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Aileen S. Mellott, 76; Co-Founder of Flying Samaritans, Powder Puff Pilot


Aileen Saunders Mellott, one of the nation's top aviators who won two Powder Puff Derbies and the International Air Race before co-founding the Flying Samaritans humanitarian organization in the early 1960s, has died. She was 76.

Mellott, who earned her private pilot's license in 1956 and flew in her final race last year, died of pancreatic cancer Sept. 25 at her home in Escondido.

A member of the Ninety-Nines, a female pilots organization founded in 1929, Mellott competed seven times in the Powder Puff Derby, the all-female transcontinental air race, and won in 1959 and 1960.

The National Pilots Assn. named her Pilot of the Year in 1961, and a year later she won the International Air Race for women.

In 1964, she was selected to join the San Diego Airport Commission, and she also served as a board member of the San Diego Aerospace Museum.

But, say those who knew her, Mellott took her greatest pride in the Flying Samaritans, a group of physicians, nurses, dentists and other professionals who bring health care to rural Mexico.

Although Mellott stopped piloting her plane to Mexico about 10 years ago, "it was a constant open door with members of the Flying Samaritans," said her brother, George Smallen of Escondido. "She kept up with it unit the day she died."

The idea for the Flying Sams, as they call themselves, grew out of a forced landing that Mellott made in a remote part of Baja California in November 1961.

She was flying five passengers, including San Diego Magazine co-owner Jack Vietor, back to San Diego after visiting a new hotel in La Paz when a severe dust storm, coupled with a diminishing fuel supply, forced her to find a place to set down her twin-engine Bonanza.

Mellott finally found a clearing on a mesa outside the remote village of El Rosario. "The dust was so thick, we couldn't even see the ground," she recalled years later.

The villagers had heard the plane circling overhead and two battered trucks were sent up to the mesa to pick up the Americans. They were given food, shelter for the night and extra gas so they could fly out the next morning.

In talking to Anita Espinoza, the English-speaking proprietor of the general store, Mellott learned that many of the tiny village's 400 residents in the drought-plagued region were in need of food, clothing and medical care.

"The people were so kind, and Anita was so gracious," Mellott told the San Diego Union-Tribune in August. "She opened her house to us and also served as our interpreter."

To return the villagers' kindness, Mellott and two fellow Ninety-Nines members who had been on the Baja flight organized a Christmas airlift to distribute food, clothing and gifts to El Rosario.

One of the volunteers who accompanied Mellott and the other pilots who made the delivery was Dr. Dale Hoyt, who brought his medical bag along on the trip.

Once the villagers learned a doctor was in town, they lined up to see him. Hoyt treated his first patient on Espinoza's kitchen table.

Out of that successful Christmas airlift grew the Flying Samaritans, with Mellott serving as founding president.

From nine pilots and a handful of volunteers, the Flying Sams has grown to a dozen chapters and more than 2,200 members throughout the West.

They regularly serve about two dozen rural Baja health clinics, including one established in El Rosario.

"If it hadn't been for Aileen, there wouldn't have been any Flying Sams," Espinoza told the Union-Tribune in August when she was flown to Escondido so she could visit Mellott one last time.

"She was the one who promoted it. Aileen is our angel without wings."

Mellott was born in Springdale, Ark., in 1926. When she was 11, her family moved to the Los Angeles area, where her father worked as an engineer for Shell Oil Co.

An outgoing woman who enjoyed challenges, Mellott and her first husband, pilot Walter Saunders, owned a combination flying school, airplane rental and repair business at Gillespie Field in El Cajon in the 1950s.

"She always had a great interest in flying, and she decided to start flying herself," her brother said. "Once she got her license, flying was everything. She immediately joined the Ninety-Nines and became really doubly interested in flying and racing."

Mellott, who also flew search and rescue missions for the Coast Guard Auxiliary, flew in her last race in June 2001, accompanying her onetime rival and good friend Fran Bera in the 25th Air Race Classic from San Diego to Batavia, Ohio.

Mellott was a onetime director of sales for the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego.

She was inducted into the Forest of Friendship, a hall of fame for female pilots in Atchison, Kan., in 1991.

In addition to her brother, she is survived by a son, Frank Zehner of Boerne, Texas; and two grandchildren.

Mellott had asked that any donations be made in her name to the Elizabeth Hospice Society, 150 W. Crest St., Escondido, CA 92025, or the Palomar chapter of the Flying Samaritans, P.O. Box 492, Bonsall, CA 92003.

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