An extraordinary woman
The Nellie Willhite collection includes a variety of items from the historic pilot’s career. Courtesy photo

SPEARFISH - Nellie Zabel Willhite was an extraordinary woman, with aspirations and accomplishments well beyond her time.

The public is getting its first chance to view memorabilia from the life and career of Willhite - South Dakota's first woman pilot, and the first deaf woman to earn a pilot's license in the U.S.

The display is temporarily set up at the High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish and includes Willhite's flight logs, several photographs, a proclamation from Gov. George S. Mickelson designating Nov. 22, 1987, her 95th birthday, as Nellie Willhite Day in the state, the original propeller for Willhite's plane, her flight school diploma, and a charter member certificate for the 99 Club.

That was a group of 99 women pilots that Willhite helped start with her colleague, the famed lost aviator, Amelia Earhart.

Willhite was inducted into the S.D. Hall of Fame in 1978, and the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame just prior to her death in 1991. Born in the Black Hills, Willhite's father hauled freight on the old Fort Pierre to Deadwood Trail for the Homestake Mining Company, and her mother was the sister of area rancher and rodeo promoter Russ Madison of Rapid City.

Willhite's cousins, Mavis and Marilyn, brought the collection of Willhite's flight memorabilia for a brief display in Spearfish. After an undetermined period of time the display will find its permanent home in a flight museum planned for Rapid City Regional Airport. They remember her well.

“She was just so independent,” Mavis Madison said of Willhite. Madison, who along with her mother spent quite a bit of time with Willhite before her death in 1991, said the historic pilot was a fascinating personality.

“She wouldn't back away from a challenge. She refused to be seen as an individual with a handicap,” Madison said. “She could do anything she wanted to do and no one was going to tell her any different. She was just very, very much a maverick and an independent spirit.”

At a very early age, an illness caused Willhite to lose her hearing. Shortly after her mother died, Willhite's father sent her to Sioux Falls to attend a school for the deaf. Willhite spent most of the rest of her life in Sioux Falls, where she was briefly married to Dr. F.V. Willhite. However, Willhite's independent spirit did not match that of her very professional, and much older husband, and the marriage ended quickly.

While working as a typist and stenographer in Sioux Falls, one of Willhite's flight-instructor friends suggested that she learn how to fly. At the age of 35, Willhite enrolled in flight school, and on Nov. 13, 1927, she made her historic flight after just 13 hours of instruction. She is known for reporting that although she could not hear the engine of the plane, she always knew if something was wrong because of the changing vibrations in the cockpit.

After successfully completing flight school, Willhite flew “Pard,” an Eagle Rock biplane that was named after her father, who had given her the plane as gift. She made her living as a barnstormer, and did air shows, races and often gave rides to whoever wanted to fly. She continued to work as a commercial pilot until she was 52.

One highlight of Willhite's career came when she took her father for a flight over the Fort Pierre to Deadwood Trail, which he had traveled many times hauling freight to the Homestake Mine. The flight followed the exact trail route, and a group of re-enactors from across the state recently re-enacted the trail ride to mark the 100th anniversary of its closure.

Following Willhite's trip over the trail with her father, he reportedly said he never in his life thought he would fly over the route, especially with his daughter at the helm of the plane.

Willhite's collection came to the High Plains Western Heritage Center as part of a program put on for the Zonta Club of Spearfish. Zonta began its regular season with a kickoff meeting at the heritage center, and since the international club hails Earhart as an icon for successful women, High Plains Western Heritage Center Director Peggy Ables thought the collection would be a perfect fit for the club. Ables knew about the collection because of her work with the Madison family to secure Russ Madison's famed rodeo collection.

For more information about this exhibit visit westernheritagecenter.com, or stop by the High Plains Western Heritage Center, open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at 825 Heritage Dr., in Spearfish.

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