Archive for Wednesday, May 24, 2000

Aviator enthralls children with her story

May 24, 2000

Early-day aviators never again will be just a picture on a page.

At least not for fifth-graders at Glenwood Ridge Elementary School

Last week, Fay Gillis Wells, 91, spoke to the children about her experiences when she was a young pilot during the days when she flew with Amelia Earhart.

When Wells earned her pilot's license some 70 years ago, she was two weeks shy of her 21st birthday. Back then, at least by today's standards, planes were primitive. Propellers were started by hand, and landing, well, was altogether different.

"You landed by fish-tailing," she said. "You slowed down and if you came in at the right speed, you could stop before you got to the end of the runway."

And, as if that weren't enough, the planes then had open cockpits.

"We didn't know any better," Wells told the children. "It was the only thing we had so we did it."

The children gasped when she talked about her first parachute jump. She couldn't find the rip cord until she was about 400 feet from the ground.

In 1929, Wells was a charter member of the 99s, a women's flying organization that has more than 6,500 members today.

In 1932, Wells became the first American woman to fly a Soviet civil aircraft in Russia when she flew over Moscow.

Her adventures took her around the world, and, if she hadn't married when she did and decided to travel to Ethiopia with her husband, Linton Wells, as he worked as a journalist covering the Italo-Ethiopian War in 1935, she might not have lived so long.

Wells said that aviator Wiley Post had had asked her to accompany him on a flight around the world. When she decided to go to Ethiopia instead, Post asked Will Rogers to go with him. The plane crashed on takeoff in Alaska killing both Post and Rogers.

From Ethiopia, the Wells both covered the war for the New York Herald-Tribune.

Years later, as White House correspondent for Storer Broadcasting, Fay Gillis Wells covered four American presidents: Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter. During the Nixon presidency, she accompanied him on his trip to the Peoples' Republic of China.

Throughout her talk, the students seemed to cling to every word she said. Wells continually reminded the children to be brave.

"Have a dream," she said. "Don't be afraid to try new things and I hope you grow up and say you've had as much fun and adventure as I've had."

Maggie Herbster, a fifth-grader who listened to Wells, said she learned this:

"That you should try things and if you have the opportunity, you should take it."

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