These 9 woman pilots comprise the charter members of Bay Cities 99s Chapter. The chapter originally covered the geographic area of northern California, northern Nevada, and Utah.
Unless otherwise noted, quoted information comes from chapter historical information collected by Ruth Rueckert or from information in historical biographical files at the Museum of Women Pilots.
Ruth Marshall Rueckert
First Chapter Chair, and 99 for over sixty years. She was the bedrock of the Bay Cities Chapter, and her contributions to the 99s are nothing short of spectacular.
“Learned to fly in an open *bleep*pit OX-5 International wood and fabric airplane. Owned two Taylorcrafts and one Cessna 120. Family happy for me, had some publicity as an early woman pilot, and men at field encouraged me, as it drew students to their business, men students because ‘if she can fly, I can.’
Licensed as Private Pilot on November 2, 1929. I did qualify as a Limited Commercial Pilot, 1931, which I held until 1941 when hours needed to keep that license were financially impossible, so asked to be reduced to Private.
My main contribution to aviation is my service to the Ninety-Nines. Organized and became first Chairman of the Bay Cities Chapter. Governor, Vice Governor and Treasurer of the Southwest Section 1937-1940. International Historian 1949-1953; 25 history books (for the first 25 years of the 99s) compiled and placed in Air Museum of Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C. (Understand these books are now in 99 Headquarters, Oklahoma City, OK). Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship Trustee, 1962- 1965. International Treasurer, 1965-1967. SWS Historian.”
Afton Lewis Giacomini
First Secretary/Treasurer of Bay Cities Chapter. Learned to fly in 1930 at Mills Field. Had a forced landing with her instructor on San Francisco’s Twin Peaks (no injuries, slight damage to the Kinner). They got the plane back to Mills Field for repairs, but she ended up replacing it:
“Afton has found another Kinner to fly, but we all know no other plane can replace the one she flew so long, and was so tragically burned up before her very eyes. The plane had been completely recovered and painted, a good deal of the work being done by her, and when the finishing touches were being added, a spark from a short in an electric wire ignited the plane.”
On another occasion, Afton was flying a Fleet on final approach into Mills Field and had a mid-air. She was banged up a bit on that one, but survived. “Not daunted, Afton was back flying, and in on the Winging Parties.” Outside of her flying, Afton was involved in gemstone cutting and mounting.
First member lost to the chapter.
Flying Coed Of Stanford Dies in Dive.
Headline, San Francisco Chronicle, June 3, 1932
“Miss Lucy Brown, 21, ‘flying coed’ of Stanford University, and only daughter of a faculty member, was almost instantly killed, and Fred Harvey, 28, Palo Alto pilot, was fatally injured when a plane in which they were leaving the Alameda airport yesterday fell 200 feet in a nose dive…She was a senior in economics and was to have received her degree on June 20…Harvey was at the controls. At about 200 feet above the southwestern end of the airfield the plane faltered and went into a nose dive. Witnesses expressed the opinion that Harvey had made too rapid a climb in the takeoff, a common fault of inexperienced pilots…Miss Brown was one of the most active seniors in Stanford. Prominent in dramatic productions and aviation, she was a member of the 99 Club, the women’s national flying body. Her instructor was Mrs. Phyllis Penfield.”
Learned to fly at Stanford Flying Club in 1930. One of her chapter-mates notated: “Also remember Janet Zaph Briggs, who always made bouncy landings, and went no further after Private Pilot License.” Janet became a metallurgist.
Phyllis Goddard Penfield
In addition to being a charter member of the chapter, Phyllis was also one of the CHARTER 99s!
“She received her Private License after 3 hours and 45 minutes instruction by Norman Arthur Goddard and others. She married Goddard, who owned the Palo Alto School of Aviation, which Phyllis helped him run. He was killed in 1930 in the crash of a glider he designed and built with his students at the school on the Stanford University campus. After his death, Phyllis continued to run the school.” (1979 99s History Book)
Married Thomas Penfield, another pilot, in 1931. Her family was very opposed to her flying and she felt that she wasn’t taken seriously by the public or men. She established the Stanford Flying Club. One of her comments: “Meg Willis Smith and I were the only women flyers when I was taking instruction at the Palo Alto School. She dropped flying because she found women who flew used such bad language and were heavy drinkers—not for a lady to mix with!”
Marguerette “Rita” Gerry Hart
Remembered by Marj Fauth, “Rita Hart was my friend from the time I joined the organization. Rita flew OX5 Jennies, an Eaglerock and Fleets. She got her license in 1928 as Rita Gerry, and was an active pilot and 99 for almost four decades. In late 1945 she was flying a surplus Ryan ST 2-place open*bleep*pit, of which it was said, If you can fly a Ryan you can fly anything, and after a trip to Palm Springs with her in 1946 to a 99 meeting there, I agree; it was a mean and cussed airplane which you had to watch every minute.”
Thyra Merrill McLean
Thyra came to the Bay area from Alaska with her two sons after her husband, Russell Hyde Merrill (after whom Merrill Field in Alaska is named) was killed in a plane crash. She became engaged, but broke off the engagement and decided to return to Alaska in 1933 to try to re-establish herself in aviation there. Bought a Lockheed Vega with a couple of partners, but the venture didn’t pan out. She remarried and eventually settled in Seattle.
Tamar Bailey (Cook Inlet Chapter 99) wrote: “Russ Merrill was a famous Alaskan aviator. This, sadly, is the first I’ve heard of his wife. My grandmother, Myrtle Bailey, rode in Merrill’s biplane in the 1920’s. In fact, Merrill was expected on his mail run at my grandparents’ trading post in Iliamna when he disappeared.”
Marian Trace Johnson
Marian was reportedly the second woman flyer to solo and earn her license at Mills Field. She was instrumental in an early revision of the 99s Constitution. In 1935, she accepted a position (apparently managerial or secretarial) with Condor Airways in Honduras. She did get the opportunity to be part of the flight crew on the delivery of a new aircraft for the company, flying from San Francisco to Honduras.
She later returned to California, settling in the southern part of the state and getting married. Her husband was elected to the first city council for the City of Industry, and Marian was appointed Art Commissioner by the mayor.
Lillian worked as a dietician.
“In 1929 Lillian took a mechanic’s course in Nebraska. She soloed in 1930 in a Travelaire OX-5 and finished her license at the Oakland Airport.”
Lillian wrote, “Years ago when it was comparatively easy to sell Confession stories I wrote several about a Minnesota farm girl who made many humorous mistakes in her flying but always came out on top before the story ended. Of course, Minnesotans are known for rather wild imaginations…and in this I could let it soar to heights unknown and come back to earth with an unbelievable thud. I was paid rather well for these stories. It paid up what I had spent on flying lessons and also got me the DeSoto car I had for twenty-three years.”
Sadly, we have not found any of these confession stories in the Bay Cities Chapter memorabilia.
Original Content: November 2008