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Women in Aviation


Amid the din of propeller planes, on a damp November day in 1929, 26 women pilots gathered at an airplane hangar at Curtiss Field on Long Island. They were there to discuss the advancement of women in aviation.

Among them was perhaps the most famous flier in post-World War II America: Amelia Earhart. In 1931, she would be elected president of the group. They called themselves the “Ninety-Nines” to represent the 99 charter members. A woman with long ties to Nantucket was among those pioneering women.

Margaret O’Mara, a technical writer for the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical Company, was a charter member of the Ninety-Nines and present at their famed first meeting. O’Mara spent the summers on Morey Lane in Sconset until 1975, when she became a year-round resident. Margaret’s daughter, Jean O’Mara Ernst, would also get a pilot’s license and become a member of the Ninety-Nines.

Over the years, Nantucket was home to other members of the Ninety-Nines, including Jeanette Smith and Roberta Phinney. It was Jean Adams, who spent her summers in a cottage on Washington Street and later on South Beach Street, who would leave the largest legacy on island aviation.

Adams was taught to fly by Dave Raub, a former aviation mechanic and test pilot, who had moved to the island and helped create the Nobadeer Flying Service. Raub and farmer Leslie Holmes cleared some of the cornfields on Holmes’ farm at Nobadeer for an airfield.

According to a story in the 1992 spring issue of Historic Nantucket, Raub and Holmes used an old stone roller to flatten the fields, planted grass and bought “three old planes, an old Traveler, a Fairchild, and an XO Challenger.”

The Nantucket Flying Service, charters and flying lessons, was born. By 1927, flights between Boston and Nantucket were announced, changing forever the way people traveled to Nantucket.

Adams received her pilot’s license in 1934 and in short time joined the Ninety-Nines. The “famous woman flyer of Boston” flew a Stinson plane and worked at what is now Boston’s Logan Airport throughout the late 1930s. She was one of 40 pilots who staged Nantucket’s first air show. More than 3,000 people turned out to watch fliers take over the skies.

Adams became the governor of the New England chapter of the Ninety-Nines. She was an active aerial photographer who acted in community theater productions on the island. In 1942, the British Air Transport Auxiliary sought the services of American women to join the women’s auxiliary.

 Adams was among the American women pilots the Brits most wanted. Instead, she stayed stateside, where she co-wrote a book with Margaret Kimball called “Heroines of the Sky,” published in 1942 by Doubleday.

Adams became the first manager of Nantucket Airport, in 1946, and the first woman to manage any airport in the United States. She held the job for 10 years.

Some articles at the time noted the “shortage of manpower” on the island, but even in the postwar period, Adams was the only person on the island who had the licenses required to run the airport. During her time on the island, she held at least one regional meeting of the Ninety-Nines.

Local Nantucket girls were inspired by her aeronautical abilities. In the summer of 1939, a class of young women took flying lessons, among them Anne Beach, Grace Larkin Coffin, Edith Jenney, Kathryn Cady, Winnifred Williams, Linda Loring and Doris Gilman. Starting in the 1930s, Nantucket had a flying club made up of both men and women.

It wasn’t just the young who felt her influence. A 1938 issue of the Ninety-Nines’ newsletter details Adams’ experience taking a 91-year-old woman for her first airplane ride. In Jean Adams’ Stinson, they chased the clouds.

Mary Bergman is executive director of the Nantucket Preservation Trust. She writes regularly for Nantucket Today.