Published March 25th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
While her final flight and disappearance remains shrouded in mystery, Amelia Earhart’s life left a lasting legacy for women who dare to soar.
In 1929, Earhart and 98 of her fellow aviatrixes met in a hangar on Long Island after the Women’s Air Derby to found a group they named the Ninety-Nines to encourage female pilots by offering camaraderie and financial support.
Nearly a century later, the Ninety-Nines have expanded to 181 chapters around the world, two of which are located in the Kansas City metro area. The Greater Kansas City and Northeast Kansas chapters may be small, but count no lackluster members.
In the early 1970s, Michele Stauffer drove with some friends from Manhattan, Kansas, to Anchorage, Alaska, to visit her sister. While on a hunting trip there, she was offered a plane ride. Her life changed while she flew over mountains and tundra, looking down at pine trees, moose, bears, and the great expanse of the open air. When she returned to Kansas, she immediately started taking flight ground school classes evenings at the local high school.
When she’d come home at the end of a long workday, her mother would often ask her, “What did you do today that you shouldn’t have done?” Often, her infractions were minor, but on one uniquely bold day, Michele told her mother she spent the money she’d been saving up for a car on her first plane — before she even had her license.
After she graduated high school, Stauffer started taking college classes at Kansas State University, but her father’s death in 1972 derailed her plans. To help make up for the lost family income, she dropped out of school and took a job in sales. Beginning in real estate, Stauffer eventually landed a job selling aircraft. In 1990, she decided to start her own business and began the Kansas Aircraft Corp. She never returned to college and sold planes until she retired in 2017.
“I could have gone with a job in the airlines in the late ‘70s, but I wouldn’t have gotten to do as much flying,” Stauffer said. In sales, Stauffer was able to try all makes and models of planes to enhance her knowledge of the aircraft she was trying to sell. “That’s where I learned to fly everything.”
While Stauffer was busy getting her company off the ground, Ann Shaneyfelt didn’t know what to do with herself. Her children were all grown and the divorced 41-year-old found herself bored.
When she was a little girl growing up in St. George, Kansas, Shaneyfelt’s father allowed his friends to store their planes in their barn “when it wasn’t full of hay,” she said. Her father had been a pilot himself for a while, until either, Shaneyfelt presumes, he had a harrowing flight experience that grounded him or he gave into his wife’s objections to the hobby.
The planes in the barn sat unflown, but not unused. Shaneyfelt, her siblings, and their friends would climb all over the planes, spin the propellers, and pretend to be miles high over Kansas.
“Someday, when I grow up, I’m going to fly one of these,” Shaneyfelt told herself. A marriage right after high school, a moving schedule dictated by her husband’s career, and children at home prevented Shaneyfelt from getting back into a cockpit for decades. But she finally did it.
Shaneyfelt began lessons through the Civil Air Patrol in 1990 and obtained her private license in 1993. (“93” is a portion of her email address even today.) She joined the Northeast Kansas Chapter of the Ninety-Nines in 1995 and has “held every officer position at one point or another.” She still lives in Olathe, Kansas, and while she doesn’t fly much anymore, she refuses to say she’s retired from it.
“It’s like therapy. It really is,” Shaneyfelt said. “Especially in spring, when you start hearing the planes, you think ‘I just gotta get out and fly.’ It’s in your blood. … It’s an addiction, but it’s legal.”
Unlike both Stauffer and Shaneyfelt, Jeanné Willerth can’t recall a life without planes. Her father served in Europe under Gen. George Patton in World War II and claimed a German plane as a spoil of war after Allied victory was declared on May 8, 1945.
He befriended a German engineer who helped him fix it up, and he began flying for fun. When he returned to his wife and life in Omaha, Nebraska, Willerth’s mother decided she, too, would learn to fly as a precautionary measure. She often flew with her husband, and she wanted to be prepared to take over just in case anything ever happened while he was behind the yoke.
Her exercise in caution began a chain reaction of adventures.
In the 1960s, she began racing in what were known as Powder Puff Derbys, the women-only races that often saw aviatrixes flying cross country.
The first Powder Puff Derby, the Women’s Air Derby, was held in August 1929 with 20 pilots taking off from Santa Monica, California, headed for Cleveland, Ohio. Five of the women went down en route (one, Marvel Crosson, died) and many suspected their problems — fires on board, broken wing wires, and runway accidents — were acts of sabotage by men who didn’t want women racing. By the time Willerth’s mother began racing, however, planes were safer, routes more defined, and more confident women entered the races.
In seeing her mother fly and experiencing the races herself as a passenger, Willerth took up the hobby, only putting it aside when she had her own children. For 15 years she was grounded. “I hated it,” she said. She finally had to put her foot down after an experience forced her to realize how her dormant love was affecting her children’s idea of their mother.
“One of my kids was writing an essay on hobbies. I read it, and it was like, ‘Hobbies are what you do when you have spare time, and my mom’s favorite hobby is laundry.’ And I’m like, ‘No! I can fly!’ So I told my husband, ‘I’m going to get current and take all our kids for a ride.’ ”
Willerth has not stopped flying since, and “now my grandson flies with me.”
There is a common thread between all these women’s ability and determination to join a world dominated by men: their mothers’ encouragement.
According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, as of 2020, “Female pilots make up about 7% of all certificated pilots.” For women of color, the number is even lower. ABC News reported in September 2020: “Currently there are less than 150 professional Black women pilots in the U.S. that hold airline transport pilot, commercial, military or certificated flight instructor certificates. These women make up less than 1% of all professional pilots in the U.S. and some have made it their mission to diversify the flight deck — founding the nonprofit organization Sisters of the Skies.”
It’s no secret that flying is inaccessible to most people, men or women. Between plane rental costs, instructor fees and the minimum of 40 hours required to earn a private license, those looking to fly on their own would have to spend between $4,000 and $15,000. Further licensing and certification require more hours and more money, and maintaining currency requires its own cash flow. Many organizations, including the Ninety-Nines, offer scholarships specifically to women and BIPOC groups, but the chances are still few and far in between.
In addition to the cost, the comments or actions by men serve as discouragement. Years of having their qualifications and abilities second-guessed have conditioned the women, but even Willerth’s 50 years of experience don’t always satisfy.
“We still have people come into the flight school who don’t want to fly with women,” Willerth said. “I’ll tell someone I’m a flight instructor, and I had one gentleman say, ‘Yeah, but have you ever flown a plane by yourself?’ He just couldn’t get his head around this concept that a woman could actually fly.”
Stauffer said she could “write a book of all the times” she’s had to field comments about her inability to fly or sell planes. When asked why she thinks even today there are still so few female pilots, Stauffer said: “Most women didn’t have that encouragement. … My mother was so ahead of her time. The neighbors would tell her ‘You’re not going to let Michele fly, are you?’ and she’d just tell them, ‘Let the girl do what she wants to do.’ ”
And for Willerth, seeing her mother fly and being in the cabin with her, especially during air races, was integral to her desire to follow in those footsteps, even when her father expressed more conservative views of how a woman should spend her time.
“He had a twin-engine aircraft, and he told my mother that a woman was not capable of flying a twin-engine aircraft. So as he got older — he flew until he was 87 — I rented a Beech Baron, which is a twin-engine plane, and got all my ratings. But my dad said, ‘They didn’t let you fly that plane, did they?’ I said yes, and he was real concerned, but eventually he got comfortable with me flying.”
Despite the obstacles they faced, they remain optimistic about the future of women flying. The key is how important it is to mentor and pay forward their time.
“I just hope the doors keep opening,” Stauffer said. “You see more and more all the time. … Just give them a chance. I don’t have any children, but I think if I had a daughter or a son, I would have wanted to encourage them like my mom did.”
On March 8, 2021, U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) introduced a bipartisan resolution “honoring women in the aviation industry, committing to help increase aviation and STEM job opportunities for women and designating March 8 through March 14, 2021, as ‘Women of the Aviation Workforce Week.’ ”
“That’s great that they’re even recognizing women in aviation, which they usually don’t,” Shaneyfelt said.
The life of any pilot is one brimming with challenges and experiences most people would have a hard time imagining. For Stauffer, those range from nearly being shot down by F-16s as she neared the same airspace as Air Force One when she was the last civilian in the air on 9/11 to selling planes to Superman himself, Christopher Reeve, before he opted to leave flying for a hobby he thought would be safer: horseback riding.
The experiences that both Stauffer and Willerth mentioned among their most rewarding are their charity flights over the years. Angel Flights, Challenge Air, Young Eagles, and Pilots N Paws are three of the organizations to which both women dedicate their air time.
Memorably for her, Stauffer had the chance to fly a boy born blind from Mexico to Kansas City to receive an eye procedure, and he was able to view in full scope his trip home.
Tears welling as she recounted “one of the most moving days” she’s ever had, Willerth took a young girl for her first flight ever, and shortly after, she flew an elderly veteran on his last flight which he’d requested while in hospice care.
“First flight and last flight on the same day were very emotional for me. Very emotional,” Willerth said. “I took the guy and they told me he would be in a wheelchair. Well, he dressed up that day. He said he wanted to see his home, the place he worked, and over Arrowhead. Just a great gentleman.”
He passed away the following week.
Stauffer, Shaneyfelt and Willerth are among the most experienced pilots in their local chapters of the Ninety-Nines, but their fellow women in the organization include women of all ages and backgrounds.
The Greater Kansas City chapter president, Laura MacAllister, is from the East Coast and began flying in her early 20s, but came to Kansas City for a job as an air traffic controller at Charles B. Wheeler Airport. She retired from the Army in 2008 after years of being unable to fly in active duty.
Air traffic control was not her first career choice, but it’s part of a long-term plan. “I figured of the routes I had, this got me the closest to aviation on a daily basis, and eventually I’d make enough money to where I could fly for fun, so I’m still working on that part,” MacAllister said. She now balances a career on the ground and hobby in the air with being a mother to her infant son, Liam.
And there’s Isabella Sterling. When she was only aged 10, Sterling and her sister were members of a robotics club and went to a demonstration at Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport. The airport was hosting Young Eagles flights, which allow children aged 8-17 to experience their first flights for free, and Isabella signed up.
“I think about a year later I started coming to Ninety-Nines meetings, and then in 2015, I started my flight training and got my license in 2018, shortly after my 18th birthday,” Sterling said. She relied on scholarships to help make lessons possible, and did her training out of a small airport in Liberty, Missouri. “That taught a lot of accuracy and determination for weather,” she said.
Sterling is now in her early 20s studying mechanical engineering. “I’m planning on getting that done and saving my money, and then after I finish college, applying for some more scholarships and hopefully getting some more ratings like instrument and high performance,” Sterling said. She was mentored in part by Willerth, who refers to Sterling with much pride, affection and a smile on her face.
The history of female pilots rooted in the heartland spans a time long before Willerth and her mother, well beyond Amelia Earthart’s fame, and has close brushes with flight beyond earth’s atmosphere.
Ruth Blaney, from Irving, Kansas, now a ghost town in Marshall County, was born in 1905. She took her first flight as a passenger with a stunt pilot at 15, worked at a general store and beauty parlor in Kansas City, married, had the marriage annulled, married again, divorced just two years later, and finally took flight classes and lessons to obtain her license in 1929.
Less than 24 hours after becoming a licensed pilot, Blaney began breaking records.
Her first was the women’s record for altitude, previously set at 15,718 feet, and she then progressed on to break the world record for altitude in a light plane when she soared to 26,600 feet. Despite losing consciousness for part of her ascent and flying a measly 80 horsepower plane (less than half the horsepower of today’s Ford F-150 pickup truck), she shattered the record previously held at 24,074 feet by a man.
Tragically, her accomplishments ended the way many pilots saw their careers end nearly a century ago.
After a takeoff in fog from San Diego bound for Wichita, Kansas, in the early hours of Sept. 18, 1930, Blaney crashed at high speed and died upon impact at only 25 years old. The Ninety-Nines make sure to remember her remarkable accomplishments so her legacy might not suffer the same fate as her hometown.
Just a few years after Blaney’s demise, Sarah Gorelick Ratley was born in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1933. When she was in her 20s, she received a surprising phone call. Someone at the Lovelace Clinic in New Mexico contacted her to see if she’d be interested in running a few physical and psychological tests. Those who had just tested at Lovelace were the astronauts selected for the Mercury 7 space program.
When she said yes to the offer, leaving her job with AT&T in Kansas City, Ratley became a member of the Mercury 13, a group of women working to prove they had what it took to become astronauts. But when NASA refused to take on any women for their flight program, Ratley moved back to Kansas City and took a job with the Internal Revenue Service.
Ratley continued flying recreationally and died on March 17, 2020, at the age of 86. Her name is included on the Wall of Honor at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., where her panel reads, in part: “Always believe and follow your dreams. Keep your eyes on the horizon. Who wants to settle for normal when you can be exceptionally unique!”
Despite experiencing a vast range of uncomfortable, discouraging and even life-threatening experiences, the women of the Ninety-Nines find a special freedom in the air and friendship on the ground. Trailblazers like Earhart, Blaney or Ratley don’t make the decision to fly easy or safe, but they make it simpler. As pilots, mentors and determined women, Stauffer, Shaneyfelt and Willerth now set an example for the next generation of exceptional and unique women.
And while Earhart’s true fate may never be known, her pioneering spirit can be found in the women in the Ninety-Nines and every woman who knows her odds and chooses to defy them anyway.