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Tucson Ninety-Nines fly in the spirit of Amelia Earhart

By Victoria Mitchell
Staff Writer
Published on Sunday, November 15, 2009 8:39 AM MST

A journey that started in the days of Amelia Earhart was continued by the Tucson Ninety-Nines on Nov. 7.

In 1929, an international organization for women pilots was formed in Long Island, N.Y. Amelia Earhart was the first president elected. It was called The Ninety-Nines after the number of founding members.

Earhart would have been proud of the group of women pilots who belong to the Tucson chapter of The Ninety-Nines. The group participated in the annual Treasure Hunt in the Sky. The pilots and their team of two or more crew members took off Saturday morning from Tucson International, which was the first municipal airport opened in the nation. Earhart was there for the opening.

The challenge for the pilots and their crew in the treasure hunt was to test their piloting and navigation skills while flying a course around southern Arizona following a map and finding clues to fill in on a clue sheet.

Halfway through the contest, the ladies arrived at a “secret airport” for a spot-landing contest and lunch. The Safford Regional Airport was reserved for this event.

Pilot Connie Nicholson of Oro Valley has been flying for three decades. She and her 14-year-old daughter, Cecilia, flew a 1979 Piper Cherokee 6 in the contest. Nicholson said flying is something she and her daughter enjoy together. "We do a lot of laughing," Nicholson said.

Cecilia plans to start earning hours for her pilot’s license next year. There are three milestones for a pilot: to get licensed, fly solo and fly with the first passenger. Nicholson also stressed the importance of yearly inspection and maintenance of each plane.

Colleen Crabtree flew a Bellanca Super Viking with her husband, Scott, and their young daughters, Anna and Elisa, as passengers. Scott is in the Air Force, stationed at Davis Monthan Air Force Base. Colleen was also in the Air Force and says she is “currently doing the stay-at-home-mom thing.”

After lunch, the group was busy filling in their clue sheets and preparing for the return flight to Tucson International.

Prizes and trophies were awarded at a banquet in Tucson that evening for those finding the most clues.

Only 6 percent of pilots in the United States are women. There are other female pilot organizations, but virtually all women of achievement in aviation have been or are members of The Ninety-Nines, according to the organization.

The mission of the organization is to maintain the fellowship that Amelia Earhart created back in her day. The organization now encompasses 35 countries and has 5,500 members. All proceeds from the organization go toward aviation scholarships for women.

What happened to Amelia Earhart?

Although that remains a mystery to this day, she is remembered as a great pioneer for women pilots.

Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared July 2, 1937, while making their second attempt to navigate the globe. The pair left New Guinea and were headed for Howland Island when communication was lost. Airstrips were built in the late 1930s to accommodate her planned stopover. Earhart experienced technical difficulties as they approached Howland Island. There are several theories about what happened – ranging from a damaged antenna to confusion on Earhart’s part.

Whatever happened, Earhart and Noonan missed the island and began to run low on fuel. Soon after, the plane crashed. Earhart tried to inform rescuers of her location. Transmissions continued for a few days after they crashed, but rescuers could not use them to find the plane’s location.

The United States Navy joined the search, mainly focusing on the Pacific Ocean, but turned up nothing. There was some evidence of a crash on Gardner Island, a nearby island now called Nikumaroro, but since the island was considered uninhabited, it was discounted. After the official search ended, Earhart’s husband, George Putnam, continued searching on his own. Eventually he gave up and had her declared dead in 1939.

Recently, the skeleton of a Caucasion woman, the heel of a boot in Earhart’s size, an aluminum panel, plexiglass and makeshift tools were found on Gardner Island. This provided circumstantial evidence that indicates a crash and attempts at survival. Unfortunately, the skeletal remains that were found have been lost.

The matter of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance will remain a mystery until her remains are found and identified. Until then, there is only speculation.

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