Ninety Nines

There is nothing the women of Kern County cannot do.

They have been pioneers in many fields, including the arts, medicine and politics. They are credited with many of the “firsts” in the state – and sometimes in the nation. For one group of pioneering Kern women, the sky really was the limit.

Humans have long been fascinated with wanting to fly. Early attempts were rather disastrous (wearing makeshift wings won’t work!) and later ones, thanks to the Wright brothers, quite successful. Women, too, have played an important role in the field of aviation and American women have taken to the skies since almost the beginning of modern flight.

The embodiment of this passion for flight is found in a group of female pilots known as the Ninety Nines. Established on Nov. 2, 1929, at Curtiss Field, New York, these women accomplished many firsts for female pilots. The organization was founded after an invitation was sent out to all of the 117 licensed female pilots in the United States. A total of 99 responded, and the club’s official name was born. Amelia Earhart was named the first president and one of the founding members included a Bakersfield pilot and instructor named Achsa Barnwell Peacock. Born in Fresno in 1904, Miss Barnwell, at the time, started taking flying lessons in 1923.

After five years of flight under her belt, she successfully earned her limited commercial pilot license. According to an account of her test reported in the Aug. 28, 1928, Bakersfield Californian, she landed her plane successfully in a 100 foot circle three times in a row, after cutting her engine off at 1,500 feet.

The inspector proclaimed, “There’s not a pilot on the field (who) could get a ship down any better, if as well.”

The following year, she married Ross Peacock and they started an airline and flight school out of Kern County Airport (now Meadows Field). On Feb. 5, 1931, she became the first female pilot and only one of six in the entire state to earn her transport pilot license – the highest license a pilot can obtain in the U.S. She also continued to lead the Bakersfield chapter of the Ninety Nines.

In 1932, the Ninety Nines happily obliged when asked to participate in the second annual American Legion air circus at Kern County Airport. The group’s best race and stunt pilots took the show by storm (and probably stormed a few barns as well).

The members of Bakersfield’s charter also became involved in various aviation projects. During the 1960s and 1970s, members air marked the skyways so that all of the county’s airports would have their names and elevations painted large enough to be easily read from the sky. They also participated in airlifts to deliver medical supplies to the Santa Barbara headquarters of the Direct Relief Foundation.

Over the years, the group grew and eventually became an international organization that also focuses on women’s interest in many facets of aviation, including education, competition and safety. The organization continues it mission of supporting and empowering female pilots.

What past-Chairman Joan Paynter stated in the Nov. 15, 1972, Californian still very much applies to the members of the Ninety Nines today: “The spirit of pioneer women aviators, who flew aircraft in the colorful days when a forced landing was more the rule than the exception, underlies the enthusiasm of Bakersfield Chapter Ninety-Nines.” 

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