Last weekend, the International Women's Air and Space Museum opened in Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport. It's a small museum, but the only one of its kind in the world, with first-class exhibits and research materials dedicated to the accomplishments of women aviation pioneers like Amelia Erhart, Katherine Wright and Bessie Coleman. But the museum isn't just about aviation history. As 90.3's Karen Schaefer reports, the museum is also bringing to life the stories of some remarkable women heroes.
Fay Gillis Wells- We were flying upside when the overpowered experimental aircraft just flew apart.
KS- Fay Gillis Wells is a museum trustee and one of six remaining charter members of the 99's, the International Organization of Women Pilots founded in 1929 by Amelia Erhart.
FGW- Well, I was thrown out of the plane, I didn't have my hand on the rip chord, I didn't know where it was, I was tumbling head over heels. Fortunately my chute opened, they said, about 400 feet and I landed. Nothing was right, except I didn't have a scratch, I didn't even have a black and blue mark on me.
KS- Stories like those of Fay Wells are introducing new audiences to the accomplishments of women aviators. But many of these stories have never been told. Wells recalls the second time she was scheduled to fly with daredevil pilot Wiley Post.
FGW- And then in 1935 he went on his trip to Siberia and he asked me to go with him on that trip. And Linton called and said, well, I've just been hired by the New York Herald Tribune to cover the Italo-Ethiopian War and did I want to go on the trip with Wiley or did I want to have my honeymoon in Ethiopia? And I thought about thirty seconds and I decided I didn't want to substitute on my honeymoon, so I called Wiley and he got Will Rogers to go with him, of course.
KS- Wiley and Rogers were killed when their plane crashed in Alaska, while Wells went on to become a free lance journalist and White House correspondent. Remarkable as her life has been, Wells still reveres her own personal hero, flyer Amelia Erhart.
FGW- She was a just a person that just inspired people. During the depression, when everybody was so depressed and they had nothing, they looked up at the sky and there was Amelia, you know?
KS- Margaret Ray Ringenberg was a different kind of hero. During World War II she joined the Women's Air Service Patrol and spent her war years testing planes and ferrying them across the U.S. and Canada. At the end of the war, Ringenberg received one last, special assignment.
Margaret Ray Ringenberg- Well, I'm sitting at the desk at Smith Field and the telephone rang and, of course I answered it. And it was one of the local radio stations and they said Japan is about to surrender. And the local newspaper was on strike, so I had the privilege of dropping the leaflets over Fort Wayne.
KS- At 78, Ringenberg is still flying her own plane and teaching others how to fly. The author of Girls Can't Be Pilots, she is also featured in Tom Brokaw's latest book, The Greatest Generation. But like many women of her era, Ringenberg is uneasy with the title of hero.
MRR- Fay has got a story to tell, being in the White House. I just don't feel like I've got the stories she has. Who wants to ride with a girl pilot? Girls can't be pilots.
Kathryn Sullivan- I have the world's hardest time feeling like a hero.
KS- Kathryn Sullivan is the first woman astronaut to walk in space, during the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope. In all, she served as a mission specialist on three Space Shuttle launches. Today she is director of COSI, the Columbus science and industry museum.
KSull- I'm proud and content that I have also invested plenty of my own energy and discipline and talent to make good on the opportunities that good fortune has given me and that's a record I'll stand very confidently on. But I don't find it easy to wear the title hero. I understand it can look that way from the outside, but, if it's useful and helpful to others to inspire and motivate, that I'm very content with.
KS- Providing role models for girls and boys interested in aeronautics and science is the real mission of the International Women's Air and Space Museum. Even modern-day heroes like Kathryn Sullivan and Carol Russo, the first woman Director of Aeronautics at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, say women still need their own heroes to inspire them.
Carol Russo- When I went to school I was the only woman in my class, so it was definitely a field that was not for women in those days. It's better today, but I still think there's a lot we can do to encourage young women to go into engineering and science.
KS- At the International Women's Air and Space Museum, heroes like Fay Gillis Wells are inspiring a whole new generation.
FGW- Three years ago I talked to one of the groups at Fort Leavenworth. Third graders. Gave them the talk. And in there there was a little girl named Rachel Rimmelman, and her older sister was Sarah, who was ten at the time. Sarah said, "Mrs. Wells, would you mind if I wrote a book about you for children?" I said sure, darling, if you want to. Anything I can do to help. I mean, a ten-year old child. So, she was serious. And the book came out this June.
KS- The legends continue. 1999 marked the first time that a woman astronaut commanded the launch of a Space Shuttle, the most complex piece of aeronautic equipment ever created. Although the event was overshadowed by the 30th anniversary of Apollo 11, it's clear women will go on striving for new goals in air and space. And at the International Women's Air and Space Museum, the stories of these women heroes will finally be told. For Infohio, I'm Karen Schaefer, reporting from Cleveland.