Alaska 99s celebrate 50 years encouraging women to pilot planes

Group is commemorating its golden anniversary, honoring female contributions at Anchorage library

Posted: Friday, November 19, 2004

ANCHORAGE - It's fair to say that women have played a major role in Alaska aviation history, and some of their exploits are legendary.

The Alaska chapter of the Ninety-Nines marks its 50th anniversary Saturday.

The Ninety-Nines Inc. is an international organization of licensed women pilots from 35 countries, with more than 6,000 members worldwide.

The Alaska chapter promotes world fellowship through flight, provides networking and scholarship opportunities for women and aviation education in the community and preserves the unique history of women in aviation.

Currently, the Alaska 99s have a display commemorating the 50th anniversary and honoring female contributions at the Loussac Library in Anchorage. Angie Slingluff is chairwoman of the state chapter.

"We don't just fly," said Slingluff. "We get involved. We're civic-minded. We see a need and respond to it."

Nationally, the Ninety-Nines reach into every corner of aviation. Each year the chapters sponsor more than 300 educational programs, including flying safety, airport tours, fun flying and flying companion seminars. They also fly air ambulance, blood and medical supplies; help identify airports by air-marking names on runways and roof tops; serve on local, state and federal aeronautics commissions and promote intercollegiate flying competition.

"In the Lower 48, we do a lot of angel flights (medical transport)," Slingluff said.

The Alaska chapter has done about 23 marking projects since 1970, from Northway to Nome, all over the state. To promote the upgrading of pilot skills and proficiency, the Ninety-Nines operate local and cross-country racing events. Each year, the Ninety-Nines award 10 or more Amelia Earhart scholarships for advanced flight training. Additionally, the chapters award numerous student pilot and advanced rating scholarships.

"Girls need role models to say, yes, we can do this to," Slingluff said. "They need to have believable role models. Part of it is women realizing they can do it."

One of those Alaska role models is Ellen Paneok, a renowned Inupiaq Bush pilot with 14,000 hours of commercial flying in Arctic Alaska. A pilot, writer, lecturer and artist, Paneok has flown for Cape Smythe Air in Barrow and the former MarkAir Express.

"I make money through aviation, no matter what I'm doing," Paneok said. "My whole life is intertwined commercially with aviation."

Paneok has been a pilot for 26 years, including 17 years commercially. She has had several articles published and has been inducted into the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum for being an Alaska pioneer woman pilot.

"I've flown everything from live wolverines to the U.S. mail," Paneok said.

Paneok overcame a difficult childhood and found inspiration in aviation. She now tries to inspire women to pursue aviation as a career through talks at schools and youth detention centers.

"My biggest bent is to promote and foster aviation and safety and to encourage people, both young and old, to take up something worthwhile," Paneok said. "I love the romance of flying and try to portray that romance to other people - the absolute love of flying. I have made a darn good living at it."

On Christmas Eve, Paneok received a phone call from an Eskimo friend who had just completed her first flying lesson.

"She was just bubbling over," Paneok said.

Throughout the early history of Alaska aviation, women were supportive, doing jobs like lighting bonfires to land by, keeping the books and even doing some mechanical work, Slingluff said.

"The guys could not do what they did without support," Slingluff said. "They helped run the whole thing."

From a commerce standpoint, female aviators have played many key roles in Alaska, and many of them are highlighted at the current library display.

Today, about 8 percent of the Alaska pilot base is female, Slingluff said, and there are about 10,000 licensed pilots total. In 2002, the Alaska chapter hosted a Northwest regional 99s meeting that brought 110 women pilots from 12 states to Anchorage.

"Our enthusiasm for flying and our enthusiasm for Alaska encourages other women pilots to visit," Slingluff said. "Women will continue to be an integral part of aviation in Alaska," she said.

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