Staff photo by Dean H. Borgwardt
Bette Bach Fineman of Camp Verde is the chair of the local chapter of the Ninety-Nines. Fineman has been a pilot for some 30 years and is seen here with her 1946 Aeronca 7AC Champ.
From a 605-pound spruce and canvas Wright Flyer powered by a 12 hp engine, to fleets of immense Boeing 747 airliners, comprised of some six million parts, 171 miles of wiring and weighing 147,000 pounds. These aircraft have carried 3.6 billion people around the globe, roughly half the world's population in a short 30-year period.
The first 747s were commissioned in 1970. That's when Bette Bach Fineman, 65, of Camp Verde, joined the Ninety-Nines Inc., an international group of women aviators.
Fineman is the chairperson of the local chapter of the Ninety-Nines, the Sedona Red Rockettes.
"It started when I married an Air Force pilot and began flying in 1968, ferrying aircraft in the eastern states for about 20 years," Fineman said.
Fineman, like many pilots, said she relishes the freedom of flying.
"To look down from the air – the sheer freedom of flying," she said, "is what makes it wonderful to experience."
Fineman said that she has encountered many incredible spectacles while flying.
"It's amazing to see the aurora borealis from the air. That's one of the most amazing things anyone can witness," she reminisced. "Flying through cloud banks and snow flurries and thunderheads – seeing lightning burst within a layer of clouds, that’s amazing to see."
Another Ninety-Nines member Jean McConnell, of Sedona, has been flying since 1972.
McConnell said she became a pilot because her boss was married to a woman who served in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).
"About 30 years ago, she had me call in sick one day and gave me a ride in her plane," McConnell said. "She kept nudging me, and then I went to flight school and finally became a qualified pilot."
One of her fondest memories, she said, was in the 1980s when she accompanied a pilot in an all-women air race in Baja, Calif., landing on dirt airstrips and camping on the beach.
"We flew down the eastern side of the Baja peninsula and the scenery was very beautiful," she said. "We unrolled our sleeping bags in these huts and when we asked how we lock the doors, they told us 'you don't because there isn't anyone out here.' It was wonderful."
McConnell said aviation is a great career path for women. The best way to defray the high cost of attaining a pilot's license is through the military, she suggested.
She said that two local members of the Ninety-Nines are former WASPs.
McConnell said that she sits enthralled listening to them share their adventures during World War II.
"Listening to these women tell their stories when they were 20 years old serving their country is inspirational," she said. "They were fearless."
McConnell said that the WASPs proved that aviation is equal for both women and men.
"You can't push a plane," McConnell said. "And physical strength has nothing to do with flying. WASPs proved that in the '40s."
During the war, Ninety-Nines flew photographic and radio controlled missions, engineering test flights and regular cargo missions. Many Ninety-Nines taught Army and Navy cadets on Civilian Pilot Training and War Training Service programs building a great reserve of pilots.
Paradoxically, during the darkest hours of war, some of the most illuminating pages in the history of women in aviation were written. But despite the rapid advances made in aviation, some aspects were slow to change.
Ninety-Nines member Nell Bright, 82, of Sedona was a WASP in WWII.
She said that with the best training available and hundreds of hours of flight time, airline companies would not hire woman pilots and the U.S. Air Force wouldn't accept women into its flight program until the late 70s, some 30 years later.
Bright said that qualifications were high for WASP candidates.
"There were 25,000 applicants wanting to join the WASPs," she said. "1,800 were accepted and only 1,074 completed the program and earned their wings."
Bright said that she started flying at 17 because she wanted to.
"For me, it started in the late 1930s," she said. "I joined the WASPs in May of '43. I was about 20. We were fighting for our lives and for our country. My parents were very supportive."
Ninety-Nines pilots dispelled forever the misconception that great physical strength is a mandatory trait in a pilot as these women flew every military aircraft produced.
Bright said that even now, aviation is a tough career for women.
"We proved we could fly any plane the men could fly because we did fly them," she chuckled. "Still, they laughed us out of the room when we went to the airlines to find jobs."
She said that she is amazed that there are still a good number of people who don't know there were women Army Air Corp pilots during the war. "We were the best kept secret in WWII," she laughed.
In 1927, Amelia Earhart wrote her colleagues about forming an organization for women who fly and in 1932, became the first president of the Ninety-Nines, named for the number of charter members.
Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932. In her attempt to fly around the world, her airplane disappeared in 1937.
The Ninety-Nines, incorporated in 1950, is an international organization of licensed women pilots from 36 countries with more than 6,000 members. The original purpose of the organization was to coordinate the interests and efforts of women in the aviation field.
Ninety-Nines have friends at every airport, and memberships extend around the world to every continent. Members are currently flying in Africa, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Europe, Israel, Japan, Korea, Sweden and Turkey, to name a few. The United States is home to 70 chapters of the Ninety-Nines, and its motto is "world friendship through flying."
In 1949, a group of women pilots banded together and formed the Arizona chapter of the Ninety-Nines.
Sedona Red Rockettes was chartered in July 1988, with nine original members. Currently, there are 17.
Nationally, the Ninety-Nines awards $50,000 in scholarships and chapters sponsor educational programs for schools, Future Women Pilots programs, conducts airport tours for school children, offer fear-of-flying clinics and flight instruction seminars. Chapter members design and paint airport identification information at no charge to the city or county.
Sedona Red Rockettes Chapter of the Ninety-Nines meets monthly. For more information on becoming a member of the Ninety-Nines in the Verde Valley, contact Bette Bach Fineman at (928) 567-0056.
Women student pilots are welcome. For more information on the Ninety-Nines, check online at www.ninety-nines.org.
For Fineman, aviation is a major part of her life and she wouldn't have it any other way.
She said that she has made numerous friends and has had many adventures while flying.
"If there's bad weather out there, you just land and have a cup of coffee," she smiled. "I've even had to land and ask where the heck I was," she laughed. "But there's nothing like it in the world."
Fineman said that aviators have always been a remarkable breed.
"These people had dreams that could not be denied -- they wouldn't let go," she said. "They took their dreams higher and faster. They refused to take no for an answer."