Story by Cara Williams   Photos by Clay Dolan

On Thursday September 19, 2019, 26 women gathered at the Collingwood Regional Airport for the departure of the East Canada Section of The 99s Annual Gold Cup Air Rally (GCAR). After doing a “spot landing” challenge, 11 planes left Collingwood en route to Killarney for lunch. Following that lunch the plan was to fly to Wawa and spend the night before continuing onto the final destination of Thunder Bay. This all-female cross-country challenge is not a race, rather a competition based on aviation knowledge and skills. Akky Mansikka, co-organizer of the GCAR 2019 and a member of the First Canadian Chapter of The 99s, describes the event; “The GCAR is a series of challenges and skills. For instance, the winner of ‘spot landing’ is whoever is the closest after the designated ‘spot’ on the runway. Other challenges include finding landmarks from the air like a farm, town or interesting land feature. We are asked to answer questions about air law and traffic, especially pertaining to the area we’re flying in. The pilots must also complete fuel and navigational tests.” At the terminus of the rally in Thunder Bay, the Sleeping Giant Chapter of The 99s were to host the GCAR Awards banquet and afterwards the pilots would enjoy a weekend of fun with their sisters in aviation.

“The pilots come from all walks of life,” says Akky. “Some are professional pilots—we have a couple of captains on Air Canada. Several fly water bombers up in Thunder Bay, we also have doctors, teachers, hair dressers and massage therapists. When we’re flying all our differences disappear—we’re all equal and not treated as an ‘oddity’ as sometimes women in aviation can be seen.”

Founded in 1929 with a goal of providing networking opportunities and support for women pilots, membership to this unique club was open to any woman with a pilot’s license. At the inaugural meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, an executive vision was established; “good fellowship, jobs, and a central office and files on women in aviation.” Choosing a name proved a little harder. Some offerings were The Climbing Vines, Noisy Birdwomen, Homing Pigeons and Gadflies. Amelia Earhart and Jean Davis Hoyt proposed the name be taken from the total of charter members. Thus, the group was momentarily The 86s, then The 97s and finally The 99s.

In 1950 The 99s opened their membership to the international community and soon after The Canadian 99s were born. Currently the “East Canada” section boasts 148 members while “West Canada” has 70 members. The 99s come from all walks of life and membership is open to professional, recreational and student pilots. Today The 99s honour their unique history and continue to focus on promoting the advancement of females in aviation through education, scholarships, and mutual respect in what is still a male dominated profession. Although there are other female pilot organizations in various states and nations, virtually all women of achievement in aviation have been or are members of The 99s.

After a picturesque flight over the Bruce Peninsula and a delicious lunch at Killarney Mountain Lodge, the weather had deteriorated for Akky and the other pilots participating in the 2019 GCAR. “We decided to stay in Killarney for the night and not proceed to Wawa,” says Akky. “Some of the women went hiking, some went for a bike ride, some went swimming or on a kayak paddle in Georgian Bay and some walked through the town and relaxed in the beautiful wilderness surroundings. Dinner was fish and chips at Herbert’s Fisheries followed by a bonfire in front of the lodge.”

The following morning only nine aircraft left for Wawa—one ended the rally in Killarney due to “plane and personal limitations” while another was grounded due to a problem with its alternator. Both pilots however, were able to score backseats aboard other aircrafts and were able to continue on in the rally. “The flight was beautiful with sparkling emerald lakes and vibrant fall colours carpeting the hills,” says Akky. “We had a fuel stop in Sault Ste Marie, where the Aurora [a maritime patrol aircraft operated by the Royal Canadian Air Force] on its way to Thunder Bay, flew over our planes as we were descending in to the airport. On we went to Wawa—the last stop that had fuel before Thunder Bay.” 

With the weather in Thunder Bay deteriorating and no sign of clearing, the majority of the planes decided to return to Sault Ste Marie. One plane flew direct to Thunder Bay flying on IFR (Instrument Flight Rules). With poor visibility on the final stretch, they were able to safely reach Thunder Bay where they were awarded with a once-in-a-lifetime flight aboard the Aurora.

“The next day it was decided we would return to Collingwood and have the awards banquet there,” says Akky. “The disappointment of not reaching our destination was soon forgotten as we flew over spectacular landscapes with the changing colours of fall. Dinner was superb and the laughter non-stop. At the banquet the winners were announced. Rani Tolton and Val Marshall in C-FRRA won the spot landing. Marilyn Dickson, Noriko Date and Anne Starret in C-CYTI came third, Janet Chesterfield and Jocelyn Lecluse in C-GJVV came second and the grand winners were Susan Begg, Asti Livingston and Diane Stewart from Collingwood in C-FLJL. As in all rallies many lessons were learned including knowing your and your plane’s limitations, decision making and working with a group when things do not go as planned—safety being the number one priority. The journey was a joy and hopefully the destination can be reachedanothertime.”