maintained. As the years progressed, fewer pilots were able to participate and Chicago Area Chapter ended up providing the Derby alone with the assistance of Aux Plaines in the last years due to the closing or nonparticipation of other Illinois chapters. The Derby was proud to have had a clean and safe record.
The Chicago Chapter chairmen of the 1960s had already each been given a 99 pin with a ruby in the hub of the prop and a guard showing the years of chairmanship. In 1967, it was brought to mind that “The Chapter Chairman’s pin is traditional and has a special meaning because it is worn by past chairmen and is the chapter’s gift of appreciation for faithful service.” In 1974 at the Puerto Rico Convention, Chicago delegates requested that the Past Chairman’s stone (which was recommended by other chapters) be the ruby in honor of this history with our chapter.
From 1965 to l967, member Alice Roberts was 99s International President.
In 1971, a chapter uniform was selected of light blue jacket worn over white. The chapter also became know for its 99 aprons, poncho style, which were worn while working the air shows and even by the chapter delegates to Convention on occasion.
The chapter worked for many years at DuPage and Aurora air shows sponsored by the Antique Airplane Association, Greater Chicago Area Chapter, annually since the 1950s. This was the chapter’s big moneyraising project, and every summer members pitched in to sell hot dogs at a dozen stands on the field, sell airplane rides, take entry tickets, etc., in the hot sun for two days every year. The big show also encouraged them to participate in the Miss Antique Airplane Beauty Pageant for two years at Yorktown Center in Lombard, Illinois. Since 1976 the chapter turned to other money-making means and for several years was able to continue its $500 scholarship to an annual winner from the chapter.
The chapter members continued to work with Air Age Education via talks at schools and to groups and intro plane rides to students, all on an individual basis on demand. In 1975 and 1976 two instrument ground schools and one aviation meteorology school of 15 weeks each were promoted for local pilots. One series netted the chapter a $500 profit. Several FAA-produced seminars were hostessed as well.
In 1977 an all-day refresher seminar taught by 99s was held for pilots and nervous navigators. In addition, several members were voted onto the Race Board of The IlliNines Air Derby.
In 1976 the membership stood at 155 members and covered an area almost one fourth of Illinois in the northeast area. In 1976 about eight members living near the Illinois/Indiana border joined others in Indiana to form the Indiana Dunes Chapter. In 1978 members from the northern area near the Wisconsin border joined to form the Aux Plaines Chapter. Chicago now had two Little Sister Chapters! A few members from the Rockford area temporarily formed a chapter but eventually returned to Chicago Area Chapter with its larger member-ship. In 1989, the Illiana Cardinals Chapter formed with a few former Chicago Area Chapter members to make the third Little Sister Chapter.
Since the above history was written in 1978, Chicago Chapter has continued many events begun in previous years. The chapter held its 60th air meet in 2008 even though fewer members are flying than originally. The air meet was canceled in 2001 due to the 9/11 attack two weeks previously. For 52 years, entrance to the Air Meet was restricted to members of the chapter as PIC, but since 2002 it has been open to any pilots as long as a 99 acts as either PIC or copilot.
It seems that the chapter also made one or more airmarkings annually throughout at least 20 years of its history prior to about 1978. Because so many airports have disappeared in the Chicago area over the years, fewer airmarkings were held after that date, but the chapter is probably one of the few who painted on a hanger roof! This author remembers finishing the end letters of Campbell Airport in Grayslake in the 1970s as a light drizzle began. Reaching the ladder occurred while sliding at an angle to the edge of the roof and it was a thankful descent down an extension ladder to the ground! Later airmarkings include Olson Airport in Plano Center, Poplar Grove near Belvidere, and a beautiful compass rose at Lansing Airport in Lansing, the receiving GA airport for the 2009 International Conference.
Safety Seminars continue to be presented annually at a suburban hotel in conjunction with the Illinois Department of Aviation. Approximately 300 or more pilots attend VFR and IFR refresher courses, and interested others may attend the Flying Companion Course, originally known as the Nervous Navigator course.
On November 2, 1979, the occasion of The 99s Golden Anniversary, a luncheon was held at The Drake Hotel, site of the first meeting. The chapter presented a copy of The 99s History Book to the Chicago Public Library.
At the chapter’s 50th anniversary in 1984, membership totaled 160 and during the 1980s membership reached 180.
After a preliminary introduction 50 years ago, Girl Scout Day began in 2006 to provide the Aerospace Badge. It has been so well received that the scouts want the program be presented annually, which the chapter hopes to continue as long as volunteers are available.
For many years a holiday party has been held – originally as an evening dinner/dance celebration and now as a Sunday brunch. A silent auction with donated items has been held recently as an additional fundraiser and in 2009 items and money were also donated toward packages to be sent to men and women in service in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Member Tammy Duckworth who is currently Director of Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs was nominated in 2009 as Assistant Secretary in the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington.
Members have spent years of their time in: NIFA judging, providing Young Eagles flights to teens and Air Bear programs to kindergarteners and first graders, officerships at section and international levels, volunteering in the 99 tent at EAA’s AirVenture in Oshkosh (still ably chaired by Rita Adams since 1997), and a Poker Run was held again in 2008 for the first time in many years.
In July the North Central Section will host the “80th Birthday Party” of the international organization with the 2009 Conference. And that celebration will be in Chicago, the locale of the very first annual meeting.
In 2009 the chapter now has 112 sisters. We are 75 years young and we have wonderful memories. We are Ninety-Nines!
Compiled in 1978 by Ellen O’Hara from chapter scrapbooks and minutes
Updated in 2009 by Ellen O’Hara from chapter minutes, CAC History 1934-2004 by Julie Murray, and Air News by Cynthia Madsen (Editor)
From Waypoint (April 2009)
Last updated: 11/30/2008