Hannah Umberger stands in a hangar at Treasure Coast International Airport in Fort Pierce next to an airplane that is decades older than she is. After mounting the stairs to the 1943 Douglas DC-3 Preferred Turbine, the 27-year-old settles comfortably into the cockpit and begins to explain the challenges of flying a plane that was originally used for air transport during World War II.
“It’s a tail dragger,” she says, explaining how the plane slants heavily downward from nose to tail. A plane like this can be challenging to fly, she says, requiring regular corrections for wind. Umberger grabs the yoke (control column) and pulls back with effort. “The controls are heavy too, it’s a workout,” she jokes.
Twice a week, Umberger flies the 16,500-pound plane loaded with 8,000 pounds of cargo on missionary trips to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas. Missionary Flights International, the nonprofit organization Umberger works for, transports medicine, food, clothing, tools, building supplies, and sometimes even live animals to more than 600 organizations throughout these three countries.
For the pilot, who grew up in a Christian home, flying mission trips is a dream come true—albeit one that took her close to 10 years to attain. “Becoming a pilot is a much lengthier process than I realized,” says Umberger, who lives in Fort Pierce. “I am so thankful for the 99s.”
The 99s is an organization of female pilots whose mission is “to promote the advancement of aviation through education, scholarships, and mutual support while honoring our unique history and sharing our passion for flight.” Founded in 1929, the organization’s name comes from its original membership count of 99. Considering there were only 117 total female pilots in the United States at the time, the 99s represented the pioneers of female flight. Amelia Earhart was the organization’s first president.
Today, the 99s have thousands of members in 44 countries. The local chapter, the Treasure Coast 99s, has members from Vero Beach down to Boca Raton.
“When I started flying, there were not a lot of women doing it,” says 55-year-old Aileen Watkins, who lives in Stuart. “I was lucky to find the 99s.” The mom of two got her private pilot’s license in 1989, and currently she is a captain for Atlas Air. She flies 767s to cities all over the world for companies including Amazon, FedEx, and DHL. Says Watkins: “That Amazon package on your doorstep? It was probably on one of our planes.”
Her fascination with flight began as a teenager when, in 1985, she saw a segment on the PBS series Reaching for the Skies about a female pilot named Lynn Rippelmeyer, the first woman ever to pilot a Boeing 747. Years later, Watkins was interviewing for a scholarship and shared the story of the pilot from the show who had inspired her to fly. “Do you know who that was?” one of the interviewers asked Watkins. She then introduced herself as Lynn Rippelmeyer. “I didn’t get the scholarship, but I didn’t care,” says Watkins. “I was just so thrilled to meet her.”
According to data from the Federal Aviation Administration, at the beginning of the 1980s, only one in 4,224 U.S. pilots were women. Today, that percentage hovers around nine percent, with female pilots still vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts.
Watkins is looking to change that by mentoring young women who wish to become pilots through organizations such as the 99s and GirlVenture, a four-day camp in Oshkosh, Wisconsin sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association that introduces girls to aviation and aerospace.
“There aren’t enough women shaping the future of aviation,” says Diana Clinton. The Jupiter resident who got her FAA sport pilot license in 2021 remembers wanting to take flight ever since she was a little girl. “I wanted to fly at 18, but it seemed an impossible thing,” says Clinton, now 55. Not having any mentors around telling me to go for it was hard.”
Putting her dream on hold, Clinton instead pursued a career as a graphic designer and started a family. In 2017, when her youngest son was 12, she decided she didn’t want to be in front of a computer anymore. She started flight training at Sebring Flight Academy (located about 90 miles west of the Treasure Coast) two years later, but the path to becoming a pilot was longer and harder than she had anticipated. “I thought it
would take about six months, but it took two years,” says Clinton, who is now training to be a Certified Flight Instructor.
While she does see the industry changing, Clinton notes that more than mentorship is needed to make aviation more welcoming to women. She references things like the seat height in air force planes (“the seats are built for men”) and many of the pilot uniforms (“the ties are men’s ties; they are too long for women”) as some of the many changes needed in the industry.
Sara Rawish Harris, vice chair of the Treasure Coast 99s, overcame numerous challenges in her quest to become a pilot. Originally from India, Harris, now 21, grew up in Saudi Arabia and always had an interest in aviation. But a career counselor almost derailed her dreams of flying. “When I first visited the counselor, I had to write down my first three career choices,” recalls Harris, who intended to pursue a mechanical engineering degree at the time. She wrote engineering, business, and pilot as her three choices, and aptitude tests indicated that the mechanical engineering field would best fit her skill set. “The counselor suggested I go for IT engineering because mechanical engineering was a male-dominated field,” says Harris. “That’s when I realized how gender biased the counselor’s summary was. She wouldn’t even consider the profession of pilot.”
Undaunted, Harris applied for flight school, and in December 2021, she started her training at Witham Field Airport in Stuart. She earned her private pilot’s license, and soon she will be headed to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where she has been accepted into the Aviation Business Administration degree program. “I want to inspire people around me, encourage them to work hard on themselves in order to achieve their dreams, and become an excellent role model for them,” says Harris. “I believe there is not one profession women cannot do if they put their mind to it and work hard for it.”
Aileen Watkins is already grooming the next generation of female pilots—namely, her daughters. Both 14-year-old Katalin and 12-year-old Alianne are interested in aviation and have begun their journeys in the field. Katalin is learning to fly, and Alianne is studying the mechanics of fixing airplanes. The Watkins family lives at Naked Lady Ranch, a fly-in community in Palm City where Watkins keeps a 1946 Piper Cub J-3 plane. The aircraft holds special significance for Watkins: It is the very same plane in which her grandfather had his first solo flight in 1954, followed by her father in 1956 when he was just 13.
After finding her grandfather’s flight logs, Watkins launched an extensive search for his old Cub, eventually locating it in Winter Haven. She purchased it and was thrilled to surprise her dad with a flight in the sentimental airplane. Carrying on the family legacy, Katalin completed her first solo flight on her fourteenth birthday last March. She flew a glider out of the Treasure Coast Soaring Club, a club her grandfather once frequented.
When asked what advice they would give to young women out there who dream of flying, these pilots echo similar sentiments, though Diana Clinton perhaps puts it best: “Forget
anything anyone’s ever told you and just do it.”