Although women have been involved in aviation nearly since its beginning, some museums give the impression that Amelia Earhart was the only woman to fly, ignoring the thousands of women who came after her or even those who flew before her.
That’s not to say Earhart was not important. In addition to being a record setter, she helped found the Ninety-Nines, the international organization of women pilots. The organization’s headquarters and museum are at Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City. The Museum of Women Pilots is known for its extensive collection of biographical material on women pilots. Earhart, of course, is prominently featured.
“We have been collecting artifacts since the Ninety-Nines were formed in 1929,” noted Margie Richison, chairman of the all-volunteer museum. “At first it was kept in boxes in people’s garages or attics. We still get items from people who have been keeping them all these years.”
The Ninety-Nines realized it would be better if there were a central location for the organization, as well as a place to house the collection. Eventually the group got some space at the airport.
“We quickly outgrew it and went from room to room as more stuff was collected,” Richison recalls. “Then in 1975 we built our own building to house the headquarters of the Ninety-Nines and someone looked at all that stuff we’d been carting around and said, ‘we need to open a museum!’”
The museum opened July 23, 1999, the same date as the first shuttle flight with Eileen Collins as commander. The museum occupies 5,000 square feet on the top floor of the Ninety-Nines headquarters.
Among the museum’s prized pieces are artifacts from Mathilde Moisant who, in 1911, was the second woman in the United States to earn a pilot’s license (Harriet Quimby was the first by a few months). The exhibit contains Moisant’s flight suit, boots, license and other flight paraphernalia. There are also stacks of newspaper clippings, photographs, audiotapes, clothing, pilot supplies and personal possessions, such as trophies, ribbons and medals from air races.
Another prized possession is a bracelet worn by Earhart.
“She felt that it brought her luck but, obviously, she did not wear it on her last flight and she should have been wearing it,” said Richison. “We also have one of her scarves and her first pilot’s license. Recently we got an audiotape from an air race and it has Earhart’s voice on it.”
According to Richison, the other great draw to the museum is Louise Thaden, who also was a founding member of the organization. Thaden, a contemporary of Earhart and a record setter in the golden age of aviation, made several contributions to the Ninety-Nines, such as the legacy of airmarking, the practice of painting compass points and geographic references on roof tops and hillsides to help pilots with navigation. In 1935 Thaden and three other female aviators toured the United States for the Bureau of Commerce, promoting the practice. Today the Ninety-Nines still do airmarking around the world.
Richison noted the museum is always collecting information about women pilots — and it doesn’t matter if the women were members of the Ninety-Nines.
“We get boxes of stuff from people, and we also get visits from some of the relatives of the women already in the museum,” she said. “Recently we had a visit from Terry VonThaden, Louis’s granddaughter. We’ve also had visits from Amelia Earhart’s relatives. It’s wonderful when you can work with the family because they can tell you so much more about the women. Most of these women were accomplished in several areas. They were more than pioneer aviatrixes.”
Like all museums, this one has a wish list. Topping the list are interactive displays that will appeal to children.
“We’d love to get a kid-friendly version of the Wright Flyer simulator,” Richison mused. “And we’d also like to get a digitizer that would allow us to put all the records we have online so that they could be used for research. We are known for our archives. We have what we believe to be the best collection of biographical information about women pilots out there.”
Because the archives are not online, people wishing to do research must telephone the museum in advance and make an appointment to come in to search the archives.
“We’re all volunteers, but we’ll help you if we can,” notes Richison, adding that it’s also a good idea to call ahead if you plan to visit the museum.
For more information: 405-685-9990.