Nellie Zabel Willhite


Eleanor Zabel Willhite was the first deaf woman to earn a pilot’s license. She was working as a typist-stenographer when an acquaintance (who also happened to be a flight instructor) suggested she learn to fly—and become South Dakota’s first woman pilot. After enrolling in aviation school, she made her first solo flight in 1928. Her father, Charley “Pard” Zabel, bought her an open-cockpit Alexander Eagkerock OX-5 biplane, which she named Pard in his honor. She barnstormed—participated in air shows, races, and county fairs, gave rides to folks who had never before been in an airplane, performed aerial stunts, and just had a good time. High-spirited and indomitable, she inspired other deaf people to fly. Until 1944, she worked as a commercial pilot (the first and last deaf person to do so), carrying airmail. She founded the South Dakota chapter of the Ninety-Nines, the organization of pioneering women flyers. Shortly before her death, she was inducted into the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame. The Pard is now on display at the Southerm Museum of Flight in Birmingham, Alabama.

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