History Takes Wing

Group to Dedicate Memorial Garden, Mural while Hosting Meeting

The Santa Maria Valley Chapter of the Ninety-Nines will be making a bit of history by celebrating 100 years of it.

The chapter will host the Southwest Section meeting of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of licensed women pilots, next weekend when more than 100 women from California, Arizona, and Nevada are expected to land in Santa Maria.  On Saturday, the local chapter will dedicate its Ninety-Nines Memorial Garden, a park that celebrates women’s contributions to aviation.  The local chapter has members from the Five Cities to Santa Ynez.

The public is invited to the ceremony, which begins at 2:30 p.m. A reception follows the dedication. The garden is located adjacent to the Santa Maria Museum of Flight, 3015 Airpark Drive.

The garden has been a two-year labor of love for the Ninety-Nines, especially chapter vice chair Sunni Gibbons, who took an idea and flew with it.  “It was clearly a calling. The woman who started the idea for this, Wilma Poage, passed away. When she was talking about it, something in me just clicked and I knew this was mine to do,” Gibbons said of Poage, a local Ninety-Nine and director of the Museum of Flight who died in 2009 from breast cancer.  Poage and Katherine Hulme, the museum’s first executive director, are remembered in the rose garden that leads from the door of the museum to the memorial garden.

Developing the garden and the spectacular mural that celebrates nearly 100 years of women’s achievements and contributions to aviation, was kind of like flying without landmarks for Gibbons, an accomplished artist.  “It’s been a real intense experience — total involvement. Any artist can tell you what it is to be totally involved with your creative project for a long period of time. This is the biggest creative project I’ve ever attempted,” said Gibbons, who this year became the fourth local pilot inducted into the Forest of Friendship, a living memorial in Atchison, Kan., the birthplace of Amelia Earhart, dedicated to people who contributed to aviation.  Pat Rowe and Diane Pirman, accompanied Gibbons to Kansas in June for the ceremony.

While the garden, with its meandering path outlined by memorial bricks and benches, has been complete for some time, the 28-foot mural has been created in the past eight months.  Gibbons created computer layouts of the photographic images of historic women aviators she collected with help from Pirman and Cheryl Cooney, of the San Luis Obispo chapter. Signs of Success, a Santa Maria sign company, turned those files into the vivid mural that now adorns the garden wall.

Comprised of seven 4- by 8-foot panels of aluminum sheeting, each panel depicts a different era of women in aviation stretching from Harriet Quimby, the first licensed woman pilot in America, to astronauts Peggy Whitson, who became the first female space station commander, and Sunita Williams, holder of the female flight endurance record with 195 days in space.

A group that received special attention in the mural is “The Warriors,” women military pilots whose origins can be traced to the WASPs, the Women Air Services Pilots of World War II.  “These were gals that flew. They were never even acknowledged by the government until the 1980s,” said Pat Viker. They used to ferry aircraft from manufacturers to where the government needed them, and they’d tow targets for the men to shoot at. Can you believe that?”  The WASPS will also be recognized in a display the Ninety-Nines are organizing inside the Museum of Flight. Four original WASP uniforms, donated by Five Cities resident Mark Weedon, will be on display along with an original WASP patch, with its Fifinella mascot that was created by Walt Disney.

The dedication marks the end of two years of work that turned a weed-filled eyesore at the airport into a focal point. Even though Gibbons is an accomplished artist, much like the women the garden honors, she stretched her wings during its development.  “When you’re kind of doing something out at the far edges of what you’ve done before you don’t have any models to go by. You just feel your way organically to the next step,” she said.

The Ninety-Nines Memorial Garden is a perfect landing.

September 01, 2012   By Brian Bullock/Staff Writer/bbullock@santamariatimes.com