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For Seniors : Flying Is No. 1 For These Ninety-Nines

January 30, 1994|LINDA FELDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The year was 1929. The stock market crashed and women's aviation reached new heights. Amelia Earhart called for a meeting of women pilots, and the story goes that when she looked around at the 99 aviators who gathered on that second day in November she named the group the Ninety-Nines.

Today, they still call themselves by the same name, even though they have 6,500 members worldwide.

The Ninety-Nines meet in Santa Monica and Van Nuys, close to the airports that house their Cessnas, Beechcraft Bonanzas and Piper Malibus. Officially, they still follow the same mission Earhart and her colleagues set out--to advance aviation and support aerospace education.

Members are a diverse group: housewives, lawyers, teachers. They're retired, own businesses, work for others. Some become pilots because of the men in their lives. One woman asked for a plane as part of her divorce settlement. But the majority just love the adventure that comes with flying.

Although regular scheduled air carrier pilots must retire at 60, private pilots, if they can pass the medical requirements, have no age limit.

Amy Conner, 76 and is the newest member of the Ninety-Nines' Van Nuys chapter. She drives from her mountaintop house in Topanga on the first Monday of every month to meet with the other Ninety-Niners for airplane talk and fun.

Conner doesn't scare easily. She was the daughter of an Army cavalry officer and was already riding the year before Earhart formed the Ninety-Nines. When Conner looked up and saw her first biplane, she thought it would make a wonderful way to transport horses.

"I was in third grade and we were stationed in Arizona and there was some sort of revolution going on in Mexico, so the army flew some biplanes to the border. One of the planes couldn't take off, so they let us kids sit in it." she said. It would be close to 50 years before she became a pilot.

She married Jack, a military pilot in World War II, the day he got his wings. "He took me up flying and showed me all of the bad things like peeling off, which made me feel as if I was going through the floor," she said. "My cheeks actually moved down to my chin. He deliberately did it to scare me. Well, I was perfectly willing to land at that point."

Being on the ground with Jack wasn't uneventful either. "I was married to a man who didn't want a dumb-broad wife. We were a team. We worked hard together. We built our home with our own hands. So when we bought a plane I figured I better take it seriously and learn how to fly," she said.

Two thousand hours of flying time later, Conner decided after Jack died last year to buy her own plane. Her sons think she's too old, but Conner and government regulators don't think so. She passed the medical requirements for a Class-3 private pilot certification. And then she joined the Ninety-Nines to be near people who have lots of energy and love to fly.

At a recent meeting, the Ninety-Nines gave Conner her membership pin and awarded 70-seventy-year old Cecelia Heppes a scholarship to further her aviation education. Heppes, a Burbank resident, is learning to fly for the second time. She's also a member of the Civil Air Patrol, where she serves as a scanner and observer for search- and-rescue missions. Next year Heppes, Conner and other club members look forward to participating in more Ninety-Nines events.

Said Ninety-Nines member Bunny Newman: "The camaraderie of women pilots is like nothing else. It's the sheer joy of staying in contact with so many different women all sharing the same type of escape--the sheer joy and pleasure of being above it all."

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