LAKE FOREST — As a child growing up in suburban Detroit, Lake Forest resident Roberta “Bobbi” Roe sat on a car fender with her aviatrix mother at a private airfield in Birmingham, Michigan, and wondered where all the planes were going.
Eventually Roe learned to fly and had her share of adventures. Some of them were shared with members of The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of female pilots that both promotes aviation and provides comradery.
Roe won The Ninety-Nines’ President’s Award for her contributions to women’s aviation both on the ground and in the air during the organization’s annual conference July 15 in San Antonio, Texas.
Just as Roe was inspired by her mother, Roe’s daughter, Susan Kelsey of Lake Forest, got the same inspiration from Roe. Kelsey is now taking flying lessons – making three generations of aviatrixes.
“I wanted to make it three women in the family,” Kelsey said. She has also joined The Ninety-Nines.
Roe went to that airport as a young girl with her mother, Edna Ferguson, to watch the planes take off and land. Roe said she knew Ferguson started piloting planes in the 1920s when Charles Lindberg navigated the Atlantic Ocean and Amelia Earhart was a role model for young women. The runway scene inspired her.
“It was awesome to see,” said Roe. “There was something romantic when they took off and when they landed. I wondered where they were going and where they had been.”
Ferguson began flying when she was 15, according to Roe. She stopped before Roe was born so she never got to fly with her mother.
“Her fiancé was killed in a crash,” said Roe. “She married my father and stopped flying.”
Nevertheless, Ferguson planted the spark for the sky in her daughter as they watched the planes land and take off together. Eventually Roe married and had three children. When her youngsters were finishing high school and heading to college, Roe got a job in the physics and astronomy department at the University of Iowa. She earned her license to fly in 1984.
“I had the opportunity to go for lessons,” said Roe. “That’s how I decided to burn my paycheck.” Her first solo passenger was one of her sons. “When friends used to ask him how he got to college he said, ‘Air Mom.’”
The first time Kelsey flew with Roe, she said she felt a sense of pride.
“I kept thinking that’s my mom over there in the (pilot’s) seat,” said Kelsey.
Roe Joins The Ninety-Nines
When Roe started flying she joined The Ninety-Nines, and the organization provided an instant network. As Roe later moved about the country, there was always a chapter. The group got its name from the 99 founding members in 1929.
“The Ninety-Nines gave her instant friendships wherever she went,” said Kelsey.
Anytime Roe wanted one of the adventures from her childhood fantasies, all she had to do was contact a colleague from The Ninety-Nines, make sure there was a plane available to rent, and take off.
“I’d call one of my friends and we’d go flying,” said Roe. “We took turns flying legs. We’d find a little grass strip to land, call a restaurant, tell the chef what we wanted, go to lunch and fly home. We called that the $100 hamburger.”
Meigs Landing Was Adventure
Kelsey said she has had memorable trips with her mother, including one in 1993 when they landed near downtown Chicago at Meigs Field, when it was still an operating airport on the shores of Lake Michigan. It closed in 2003.
Roe said landing at Meigs Field had its challenges because of nearby air traffic at O’Hare International Airport to the northwest and Midway Airport to the southwest.
“I had to fly low because of the planes going into O’Hare,” said Roe. “Then the controller said, ‘sailboat mast ahead.’ I had to do a helicopter landing to go over the mast and then land.”
“It was really neat to see the skyline from that height,” added Kelsey.
Though she said it was not intentional, Kelsey is following in her mother’s footsteps. She did not start learning to pilot planes until her own children were grown or in college.
The award Roe received was not so much for her time spent in the air but the contributions she made to aviation and The Ninety-Nines. She founded a magazine, Woman Pilot, publishing it from 1993 through 2002. There is still a website. She also was the editor and publisher of 99 News, the organization’s publication, for 15 years.