Flying when the skies were free
Fay Gillis Wells is a grandmotherly sort of person, her crop of snow-white hair pulled back in a bun, and twinkling eyes the color they used to call ''china blue.'' As a greeting, she takes your hand in both of hers and gazes sweetly at you in a way that practically smells of vanilla and cookie baking.Skip to next paragraph
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Then she races you up the stairs of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum and starts crawling over airplanes.
The plane she is drawn to is a cheerful red Lockheed Vega 5B, once owned and flown by an old friend of hers - Amelia Earhart - in two pioneering flights across the Atlantic Ocean and the United States, nonstop. Mrs. Wells, in a symposium organized by the museum to honor the 50-year anniversary of those flights, refers to her old friend as a ''feminist before she was a flier. She always liked a challenge.''
But any sort of flying was a challenge in the days when Miss Earhart and Mrs. Wells took to the skies. The day after she got her license in 1929, for example, Mrs. Wells had the not-sought-after privilege of becoming the first woman member of the Caterpillar Club, whose members have parachuted from a disabled airplane to save their lives.
It happened in an experimental plane her instructor was piloting. The plane, which had already been tested by several other pilots to measure its stress points, exceeded them during an elaborate loop. ''The engine fell out, the wings started to vibrate off, and it was clear there wasn't much left of the plane to bail out of,'' she says, poking her listener and grinning.
All of the detailed instructions she had received about landing in a parachute didn't seem to apply, and she pulled on the rip cord ''as soon as I could find the thing.'' She fell safely between two trees. And there she stuck, desperately swinging from side to side and trying to untangle herself. ''They finally got the fire deparment to come and rescue me, and I walked away without so much as a black and blue mark,'' she reports. ''It was my first miracle.''
One month later she flew 40 miles to Valley Stream, Long Island, to meet Miss Earhart and a handful of other female pilots. They started the first international organization of their kind. ''A. E. had the idea that we call ourselves by the number of women who accepted membership, so that's where we got the Ninety-Nines,'' she explains.
A picture she has of the Ninety-Nines on founding day shows a group of gussied-up girls, most in their 20s, sitting in a hangar and smiling at the camera. Miss Earhart is somewhere in the back row (''we had no idea we had a heroine in our midst - we treated her so casually!''). The then Fay Gillis is taking notes on the side, dressed in her pilot's clothes and goggles. ''I don't know why I didn't at least take off the goggles,'' she murmurs.
She was working for the Curtiss-Wright Company at the time as a salesman, following her father's edict that she either ''go back to college or get a job. When he told me that, the women's first Air Derby was on, and I figured aviation was here to stay, so I got my license.''
Then in 1930, when her mining engineer father went to the Soviet Union to help them with its first five-year plan, she agreed to go along - on the provision that she could fly. ''It took them two years to make good their word on that,'' she mutters, saying that instead she taught parachuting throughout the country ''on the basis of that one unfortunate experience.''