Excerpted from article Marking The Way by Ellen Nobles-Harris published in
99NEWS Magazine, March/April 2002
In 1933, Phoebe F. Omlie was appointed Special Assistant for Air Intelligence of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics – NACA (forerunner of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – NASA.) The following year Phoebe convinced the chief of the Airport Marking and Mapping Section of the Bureau of Air Commerce to institute a program where each state would participate and better identify its towns and cities from the air.
Under the program, a state was divided into sections of 20 square miles. Where possible, a marker with the name of the nearest town was painted on the roof of the most prominent building at each 15-mile interval. If the towns were far apart, white painted ground markers, such as rocks and bricks, were used.
At the time that the program was established, few pilots were flying on established airways or had the benefit of radios. With the aid of markers, even the most inexperienced pilots could determine where they were.
By the middle of 1936, 30 states were actively involved in the program, with approvals given for 16,000 markers at a cost of about one million dollars. In 1935, Phoebe chose five leading women pilots as field representatives for the program; Louise Thaden, Helen Richey, Blanche Noyes, Nancy Harkness and Helen McCloskey. At the time, these women were very well known in aviation.
Phoebe continued as head of the program until it was well on its way to being a success. She then returned to her duties at NACA.
But then came the war. After the bombing at Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. Government determined that marked airports along the east and west coast were obvious targets for enemy identification and attack. Consequently, Blanche Noyes, who had set about the work of marking some 13,000 sites, went about the work of blacking out those very markings she and her team of women pilots had diligently created.
After World War II, Blanche Noyes was in charge of the air marking division of the Civil Aeronautics Administration. Blanche believed that it was critical to not only replace the airport markings that were removed during the war for security reasons, but also to add even more navigational aids. And thus the work began all over again.
Today, Ninety-Nines carry on the tradition and fulfill the need for air markings by volunteering their time to paint the airport names, compass rose symbols and other identifications on airports. Some of the letters in the airport name can be 50 feet tall. Ninety-Nines air mark airports based on need, which many times takes them far from their local areas.
Funding for the air marking program no longer comes from the national government. After Blanche Noyes’s husband was killed in the crash of his Beachcraft Staggerwing, Blanche devoted her energies to the Air Marking Program as a way of overcoming her grief. She became one of its most ardent supporters, so much so that when the federal funds for the program ran out, she flew all over the country to gain financial support from local chambers of commerce and civic groups.
Our chapters are still doing this.
So the next time you’re flying, look down and imagine flying your biplane over those small towns in the late 1930s and how comforting it must have been to see that runway with your destination’s name clearly painted on it. For that you could thank early members of The Ninety-Nines for leading the way in air marking.