These ladies have their heads in the clouds

Some people like to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground, but not these women. They are all members of "The Spaceport 99s," a local chapter of The International Organization of Women Pilots, “the Ninety-Nines,” and they all love to fly, yet their careers as pilots has taken each woman into the “wild blue yonder.”


Jane O’Connell

Jane O’Connell started flying balloons in 1978. She and her husband, both antique car collectors, had been invited to Jackie Gleason’s Inverness complex.

“We heard there was a balloon there, but it was a windy day and the pilot took it down before we could see it. We were disappointed until the winds died down and he flew. My husband and I were holding hands and at the same time, we said, ‘I’ve got to do that!’ Ballooning was very rare at that time. It took us a year to find the pilot so we could take lessons from him.”

O’Connell said the most strenuous part is managing the balloon on the ground. “My balloon, gondola, propane, envelope all weigh 800 pounds.”

The 82-year-old widow said she’s not interested in wrestling that much weight any longer.

Her husband had been a notary public and they were both commercial balloonists, so they often performed weddings in their balloon, Irish Mist. The couple recited vows while the balloon was tethered to the ground, then they took off to land where the wind currents took them.

“The rest of the wedding party followed on the ground and we had a reception when we landed,” she said.

The retired balloonist said ballooning was an awesome experience for her.

“We got to meet so many adventuresome people. Even today, people have to be adventuresome to take a balloon ride. You only have a general idea where you might land."

O’Connell said she has landed in the street or in people’s yards and they’d offer her a fresh cup of coffee.

“Flying in Albuquerque was awesome,” O’Connell said. “Today they limit the number of balloons to 750 because we all take off at the same place and landing sites are limited.”

When her husband was moved to a hospice facility in Tavares, Fla., O’Connell noticed a mural of hot air balloons on the wall outside his room. After his death, she was granted permission to have Irish Mist added to the mural to honor him.

“The best part was the awesome beauty of being in the sky with the Lord,” she said. “You are at the mercy of the wind, created by God.”


Nancy El Hajj

At 82 years old, Nancy El Hajj has a stressful job, one few people over the age of 70 are allowed to do. She’s an examiner for the FAA and, at more than 14,000 hours, she has logged more flight time than most airline pilots.

She said, “The dangerous part of flying is driving to the airport. In 2001, I was in a bad accident on the way to the airport. The other driver died.”

She has owned her own air taxi business, owned four airplanes, built a seaplane from a kit, is licensed to fly single- and multi-engine airplanes, has flown Mach 1 and set an unofficial record flying an F106.

“I was 76. A jet is blow and go. I climbed up to 4,600 feet and watched the skin temperature of the airplane go up toward the redline. Got to Mach 2.01, that’s 2,500 miles per hour on the groundspeed.”

Married to a Navy test pilot, she said she didn’t want to talk about babies with the other Navy wives.

“One of the ladies in the squadron was a flight instructor. She offered to teach me to fly for free. I learned to fly but didn’t tell my husband until he came home and I took him for a ride. I’ve been flying since 1955.”

El Hajj said she wondered how she would react in a crash situation.

“It was a good lesson for me. It was on one of my first flight tests in 1972. The engine failed. I acted like an instructor and we had a controlled crash. I’ve had a wonderful life.

"I love what I do and it is so rewarding.”


Laura Radigan

Licensed to fly gliders and single-engine airplanes, as well as seaplanes, Laura Radigan said she has always been fascinated with flight but has only been able to realize her dream of becoming a pilot.

“I work as a technician in the calibrations lab at NASA, but I want to be a commercial glider pilot when I retire,” Radigan said.

Her first experience with a glider came when she was a young teenager.

“I was 13 or 14. I saw an ad for a glider ride in my parents’ newspaper. I cut the ad out and took money out of my mom’s purse and went to the airport. It was a two-seat glider. The pilot sat in the back seat. They used a long rope and winch and shot us about 1,000 feet into the air. The ride lasted about five minutes. It was the coolest thing!”

About three years ago, she decided to get serious about being a glider pilot.

“On Nov. 29, 2013, I soloed in a glider.”

Radigan, who is a member of Women Soaring Pilots Association, said, “I could have bought anything, but I bought a glider. Gliding is the closest thing to being a bird there is.”

Her glider is one of the few designed to soar or become aerobatic.

She said, “A gentleman took me up in a glider and he rolled us upside down. I knew I had to do it for myself.”

Radigan is scheduled to train with aerobatic champion Jason Stevens in Arizona. She said glider aerobatics are close to figure skating with compulsory routines, known programs and freestyle.

She got a private pilot’s license so she could fly a tow plane and now balances her hours between powered and glider flights. Her glider is stored in a trailer in Orlando, so she usually rents an airplane from Merritt Island Airport and flies to the glider port, then flies home after piloting the glider.

“Flying is a complex process. You are always learning,” the 60-year-old said. “Women’s roles in life are not often positions of command. It’s empowering to be the pilot in command. Unquestionably.”

She said her most amazing glider flight started at Carson Valley Airport, when, in one day, she flew for 10.5 hours and covered about 535 miles.

“I flew from Lindon, Nev. over the first mountain range, over Lake Tahoe, and turned northwest, because of wind currents and funnel. It was the furthest, highest and longest time in the cockpit. I was out of oxygen from the time I took off, so I was tired and dehydrated, but I’d do it again, if I could. I play like it’s life and death.”


Mary Anne Demmer

Mary Anne Demmer got her pilot’s license in 1992 after her husband, who was a pilot, let her navigate on a flight back from the Bahamas.

“It seemed so easy,” she said. “I started lessons that weren't so easy in 1988. I’m 72 and am still flying, with a few stops and starts due to health problems.”

Demmer said her most exciting experience as a pilot came in December 1991.

“I flew alongside the 747 that carried the shuttle Atlantis back to the Space Center. They were flying slowly from the south over the ocean and I was out practicing turns. I was about 2,000 feet away from them and just kept doing turns so I could see them and not get in their way. This inspired me to keep flying and finally get my pilot’s license the following year.”