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Historic pilots group urges women to take flight in military

On Sunday, June 11, 2017, the Bayport Aerodrome Society held a fundraiser honoring women aviators throughout history. Members offered visitors rides in vintage aircraft and hosted a presentation on the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II. (Credit: Newsday / Christopher Cameron)

The Ninety-Nines, the first international women’s pilots group that was formed nearly 88 years ago on Long Island and initially headed by Amelia Earhart, was crucial to the involvement of women aviators in World War II.

On Sunday, Nancy Neumann, president of the Long Island chapter of the organization named for the number of charter members who joined, said their stories show they can be equally capable of flying for the armed forces, and that more women should be given military combat roles.

“One percent of 1 percent of 1 percent of the world are women pilots,” said Neumann at a Bayport fundraiser focused on the history of women in aviation. “America might need those pilots like in World War II . . . There’s some women that would excel in it . . . Just give them the opportunity.”

The comments by Neumann, a longtime licensed private pilot, came as Congress investigates a growing shortage of military pilots. As of March 31, 5.6 percent of Air Force pilots were women, but only a minority of them fly combat missions.

The membership of the Ninety-Nines, formed Nov. 2, 1929, at Curtiss Field, later renamed Roosevelt Field, has grown to nearly 5,000 pilots in 45 countries, according to the group.

At the fundraiser for the Bayport Aerodrome Society, Neumann and other local members of the Ninety-Nines encouraged young women to work toward obtaining a pilot’s license.

“We have young girls that are trying to become pilots who can apply for scholarships if they’re interested,” Neumann, 58, said. “Eventually, the goal is to get them in the cockpit so that they’re pilots, not flight attendants.”

One presentation focused on the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, who flew during World War II and were directed by Jacqueline Cochran, then-president of the Ninety-Nines. WASP pilots flew 60 million miles, ferrying aircraft from U.S. factories to military ports and air bases, and towed targets for live-fire training exercises.

“The very mention of their contribution was locked away and sealed by the Army for 30 years,” said Bruce Kagan, a Long Island historian who gave the presentation. “It seemed the efforts of over 1,000 young women, and the deaths of 38, did not matter.”

Members of the WASPs who died during their service were buried without military honors, and at their families’ expense. The WASPs received veteran status in 1977, and President Barack Obama awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the 300 surviving WASP pilots on July 1, 2009.

While WASP pilots were barred from combat missions during World War II, the Bayport Aerodrome features an aircraft flown by women pilots directly involved in combat. Vladimir Samuilov, a member of the Bayport society with a specialty in vintage Soviet aircraft, is restoring one of the aircraft, a Polikarpov Po-2 biplane those women were known to fly.

“That aircraft was designed in 1927,’’ Samuilov said. ‘‘Russian women, they called them the Night Witches, flew them in the Second World War.”

John Herman, a member of the Bayport society, wrote a children’s book about the first nonstop transatlantic flight by Charles Lindbergh, who took off from Roosevelt Field. Herman said he penned the book to encourage more women to enter aviation.

“In the early years, there were a lot of women involved in aviation,” Herman said at the fundraiser. “It’s just something that I think it’s time for.”

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