Nellie Willhite – South Dakota’s First Deaf Woman Pilot

May 26, 2011 at 3:17 pm 2 comments

Nellie Willhite standing in front of an airplane

I am discovering so many famous deaf women in history which is a very exciting experience for me. This time, I am going to share with the readers about the First Woman Pilot in South Dakota.

From http://www.augie. edu/CWS/ telegram.html: “Nellie Zabel Willhite was South Dakota’s first woman pilot. Born in 1892, she became deaf two years later after contracting measles. She began flying at the age of 35 after her father gave her $200 for a flight course conducted by Dakota Airlines, Inc., of Sioux Falls. She also became a charter member of the Ninety-nine Club, named after the nation’s ninety-nine women pilots at its founding in 1929. Famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart served as president.”

It was strange because I often went to a restaurant called, “Ninety-nine” in northwest suburban Chicago. The scenery was always beautiful and inspiring while we ate our gourmet meals, we watched the planes landing or taking off at a small local airport. Now, I understand why it is named.

Anyway, Nellie Willhite was a pioneer and she earned the first pilot’s license by a deaf woman. She also made a living as a pilot.  

Nellie WillhiteHow could a deaf person fly a plane when she could not hear when something went wrong with the plane? She said, “Even though I could barely hear the engine roar, I could tell right away if anything was wrong – just from the vibrations.” I agree with her 100%. For instance, when my kitchen disposal made strange noises, I could feel the unusual vibration. I had to text my neighbor to come down to check it out immediately. 

If you readers know more about Nellie Willhite, please share with us. Thank you.

By Doreen Solar, ECNV Deaf Peer Counselor


Entry filed under: Deaf/HoH -- Vlog, Disability History. Tags: , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jane Castellano  |  June 27, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    Nellie’s sister, Hazel, was my grandmother, her nephew, was my father. Many of Aunt Nellie’s relatives grew up with the knowledge of her pioneering spirit of flight and recall visiting her in Sioux Falls when she was elderly. She loved her Pekinese dogs at that time. So nice to see this article. Thank you.

  • 2. Cynthia Gunther Walker  |  July 5, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    Hello, my maiden name is Cynthia Gunther. Nellie Wilhite was my great Aunt on my dad’s side. I love to hear stories about her. I also recently found out that a play was written about her by Kristi Thielen from the Journey Museum in Rapid City, SD. She sent me the script of the play and I am going to make copies for my family. My Mom also has written letters from Aunt Nellie that she wants to donate to the museum.


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