History of the San Diego 99s

The San Diego chapter was chartered on September 19th 1946.  At that time members living in the area belonged to the closest chapter, Los Angeles, and decided to form their own down south. San Diego area Ninety-Nines flew into a dirt strip near Sweetwater/Otay Mesa and had their first gathering. There were originally ten 99s who formed the chapter but the membership grew so large that in the 1970s some 99s broke off to form the El Cajon Valley chapter and later in the 1980s, others broke off to form the Mission Bay chapter, so they could have one closer to their area of the county.

In the early 2000s, the splintered chapters decided to once again become one. The present day San Diego chapter took shape and member Fran Bera acquired a large hangar at Gillespie Field. Aside of keeping her airplane there, it was also to be a place for the chapter to gather and can easily accommodate 75 people. For this reason the San Diego chapter meet at “Fran’s Hangar” at Speer Field on El Cajon’s Gillespie Field. She was a decades long member and it was a true loss when she passed. Currently, the chapter still meets at Gillespie, now often at the Admin building on Joe Crosson Drive. Additionally, we still have fly-out meets and occasionally gather at Montgomery.

Notable Members in Our History

Fran Bera

Our chapter matriarch, Fran Bera, flew for over 70 years! Over her storied aviation career she amassed 25,000+ flight hours. She passed in February 2018 at age 93.

Fran started flying in Grand Rapids, Michigan at age 16.

She funded her after-school flying lessons using money she had saved up over 4 years by skipping lunch.

She went into a flight school with $80 and told them she wanted to be a pilot.

Her parents were unaware of her aerial endeavors until she needed them to sign off on her her solo flight. They were surprised but supportive.

Thus began her 75+ year career in aviation. During her long and varied career she logged over 25,000+ flight hours included ferrying surplus aircraft after the war, flight instructing, running her own flight school and flying as an Experimental test pilot.

At age 23, Fran became the youngest, and one of the first, female designated pilot examiners, but she could not begin giving flights tests until after turning 24, which was the minimum age at that time For many years, Fran also was a sales & demonstration pilot for Beech and Piper Aircraft. She even named the popular Beechcraft Duchess airplane!

When asked about discrimination in the male dominated world of aviation, she said “I was having so much fun getting paid for what I loved to do that I didn’t realize that I wasn’t ‘liberated,’” she says.

Fran passion was air racing. She has been an racer since the 1950’s and is one of the sports winningest pilots. She has flown the All-Women’s Transcontinental Air Race, nicknamed the “Powder Puff Derby”, twenty times and has won it a record 7 times, placed 6 times and showed four! She also won, placed, or showed in 14 consecutive Palms to Pines Air Races. She has been successful in the International Women’s Air Race; the National Championship Air Races in Reno; and the Great Race from London, England, to Victoria, British Columbia. Her numerous honors include the prestigious 2011 Katherine Wright Award from the National Aeronautic Association.

In 1993 Bera flew her Piper Cherokee 235 to Siberia “just for the fun of it.” She traded her Cherokee for a Piper Comanche 260B because “I’m getting older and need to get places faster.” Fran also completed a Citation Jet type rating as a 70th birthday present to herself.

“I’m going to wear out, not rust out,” she says.

Betty Huyler Gillies

Originally of Syosset, Long Island, Betty began flying in 1928 when she was a student nurse at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City and obtained license #6525 May 6, 1929 after a total of 23 hours of flying time, including instruction. She immediately began building time toward a commercial license and joined The Ninety-Nines when it was formed in November of that year and Betty became one of our founding ninety-nine charter members. She served as our International President from 1939-41 and during her term, the Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship Fund was established.

When the United States entered World War II, Betty was flying for Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation.

Having logged approximately 1,400 hours by September 1942, she became one of the original 25 Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) members.

By December of that year, she was named commander of the WAFS stationed at New Castle Army Air Base in Delaware. She was the first woman to fly a P-47 Thunderbolt and along with WAFS Nancy Harkness Love was the first to qualify as aircraft Commander on a B-17 Flying Fortress.

In 1943 the name was changed to Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS). “Just as well I was in on the ground floor…I was too short for WASP entry requirements,” she would later say.

She also served as chairwoman of the All Woman Transcontinental Air Race (AWTAR) from 1953 – 1961. That chairmanship, according to Betty, was one of her most important achievements because it promoted the average women in aviation.

Requiring detailed organization and attention, under her supervision the race grew from 49 aircraft (90 pilots) in 1953 to 101 aircraft and 201 pilots in the 1961 race. In 1964, Betty was appointed by President Johnson to the first FAA Women’s Advisory Committee.
She received a Paul Tissandier Diploma from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in 1977 and the National Aeronautic Association Elder Statesman of Aviation Award in 1982, to name a few of her honors.

After garnering more than 50 years in the air, Betty stopped flying in 1986 due to vision problems. The SD 99s used to gather at her home in Rancho Santa Fe for occasional meetings and “hangar flying” out by the pool, where she would enjoy the tales of flying by other chapter members. She passed away at age 90 in 1998.

Evelyn "Bobbi" Trout

Bobbi was born in Greenup, Illinois, on January 7, 1906 and got her name when she had her hair cut in a ‘bob’ that was the trend of the time.
At the age of twelve she saw her first airplane flying overhead and it was love at first sight. “Some day I’ll be up there. Someday I’m going to fly an aeroplane.”

She took a big step toward that goal on December 27, 1922 when she had her first ride in a Curtiss Jenny at Rogers Field in Los Angeles (coincidentally, it was the same site that Amelia Earhart took her first airplane ride).

On New Year’s Day 1928, Bobbi began her flight training at Burdett Air Lines, Inc., School of Aviation in Los Angeles with Burdett Fuller. She soloed on April 30, 1928, two weeks later completed her training, and was issued license number 2613.

She was the fifth woman in the USA to obtain her transport license, which was signed by Orville Wright- A license Air Force Lt. Col. Eileen Collins, took with her into space in 1994, along with a scarf that once belonged to Trout’s friend, Amelia Earhart, when Collins became the first female space shuttle commander.

On the January 2, 1929, Bobbi took off from Van Nuys Airport on an endurance flight that would last for twelve hours and eleven minutes and set a new endurance aloft record.

She had set a new solo endurance record for women. But the record was only to last a month when friend and fellow 99 Elinor Smith beat her time by an hour.

A month later Bobbi took off from Mines Field (now LAX) to beat Elinor’s time. She expected to land at 10:30 AM but at 10:05 AM her engine started cutting out from fuel starvation and then died completely.

Elinor would settle the score for good in April with a flight that lasted over 26 1/2 hours, an endurance record that still stands

Elinor and Bobbi were friends and In October of 1929, Smith and Trout teamed up for an endurance flight in which they became the first women to refuel a plane in flight.

Bobbi’s records now included the first all-night flight by a woman and a new seventeen hours, twenty-four minutes solo endurance record for women. One of the local papers had the headline, “Tomboy” Stays in Air 17 Hours to Avoid Washing Dishes. Four months later, on June 16, 1929 she climbed into a new ninety horse-powered Golden Eagle Chief, climbed to fifteen thousand two hundred feet and shattered an altitude record for light class aircraft.

Bobbi joined joined other famous aviatrixes of the day Earhart, “Pancho” Barnes and 17 other participants in the first All-Women’s Transcontinental Air Race from Santa Monica to Cleveland. Humorist Will Rogers dubbed it the Powder Puff Derby and the name stuck.

Bobbi finished the race and made it to Cleveland, but did not place since her engine quit twice and she was forced to make emergency landings that put her out of the running. With a scarcity of flying jobs during the Depression, Trout became a flying instructor and, in the late ’30s, a commercial photographer.

Bobbi, who never married, later sold real estate in the Palm Springs area and retired to Carlsbad in 1976. Long time chapter members can recall she used to drive her little red Porsche sports car to chapter gatherings in Rancho Santa Fe at the home of Betty Gillies.She still liked to live in the fast lane! Bobbi passed away in 2003.

Nancy Miller Livingston Stratford

Nancy flew 50 different aircraft in World War II, and went on to accumulate some 8,500 hours in 103 different types of aircraft.

At age 23, she was one of the first American women to become a ferry pilot, flying military aircraft for the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), whose primary purpose was to ferry all sorts of aircraft for the Royal Air Force, Fleet Air Arm (Navy) and Coastal Command. Between 1939 and 1945, there were about 1,300 pilots in the ATA, of whom about 150 to 160 were women.

As one of those women pilots, Nancy logged 900 hours and was able to fly fighters, bombers, transports and others but the Spitfire was her favorite.

She recalls,
“The Spitfire was my favorite fighter; flying it was a real treat. As you open it up for takeoff, there’s a surge of power. You’re forced back into the seat and must make a definite effort to retain balance.

As you get used to this surge, you anticipate it, make the correction beforehand, and hardly notice it on the actual takeoff. The hand is fairly tense on the throttle; the head is set ahead briefly to notice the direction of takeoff and any correction to be made.

In a Spitfire, you look side to side, as you can’t see ahead at all until the tail is up. The rush of air whips into the cockpit, blowing particles up and around. The right hand moves according to the feel of the plane—the tail coming up, the slight pressure back, and the feeling of becoming airborne.”

After the war, she found it difficult as a woman to get a flying job, but by 1947 had found a job with an air service in Oregon, where she instructed, did bookkeeping, flew in air shows and dusted crops.

Nancy also earned her helicopter and seaplane ratings. She was the second licensed woman commercial helicopter pilot in the United States and fourth in the world. Women helicopter pilots were so rare in the 1950s, that an organization was founded to celebrate the elite group. Stratford was charter member No. 4 of the “Whirly-Girls” (today there are 1,700 members in 44 countries). In 1960, Stratford and her husband, Arlo Livingston, moved to Juneau, where they owned and operated Livingston Copters on North Douglas, until it was purchased by Era Helicopters in late 1977.

At one point, Nancy was the only female rotorcraft pilot in the state! She went on to lead the Helicopter Association of America, the precursor to HAI. However, by 1978 Nancy had stopped flying as her hearing had deteriorated severely due to nerve damage caused by engine noise.

Nancy was widowed in 1986. Five years later, she married Milton Stratford and moved to his home in San Diego. In 2016, at age 96, she is the oldest member of the San Diego 99s.

Her memoir, “Contact! Britain: A woman ferry pilot’s story during WWII in England!” was published in 2011.