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.

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.''

Then the Soviets gave her a chance to try a sailplane - a kind of glider they sling-shotted off a hill. ''I didn't know how gutsy I was to try it - I'd never been in one before. And I couldn't figure out why they landed those things on the bottom of the hill, since it seemed like such trouble to have to lug it back up. So I landed mine on the top of the hill,'' she says, laughing.

Mrs. Wells also filled those four years doing some reporting for the Associated Press and the New York Herald Tribune, and met her future husband, Linton, a foreign correspondent for the International News Service. But her attempt to combine reporting and airplanes backfired when Wiley Post flew through.

She had met him in the United States at an air show (''everyone was a name in those days''), and he sent her a telegram asking her to join him during the Russian portion of his round-the-world flight, to manage the fuel dumps. She agreed and went out to Siberia in June to wait for him.

''He was always a secretive person, so I didn't know exactly when he'd be there,'' she recalls. The wait, as it turns out, cost her three weeks and a big disappointment.

''He told me when he landed that this was supposed to be a solo flight, so he was afraid he couldn't take me. But it was a blessing in disguise. I later figured out that, in the place where he meant me to sit in his plane, I would have been asphyxiated by the fumes, and wouldn't have been able to communicate with him.''

The final insult came, however, when the famous pilot asked her to file his story for the New York Times. ''The Times had an exclusive,'' she says, ''so I had to promise to file it with them first before I sent mine off to AP. There I was, in the middle of Siberia, scooped on my own story!''

Wiley Post's name crops up in her record of her third ''miracle,'' as well, which took place in 1935. Back in the US, Mrs. Wells had eloped with Linton (''on April Fool's Day - we never did figure out who was fooled''), and had gone off for California to join Wiley on a flight to the Far East.

Then she got a call from her husband, who told her he had been assigned to Ethiopia to cover the Italo-Ethiopian war that was raging at the time. He asked her if she would go with Wiley or follow him.

''I figured that Wiley could always find someone to replace me, but I didn't want anyone replacing me on my honeymoon, so I went with Lint,'' she recalls. Her replacement on the airplane turned out to be Will Rogers. The plane crashed in Alaska, killing them both.

Mrs. Wells helped her husband cover the war for the Herald Tribune, and went on to have a successful journalism career of her own, working as a syndicated columnist for the Tribune. Later, she was the White House correspondent for Storer Broadcasting, a position she held when she was selected as one of three women correspondents to accompany President Nixon on his historic trip to China in 1972.

She continues to promote flying and the Ninety-Nines, though she no longer flies herself. ''It's no fun anymore,'' she complains. ''You get into the cockpit, and there is this panel of mind-boggling instruments. Then you spend an hour on the runway and another hour trying to get back down, so in the end, you have only 15 minutes to fly.

''And I don't understand all this radio garbage,'' she says, lamenting that in the old days ''we used to be able to just take off whenever we wanted, without telling anyone where we were going,'' - more pokes to her listener - ''we didn't know ourselves where we were going! We'd just land wherever we could find a good landing place.''

''And it was fun!'' she concludes, with an ungrandmotherly grin.

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