Founding member of the Ninety-Nines, Fay Gillis Wells
Founding member of the Ninety-Nines, Fay Gillis Wells
Carolyn J. Russo

Fearless Flying Females

Aviation buffs and photography aficionados can enjoy the aesthetic appeal of air travel without the burden of luggage, lines, or delays when "Women and Flight," a Smithsonian traveling exhibit paying homage to female pilots, makes a brief layover at the Miami-Dade Public Library. The black-and-white prints of windblown female pilots currently decorating the library's main auditorium are the result of four years of travel by Carolyn J. Russo, a staff photographer at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The idea for the project was born nearly a decade ago, Russo says, when she noticed a lack of research on contemporary female pilots. "It became evident that there was a little hole that needed to be filled," she explains. "I wanted to get a good diverse feel for who was out there and what they were doing."

The 75 images are the result of journeys that took Russo from Alaska to Florida. In our town she snapped Mayte Greco, who flies missions over the Straits of Florida with Brothers to the Rescue. Shots of Greco with her five children decorate the entryway to the auditorium. Inside, the photographs capture the women at creative angles. One striking work focuses on the interior of a hot-air balloon. A brief timeline of the accomplishments of female pilots -- beginning with Harriet Quimby, who in 1911 became the first American woman to earn a pilot's license -- lends historical context. Excerpts from interviews, some touching and some amusing, are included too. In one, an Alaskan bush pilot jokes about having to chase polar bears off the runway before landing. "These women are all motivated, determined, and a great inspiration, not only to future generations of women pilots but to everyone," Russo notes.

Further enlightenment may come from "The Ninety-Nines in South Florida," an accompanying exhibit that boasts aviation artifacts, memorabilia, and books compiled by the Florida Goldcoast Chapter of the Ninety-Nines, a national association of female pilots. The items -- including a full Coast Guard uniform and World War II telegrams -- aim to show women that despite stereotypes to the contrary, aviation is an attainable career, says Ursula Davidson, a member of the Ninety-Nines who initially helped to organize and display the mementos for Women's History Month earlier this year. Like Russo, Davidson realized there was a dearth of information about female aviators other than Amelia Earhart: "Someone asked me who my role models were and I realized none of them were women."


"Women and Flight" and "The Ninety-Nines in South Florida"

The Miami-Dade Public Library, 101 W. Flagler St.

Display through August 12. Admission is free. Call 305-375-2665.

Davidson adds that, still, women only make up six percent of all pilots and only two percent of airline pilots.

Even if the exhibits do not persuade young women to choose aviation as a career, Russo says she hopes they will be moved by the aviators' stories. Ironically Russo is not a pilot herself, although she devoted years traveling to photograph female pilots. "Photography is my niche; that's where my passion really is," she says. "This just gave me the inspiration." Besides, she laughs, "I do get a little airsick."


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