For many people, Amelia Earhart is the take-off and landing point for their knowledge about the contribution of women to aviation.

The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of licensed women pilots, has worked for 82 years to stretch those horizons, and its Santa Maria Valley chapter is developing a park to honor women in aviation history.

The park is a natural extension of the Runway of Roses in front of the Museum of Flight, which memorializes some of the local women pilots who have kept Earhart’s pioneering spirit flying over the Santa Maria Valley.  Katherine Hulme and Wilma Poage were two of those women. Hulme was the museum’s first executive director, while Poage and current museum director Mike Geddry came up with the idea for the park.

Geddry said it was a project whose time was overdue.  “When I go on vacation I go to a lot of museums and go to a lot of military installations because of our air show,” Geddry said. “One of the things I kept consistently seeing – I could go to 20 museums and one out of 20 has something about women aviators. And they’re a big contributor to aviation, especially during World War II when they were ferrying planes for the military and actually working in the factories taking the place of men. I’m not a male chauvinist. I believe they should get recognition.”

Poage became ill not long after being chosen to direct the museum, however, and died from breast cancer before her park project could be realized.

Sunni Gibbons and the rest of the local Ninety-Nines are now making sure Poage and other women in aviation are not forgotten.

Much like Earhart, who participated in the first Women’s Air Derby in 1929 which began in Santa Monica and ended in Cleveland, Poage, Gibbons, Diane Pirman, Pat Viker, Sonja Gerfen and Mary Ann King are Central Coast pilots who competed in the annual Palms to Pines Air Race. That race also starts in Santa Monica, CA and stretches to Bend, Ore.

Earhart and 98 other women went on to form the Ninety Nines.  “That was a courageous group of women,” said Pirman, a pilot since 1983 who participated in the Palms to Pines regularly until the race was discontinued in 2009. “There have been a lot of women who have set records in aviation who were not Ninety-Nines.”

Pirman said part of the Memorial Park of the Ninety-Nines will be a mural that will depict the contribution women have made to aviation history.  Pilots from Earhart to the Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots who were instrumental during World War II, to Jeana Yeager who teamed with Dick Rutan in the first non-stop round-the-world flight, to the women of the Space Shuttle program will be part of the mural, Pirman said.

A display celebrating women aviators is also being assembled in the Museum of Flight, located at 3015 Airpark Drive in Santa Maria.

Much of the work on the front-yard-sized plot has already been completed. A weed-covered space near the Santa Maria Museum of Flight was cleared by Boy Scout Troop 87 and the donated plans of landscape contractor Jim Nishimori were turned into reality through the efforts of Andy Cardinal, who earned his Eagle Scout award for the effort.

Gibbons, whose grandfather was on the USS Lexington during its search for Earhart when her plane disappeared over the South Pacific in 1937, took over the project after Poage died.  She secured donations – aviation legend Clay Lacy provided $5,000 – and grants from the Santa Barbara Foundation and Woods Family to get the project going.

The local Ninety-Nines are seeking sponsorships for the tables and benches to be installed in the park. Memorial bricks will also line the meandering walkway through the area.  “We expect to have the bulk of it finished within the month. We will be dedicating it in September when the whole (Ninety-Nines) Southwest Section comes here for its meeting,” Gibbon said.

The fly-in will attract approximately 100 members for the Sept. 7-9 event.

 By Brian Bullock/Staff Writer bbullock@santamariatimes.com Santa Maria Times | Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2012