Nellie Zabel Willhite – First Deaf Female Pilot
Nellie Zabel Willhite
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, Nellie enrolled in aviation school and became the State of South Dakota’s first female pilot and probably the world’s first licensed pilot ever who was almost completely deaf. Nellie’s father bought a plane for her: an open-cockpit Alexander Eagle Rock OX-5 biplane. She christened it “Pard”, her dad’s nickname. She once said: “Even though I could barely hear the engine roar, I could tell right away if anything was wrong – just from the vibrations.” She earned a living as a “barnstormer”, doing air shows, races and giving rides to whomever wanted one. She was outstanding in the tight, fast maneuvering necessary in balloon target racing in which pilots would fly into balloons to burst them. Nellie worked as a commercial pilot until she was 52. She founded the South Dakota chapter of the “Ninety-Nines”, a group of pioneering women flyers. She was a charter member of the national organization when Amelia Earhart was the president. Shortly before her death, she was inducted into the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame.
Her plane was a long-wing Alexander Eaglerock built in 1928 and was a favorite aircraft for barnstorming popular in those days. The Southerm Museum of Flight in Birmingham, Alabama proudly displays Nellie’s “Pard” in its Early Aviation Hanger. The Eaglerock is one of only five (5) remaining models of this type.