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The Ladies FlyThe Ladies Fly

A lovely group of pilotsA lovely group of pilots

Six members of the Abilene unit of the Texas Chapter of the International Ninety-Nines gathered for a photo in 1958 as they prepared for a cross-country on a warm spring day. Fifty years later, three of the surviving members remember the thrill and freedom of being among the few women pilots in the United States.

‘Scooter’ floats on air

We were curious about the “air scooter” that Mrs. W.R. Cree described in recalling her memories flying in the 1960s. Sure enough we found this product report in the “What’s New?” section of The AOPA Pilot in March 1960: “Latest development in air cushion vehicles is the ‘air scooter’ announced by Bell Helicopter Corporation. The scooter is 85 inches long by 53 inches wide and weighs 160 pounds. Powered by a 12-horsepower, two-cycle motorscooter engine, which runs on a gasoline and oil mixture for fuel, the vehicle is capable of traveling up to 25 mph, 2 1/2 inches above the ground. ‘Lift’ is produced by a blast of air from an engine-turned fan. There is a throttle for control, and turning is accomplished by shifting the weight of the operator; to go forward or backward, the vehicle is simply leaned in those directions. Bell did not announce when or if the air scooter would be put into production.”— JSW

Birds of a different feather

Women have made significant contributions to the history of aviation, and the number of women in aviation has grown significantly since the early days. The first women pilots’ organization, The Ninety-Nines, was formed when 99 of the 117 then-licensed women pilots in the United States organized in 1929, and the organization is so-named for those 99 first members. By the 1960s, there were 12,400 women pilots in the United States, 3.6 percent of the nation’s total of approximately 345,000 pilots. Today the FAA estimates there are 36,580 women pilots, six percent of the total of the approximately 700,000 pilots in the United States (a number that has doubled since 1960).

Women in Aviation International was formed in 1990 to promote aviation interest and careers for women. The organization now has more than 17,000 members (up from 7,000 when the organization was formed).

In 1943, at the height of World War II, nearly 32 percent of the aviation workforce was female. In the military today, 690 of the 27,000 fixed wing pilots are women and of the 40,000 employees of the FAA, 12,000 are women. AOPA has approximately 17,000 women members. The AOPA Pilot staff includes five certificated female pilots and two female student pilots.— JSW

Six members of the Abilene unit of the Texas Chapter of the International Ninety-Nines gathered for a photo in 1958 as they prepared for a cross-country on a warm spring day. Fifty years later, three of the surviving members remember the thrill and freedom of being among the few women pilots in the United States.

“We were unique. We were birds of a different feather,” remembers Mrs. W.R. Cree (the women were identified by their husbands names in the 1958 photo caption). The pilots in the photo included founding members of the Abilene unit—Mrs. Dick Elam (Maxine), Mrs. Scott Taliaferro (Patty), Mrs. J.M. Hooks (Ann Ell), Mrs. Floyd Childs (Margaret), Mrs. James Caldwell (Ruby Caldwell Kinard), and Mrs. W.R. Cree (Amber). Amber Cree stopped flying about four years ago at the age of 72. She’d had her pilot certificate since she was 26 years old. Ruby Caldwell and her late husband sold their Cessna 310 some 15 years ago and Patty Taliaferro stopped flying 10 years ago at the age of 70—after nearly 63 years of flying.

Amber Cree

The group flew each month to locations around Texas for lunch. Cree was 28 years old and had had her pilot certificate for two years when the photo was taken. Today she remembers grand adventures that the friends had when times were different and the aviatrix could simply “jump in the airplane and go.” For example, at an airfield in Texas the group landed and observed staff members of Bell Helicopter demonstrating an “air scooter” to generals from South America. The generals didn’t want to experiment in the odd aircraft but Cree and Taliaferro did (see “Scooter Floats on Air,” at right). “We hiked up our dresses between our legs and flew the aircraft,” remembers Cree. “You’ve never seen a flight line clear so fast.”

On another occasion Cree was asked to fly and pick up a member of the Dallas Cowboys football team—running back Dan Reeves—and bring him to speak in Abilene. Waiting for Reeves to board at Dallas’ Redbird Airport she saw him speaking to one of the men in her group.

“Where’s the pilot?” Reeves asked.

“In the airplane,” he was told.

“I see a woman, but where’s the pilot?”

“He was white-knuckled all the way to Abilene,” laughs Cree. “Every Sunday he could face a football team and it didn’t frighten him a bit, but I guess I had him terrified.” Reeves later coached the Denver Broncos, New York Giants, and Atlanta Falcons. “He was a pretty thing,” Cree remembers. “But a scaredy-cat.”

Cree learned to fly in a Piper J–3 Cub and a Super Cub. She soloed in six hours. At 29, she earned her seaplane rating in Alaska. She also flew with aerobatics great R.A. “Bob” Hoover. “He got a great joy out of trying to make you sick, but he didn’t manage it with me,” she says. “He was a great sport and a gentleman.” Cree and her husband owned first a Cessna 172, then a 182, and finally a Cessna 210, which they sold four years ago. “There are so many active air bases in Texas, our airspace got regulated pretty heavily. It took the fun out of it,” she says.

Ruby Caldwell Kinard

Ruby Caldwell Kinard started flying when she was 24 in order to accompany her then husband James Caldwell on business trips to the couple’s musical instrument facilities in Fullerton, California. The pair had businesses and homes in Abilene and Fullerton and regularly flew back and forth between the two. Her husband had learned to fly in World War II and recognized the utility of general aviation aircraft. Kinard learned to fly as his copilot in a Cessna 170. She soloed in nine hours. “We flew to get someplace,” recalls Kinard. “It was very challenging and very necessary. It was not feasible for us to rely on the airlines.”

Over the years the couple had a Bonanza, a Cessna 182, and a series of Cessna 310s. The final aircraft had the range to get them from Abilene to Fullerton in less than six hours without stopping.

The couple adopted a daughter who was born in California. They flew the baby home in their Bonanza. “She was a good little passenger,” Kinard remembers. “People thought we lived a strange life, living in two places. But it wasn’t strange to us. Our babies had a lot of flying time.”

Patty Taliaferro

Patty Taliaferro started flying lessons when she was 17 because she “was in love with a pilot.” That relationship didn’t pan out, but her love of flying did, and she eventually introduced it to the man who did become her husband. After earning her certificate at 17 and the doomed love affair, she had stopped flying but renewed her certificate at age 24. “I was pregnant but I didn’t tell them that; it was a little tough to pull back the stick,” she laughs. The pair first owned a Cessna 180. Of it, Taliaferro says, “It was tough to fly; all my friends had easy aircraft to fly and I had that 180.”

Taliaferro, on the advice of her husband, suggested that the group of flying friends who met monthly should share advice. So in addition to the flying, fun, and camaraderie, the group learned from one another. They also helped other pilots. “We took these big ten-foot letter templates and climbed up on the roofs of the hangars and painted the airport name to help pilots who might get lost,” she remembers. “We probably wrote on 25 or more roofs. People couldn’t believe we climbed up there and did that.”

She eventually became multiengine rated and over the years she and her husband—they owned a drilling company in Laredo—owned a Cessna 310, two Mitsubishis, and finally a Cessna 340. Of flying today, she agrees with Amber Cree—it’s “so complicated now”—but those were “the most wonderful times.”

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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