High-flying women take to the air

Ninety-Nines pilots Mary Wunder and Alison Chalker from Montgomery County will fly passengers during the “Pennies-a-Pound” event.
Ninety-Nines pilots Mary Wunder and Alison Chalker from Montgomery County will fly passengers during the “Pennies-a-Pound” event.
Posted: May 18, 2012

Some people stop at a drive-through for lunch. The airborne women of the Ninety-Nines make a short hop to Amish country, or Maryland, or wherever else their flights of fancy take them.

“We have a wide network of girls … Philadelphia, Allentown, all over the place,” said eastern Pennsylvania chapter president Barbara Zeigler. “We try to scatter our meetings around.”

The Ninety-Nines is an international organization for women pilots established in 1929 by — you guessed it — 99 women fliers. Its first president was Amelia Earhart. Its members come from many backgrounds, but they all love flying, and they want you to love flying, too.

“We are always welcoming non-pilots into the fold to ask if they’d like to go for a ride,” Zeigler said.

Adventurous souls will have that chance Saturday at the local Ninety-Nines’ annual fund-raiser, “Pennies-A-Pound,” held at Heritage Field Airport in Pottstown. Passengers pay based on what they weigh: 15 cents per pound, within the range of $7 to $25 cash.

Zeigler, 45, who started flying in 2000, enjoys seeing first-timers — those who have never flown in a small plane at 3,000 to 4,000 feet off the ground. Like someone riding a roller-coaster for the first time, the passengers enter the plane with apprehension and they exit feeling something entirely different.

“Just to see the look on their face, to hear them talk about it,” Zeigler said. “It’s the stuff that starts people flying.”

“Pennies-A-Pound” opens new opportunities for pilots, too. The proceeds go toward two chapter scholarships, between about $1,000 and 2,000, which are awarded each year to two women in the area. The scholarships help women pilots earn their licenses or upgrade their rating, which allows them to fly in certain conditions and with more complex aircraft.

Amy Sipala, 25, of Kennett Square, was awarded the chapter’s Louise Sacchi and Connie Wolf Memorial Scholarship in 2008. The young pilot was in the process of earning both her commercial license and flight instructor rating at the same time, so the scholarship was a big boost, she said.

Her education enabled Sipala, who recently joined the Ninety-Nines, to work as a flight trainer at New Garden Aviation in Chester County. She has eight years of flight experience under her belt.

“The goal is to be a full-time pilot,” she said.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, Zeigler said, only 6 percent of pilots are women. The Ninety-Nines organization seeks to expand that population.

Today, the Ninety-Nines includes thousands of members from 35 countries. Its ranks are filled by both professional and part-time pilots. Some are “up in age,” Zeigler said. “There’s also kids that come right out of high school and start flying in college,” she said.

The eastern Pennsylvania Ninety-Nines, which holds chapter meetings each month, reach out to Girl Scouts, veteran fliers, pilots-in-training, and anyone else who is interested in aviation. They also aim to educate people about the functions of local airports, the president said, which are used for medical evacuation and pharmaceutical transport.

“Most folks don’t realize that our small airports do so much more than allow us crazy pilots to fly,” Zeigler said.

For some of those pilots, the local airport is very literally close to home. Ninety-Nines member Mary Wunder, 58, of Skippack, purchased two acres adjacent to Perkiomen Valley Airport and planted a hangar in her back yard. The retired air traffic controller has been flying since 1978.

“I almost flunked out of school because I was thinking like a pilot instead of like an air-traffic controller,” Wunder said.

The Ninety-Nines keep pilots in the air consistently to exercise their skills, and serves as a boundless social network of women who share the passion, Wunder said.

And with events like “Pennies-A-Pound,” the pilots get to pay it forward, for both current and future pilots.

Wunder recalled the words of a little girl she once took for a flight. When the 8-year-old came back down, Wunder said, she excitedly reported to her mother, “Mom, you can see the whole world up there.”

“We want all little girls to know that they can fly,” Wunder said.


Pennies-a-Pound

Airplane rides for 15 cents per pound are offered 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday at Heritage Field Airport(formerly known as Pottstown Limerick Airport), 3310 W. Ridge Pike, Pottstown. Fee $7 minimum-$25 maximum. Weather permitting. Information: 610-495-7000, http://www.easternpa99s.org.

SOURCE: The Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter of The Ninety-Nines

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