In good company

Sunni Gibbons, a member of the Santa Maria Valley chapter of the Ninety-Nines, stands by her Piper Cherokee 235 plane at the Santa Maria Public Airport. Gibbons will be inducted into the Ninety-Nines Forest of Friendship, a living memorial in Atchison, Kan., in June.

Sunni Gibbons has been many things throughout her 71 years — daughter, wife, mother, artist, graphic designer, businesswoman, pilot, volunteer and grandmother. Intertwined with all of them has been a love of aviation and a desire to fly.

In June, Gibbons, a licensed pilot since 1996, will be inducted into the Ninety-Nines Forest of Friendship, a living memorial in Atchison, Kansas not far from the home of aviation pioneer and heroine Amelia Earhart. The memorial earns its name by having a tree from each of the 50 states and 35 countries where the honorees reside.

Gibbons is a member of the Santa Maria Valley chapter of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots. Along with the other 2012 nominees, she will join the likes of Earhart, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Charles Lindbergh, Chuck Yeager, General James Doolittle, Jeana Yeager, Sally Ride and Col. Eileen M. Collins, the first woman to pilot a U.S. space shuttle, who are honored in the forest.

“There are many big names there and a lot of smaller local names like those of us here,” Gibbons said, adding fellow Santa Maria Valley Ninety-Nines Diane Pirman and the late Pat Rowe are also honored in the forest. “We all have the common love of aviation and our contributions there are part of our lifestyle and the legacy you leave.”

Gibbons’ contributions to aviation are considerable, and include 85 missions for Angel Flight West, a volunteer-driven organization that offers free air travel for children and adults in need of transportation to distant hospitals for medical treatments.

The energetic Gibbons is also heading up coordination of the Santa Maria Valley Ninety-Nines Memorial Park to honor women in aviation history, including local Ninety-Nines Katherine Hulme and Wilma Poage.  Hulme was the museum’s first director. Poage also served as director and came up with the idea for the park, but died from breast cancer before seeing it become reality.

It really didn’t surprise any of the local Ninety-Nines that Gibbons took over the park project when it was proposed.  “She’s the kind of gal when you start talking about doing something, she’s like ‘I can do that.’ And she does,” said  Pat Viker, one of the Santa Maria Valley Ninety-Nines who nominated Gibbons for the honor. “She’s done so much for our chapter.”

Gibbons has used her artistic talent — she earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington and a master’s degree in fine arts at San Jose State University — to design numerous logos for other Ninety-Nines chapters in the southwest region. She is an accomplished artist, painting in both watercolor and oils.

She also designed the Katherine Hume Memorial Trophy, an award annually presented by the Ninety-Nines at the Thunder Over the Valley air show.

Gibbons was probably destined to be a pilot. She was a Navy kid whose father, Jack Odbert, was a navigator on the USS Lexington in 1937 during its search for Earhart, after she and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the South Pacific during her attempt to circumnavigate the globe.  While Odbert served in the U.S. Navy, Gibbons, her sisters and mother Trudi hopscotched from base to base including stops in San Diego, Alaska, Florida, Virginia, Spain, Morocco and North Africa.

When the Santa Maria Ninety-Nines honored Gibbons for her induction to the Forest of Friendship, they brought nearly all of her family to Santa Maria to share the moment, including her son Travis Schweizer, a Navy SEAL, who was attending school in Rhode Island.

“That was the most precious and wonderful surprise ever. The acknowledgment was absolutely stunning and thrilling, and to have them bring my family here — all four of my kids, five of my grandkids, some of the other families, my sisters — it was just the most exciting thing ever. I have never had such a wonderful experience in my life,” Gibbons said, her voice wavering with emotion.

Next to her family, flying is what excites Gibbons most. She flies her beloved Piper Cherokee 235 to both San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area visit her children and mother.   “It’s kind of like flying a cocker spaniel. It’s got a lot of power, but it’s very gentle,” she said, almost affectionately. “Flying is the juice that keeps us going. This wonderful thing. You lift off and leave everything behind. It’s just such a lovely, lovely thing.”

By Brian Bullock/Staff Writer bbullock@santamariatimes.com Santa Maria Times | Posted: Monday, April 2, 2012

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