First Deaf Pilot – Nellie Zabel Willhite


Nellie Willhite


I still find it interesting to research “firsts” within the Deaf Community. Over 100 years ago, Nellie Zabel Willhite was born in South Dakota.  This era is not known for its progressive view of those seen as “disabled.”  Helen Keller, more widely known today, was 12 years old when Nellie was born. Stories of deaf achievers and opportunities for the deaf are minimal in the 1800’s and early 1900’s.  Don’t we all love stories where the individual, seen as handicapped by most, does not see the barriers…..the obstacles…..and just goes for it?  These stories remind us what is truly possible.

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 deaf pilot.

At the age of 7, Nellie’s widowed father enrolled her in the State School for the Deaf in Sioux Falls.

Nellie’s father also 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. This target racing requires pilots to fly into balloons to burst them.

Later, Nellie flew a long-wing Alexander Eaglerock built in 1928. This airplane was a favorite for barnstorming which was popular in those days. The Southern 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. These were the days when pilots often earned their income by providing rides. Charles Lindbergh apparently started his flying career as a barnstormer too.


Long-wing Alexander Eaglerock

Nellie was a ground school instructor during World War II. She then went on to work as a commercial pilot until she was 52. I. Nellie 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.

Nellie died in 1991 at the age of 98 years old. Can you just imagine the changes she witnessed in her lifetime with regard to deafness and the Deaf Community?



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About Evelyn

Evelyn Hunter is a SODA with years of experiential study in Deaf Culture. She attended Gallaudet University to immerse herself in this unique deaf world while working for the University and studying sign language to hone her skills. Evelyn has served in training, relationship sales, and marketing -- always seeking to expand awareness of Deaf Culture and the unique challenges the deaf face on a daily basis. The Sign Language Company has recently established a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a website with a blog, as Evelyn coordinates the marketing and outreach efforts for the agency. Her goal is to attract new clients seeking exceptional service, while maintaining optimal relationships with clients who have selected The Sign Language Company for over 20 years.

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