Fay Gillis Wells, 94, an aircraft pilot and journalist who bailed out of a disintegrating airplane on Long Island, covered warfare in Ethiopia and politics at the White House, and traveled the world in pursuit of adventure, died of pneumonia Dec. 1 at Inova Fairfax Hospital.
Mrs. Wells once shared a New York hotel apartment with a pet leopard. In 1933, when aviator Wiley Post made his first flight around the world, she helped with logistics, met him at a refueling point in Siberia and reported on his progress for the Associated Press. As a stringer for the New York Times, she covered the coronation of Emperor Pu Yi of Manchuria in 1934.
She had arranged to share the aircraft cockpit with Post on another around-the-world flight in 1935 when journalist Linton Wells proposed marriage and asked her to accompany him to Ethiopia to cover the Italian-Ethiopian war for the New York Herald Tribune.
"Did I want to go on the trip with Wiley or did I want to have my honeymoon in Ethiopia? And I thought about 30 seconds, and I decided I didn't want to substitute on my honeymoon," Mrs. Wells told Karen Schaefer of Ohio Public Radio for a 1999 broadcast on the opening of the International Women's Air and Space Museum in Cleveland.
Replacing Mrs. Wells on what turned out to be the ill-fated flight with Post was the American folk comedian Will Rogers. The men lost their lives when the airplane crashed in Alaska.
Mrs. Wells did go to Ethiopia with her husband, where on their honeymoon they covered the war between Italy and Ethiopia. He took the northern half of the country, she took the south. On their return to the United States, she purchased two pets -- a cheetah and a leopard. She lived with the leopard in her New York apartment for a period, then moved to California with both pets, where she covered the movie industry while her husband worked on a book.
For the next 40 years, Fay and Linton Wells covered a variety of news developments around the world. They came to Washington in 1963 to establish a bureau of Storer Broadcasting service. Mrs. Wells covered the White House for Storer until retiring in 1977. Linton Wells died in 1976.
Fay Gillis Wells, a resident of Alexandria, was born in Minneapolis. She grew up in various parts of the country and attended the University of Michigan but left in her junior year to live in New York. Her father, a mining engineer, did not want her living alone in New York and ordered her to join him at a mining camp in Quebec, where, she later recalled, she "was the only unmarried girl in a mining camp of 600 men."
She later returned to New York, took flying lessons and in 1929 became a demonstrator and saleswoman for Curtiss Flying Service. She survived a crash that September on a flight from a Long Island airport. Her aircraft, she said, came apart in midair when she was flying upside down in an aerobatics show.
"I was thrown out of the plane," Mrs. Wells said in the 1999 interview. "I didn't have my hand on the rip cord, I didn't know where it was. I was tumbling head over heels. Fortunately my chute opened, they said, about 400 feet, and I landed. Nothing was right, except I didn't have a scratch, I didn't even have a black and blue mark on me."
This bailout qualified Mrs. Wells for membership in the Caterpillar Club, a group of people who owe their survival from air crashes to the old silken parachutes, before the days of nylon. Decades later, she continued to wear the club's symbol, a tiny gold pin in the shape of a silkworm. She was the first female pilot to qualify for membership in the Caterpillar Club, according to Women in Aviation.
Later in 1929, Mrs. Wells helped found the Ninety Nines, an international organization of female pilots whose first president was Amelia Earhart. At her death, Mrs. Wells was one of four charter members still active.
In the early 1930s, Mrs. Wells accompanied her father to the Soviet Union, where she reported on aviation activities for the Herald Tribune and Associated Press and became the first American woman to fly a Soviet civil airplane.
At the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she returned to Africa with her husband in 1941 to investigate possible locations for a Jewish homeland. Later, they headed a U.S. commercial mission in Portuguese West Africa. Their job was to purchase strategic minerals for the U.S. war effort and to keep them away from the Nazis.
Their only son, Linton Wells II, was born in Luanda in 1946, and they returned to the United States, bought a houseboat in Annapolis and sailed to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where Mrs. Wells was a stay-at-houseboat mother for several years. She wrote a syndicated column, "Nautical Interiors," for the Herald Tribune and designed yacht interiors.
As the White House correspondent for Storer Broadcasting, Mrs. Wells accompanied President Richard M. Nixon to China on his historic 1972 visit.
She also renewed her interest in aviation, supporting the issuance of the Amelia Earhart stamp in 1962 and chairing the first international convention of the Ninety Nines.
Her aircraft pilot's license had lapsed in the 1930s. But on her 92nd birthday, Mrs. Wells landed a small aircraft at Elizabeth, N.J., where she was attending a commemorative ceremony 75 years after her high school graduation. That was her last flight.
Last month, shortly before she entered the hospital for the last time, she addressed an audience and received a standing ovation at a ceremony in which she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from American Women in Radio and Television.
In addition to her son, of Springfield, survivors include a brother and two grandsons.