Hangin’ with the Ninety-Nines

Women having been flying planes pretty much since day one. Well, OK, technically since day 1,740. It was an all-boys club between Orville and September 21, 1908, when Thérèse Peltier first took wing.

But during the first decades of flight many people, men and women alike, didn’t think that females had the Right Stuff. Some people believed women weren’t physically strong enough to fly. Others that they weren’t bold enough to fly. Others still, that they weren’t smart enough to fly.

I don’t know about you, but I know plenty of women who are stronger, braver, and smarter than I am.

But I digress. For early Aviatrixes it was an uphill battle to be taken seriously, so in 1929 Ninety-nine of the leading lady flyers banded together to form an organization called the Ninety-Nines to promote and support women fliers. The organization still exists to this day.


And it’s still an all-girls club; which I’m OK with—because even though today women sit left seat on the biggest aircraft in the skies, fly combat missions, and win air races—the fairer sex still represents only a single-digit percent of licensed pilots. I have no idea why. Women, just like men, can be awesome pilots or crappy pilots. Gender has nothing to do with it.

But there is one place in modern aviation where there are a ton of women, and that’s flying right beside their pilot men-folk in the role lovingly referred to as “non-pilot navigators.” Plenty of wives, girlfriends, and presumably mistresses, ride right-seat to male pilots every day in the skies over our country. Some have a lot of training. Some have a little. Many of them don’t know a thing about the plane other than how to buckle their seatbelts. Some of these women love flying. Some like it. Some tolerate it. Some hate it and are scared to death every time they step foot in an airplane.

Ninety-Nines to the rescue.

The Ninety-Nines created a “Flying Companion Seminar” that’s designed to teach pilots’ flying companions some important basics. Like how the plane flies. How to read an aeronautical chart. How the radio works and who you can talk to. What the instruments can tell you. Safety tips, things about weather, and what the various parts of the plane do.


But the real meat of the course is this: What do you do if something “bad” happens to the pilot and he can no longer fly? The course focuses on how to keep the plane in the air and how to call for help using the radios and other onboard systems.

A few years ago, the Ninety-Nines offered this seminar here in New Mexico. We’d just bought the Plane Tales Plane at the time and I planned to take Debs, Rio, Mom, and Mick to the seminar. I can’t recall what came up, but we ended up not going.

Then Rio advanced quickly into a student pilot role, and with Mick being so ill for so long, Debs and I didn’t get to fly together at all. One of the two of us was always tending to her mother. There was no way for the two of us to go anywhere as a couple for nearly the entire time we’ve owned the plane.

Debbie’s wings got clipped before she ever had a chance to grow a pair.

But now that her mother has taken wing in another way, Debs and I are finally flying together. That’s when I got a notice that the seminar was being offered again. I printed the email and left it on our mutual desk with the note: “Wanna go?” scrawled on the top in red ink—my “editing” pen for proof reading. A few days later I noticed she had replied, “Yes, please” on the bottom.

(We’re still haven’t gotten out of the habit of not being able to do things together.)

So I registered us for the course and I blocked off the calendar for the day. It was a daylong affair so we chose to drive to it rather than fly.

On the day of the seminar as we were signing in, right after I’d suck my sticky name tag to one of my flight jackets (I have more than a few), Susan Larson, a past president of the Ninety-Nines and a champion air racer, surprised me by marching straight up to me and asking, “Are you Bill Dubois, the writer?”

I write under William, but many people feel compelled to automatically shorten William to Bill, so, pleased as punch to be recognized, and assuming she’d read one of my recent pieces in either AOPA Pilot or Flight Training, I said, Why yes I am. However, as we chatted, it quickly became clear she’d mistaken me for a different writer with a similar name.

I think we were both disappointed.

But the seminar itself was anything but disappointing.

Of course, I was there to be supportive. I didn’t expect to actually learn anything. After all, I’ve been flying for over 30 years, have a college degree in this stuff, and over the past year have written articles on nearly every element of flight training.

How wrong I was.

There were about 20 women there (and three other males, all pilots with their ladies); and what I learned was how frightened our non-pilot navigators were as a group, and what a piss-poor job we pilots had done in recognizing those fears and giving our flying companions the tools needed to master those fears.

And I learned that, as both a husband and as a pilot, what a poor job I’d done of teaching Debs what she needs to know should something happen to me while we are flying. Of course, these kinds of conversations don’t come easy to spouses, so as the seminar went on, I jotted notes on the back of my agenda. A checklist of sorts. Things I needed to teach my flying companion.

I challenge all you pilots to make a similar checklist. Your aircraft and companion may vary… well your companion had better vary, anyway… Then, like all checklists, follow the damn thing. And not just once!

Pilot’s Flying Companion Checklist (sorry, I couldn’t figure out how to do check boxes in WordPress, so bullets will have to do…)

  • Sitting in your plane, show your companion how to set YOUR com-radio to the emergency frequency of 121.5, where your mike buttons are, and how to set the volume.
  • Sitting in your plane, show your companion where your transponder is, how to set it to the emergency setting of 7700, and where the Ident button is.
  • Take the Seminar Workbook and sit in your plane to show your companion what’s the same in your plane, and what’s different.
  • Make your companion learn how to fly the damn plane straight and level, even if your companion doesn’t want to. Aim for safe control, not perfection. Then make sure she (or he) can do a gentle banking turn.
  • Have the “talk” with your companion about what to do in a crash. The seminar gave the advice to “stay with the plane.” That’s only half right. In a forced landing, the first thing you should do when the plane stops moving is get the hell out. There are a lot of hot parts and a lot a gas, and depending on how many pieces the plane is in, there’s always a risk of a “post-impact fire.” You should stay at the scene of the crash, but not necessarily in the plane. At least, not at first.
  • Try to talk your companion into at least one or two flights with an instructor. Never teach your spouse how to drive a stick. Never try to teach your spouse how to land a plane. Some things are just better left to the pros.
  • Help your companion personalize her (or his) Flight Journal—a flying diary that’s a gift from the Ninety-Nines that has key information needed in an emergency. Information that no one expects flying companions to know and remember.

And one final thing on my personal checklist…

  • Send the Ninety-Nines a “thank you” note.

I think every pilot should take a Ninety-Nines Flying Companion Seminar. We go to great lengths to learn all we can about flying: Aerodynamics, aeronautical navigation, aircraft systems, FAA regulations, radio communication, and weight and balance. We attend seminars on weather, airspace, mountain flight, emergencies, and more.

But how many of us have ever taken a seminar to help us learn more about the most important thing in the airplane? Our loved ones?

Find a Flying Companion Seminar near you today and sign up. It will make you a better pilot, and you’ll get to spend the day with a group of strong, brave, and smart women—pilots and non-pilots alike.

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