Viola Gentry and Margaret Potts on their way to the Powderpuff Derby in California, 1961. Michael Potts Collection, Montauk Library Archives.
In early 2021, the Montauk Library Archives received a phone call from Patrick Hreachmack in Columbus, Ohio. Margaret Potts had taught him how to fly when he was a teenager living in Montauk (Hreachmack’s father had been a commander at Camp Hero during the 1960s). Hreachmack remembered Potts’ stories about WWII, and knew that she had been a member of the Ninety-Nines, an aviation group begun in 1929 by Amelia Earhart to support and advance licensed female pilots. The organization’s name comes from the 99 women who responded to Earhart’s invitation to join the group in 1929.
Hreachmack represents the Champaign Aviation Museum in Urbana, Ohio, an institution that concentrates its programs and exhibits on WWII. One section of the Ohio museum is dedicated to the history of women pilots. WASPS and WAFs, who already had long hours of civilian flying to their credit, were brought into the war effort and retrained as Army pilots, drilled relentlessly under military instruction. WASPs and WAFs then transported planes and supplies so airmen could concentrate on fighting battles over Europe.
Both Margaret and her husband George Potts were pilots. After the war, George became a fisherman, and the couple devised a brilliant strategy to enhance his catch: Margaret would scout for fish from her plane and radio back the location to her husband. Margaret also started a seaplane business, ferrying passengers to places within a few hours’ flying distance of Montauk. Eventually switching gears, she became a teacher in the Montauk School. Her dedication to community affairs was revealed in her association with the Montauk Village Association, the Montauk Historical Society, and the Montauk Library. She was one of a core group to kick off the Library’s oral history program in the 1990s. She died in 2005, at the age of 90.
In 1961, co-pilots Viola Gentry and Margaret Potts took off together for California, where they would compete in the Powderpuff Derby, sponsored annually by the 99ers. Potts had remained friends with many pilots who are now famous, like Gentry, the woman standing on the left in the photo above. Viola was called the “Flying Flapper of Freeport,” but this gal was no powder-puff. With nerves of steel, Gentry had flown under both the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges in 1926.
The Powderpuff Derby was discontinued in 1977 because, as all the 99ers agreed, women had proven that they could fly. However, the Ninety-Nines are still going strong. Currently an international organization with 155 chapters, this support group provides networking and scholarship opportunities to women around the globe.
Women aviators played an essential role in World War II. Margaret Potts was one of them, and she will be inducted into the Champaign Aviation Museum in Urbana, Ohio in October 2021. This tribute honors her memory. By association, this tribute honors Montauk, as well.