Woman Learns to Fly a Piper Cub in the 1940s

In the early 1940s, the airport training facility at Middle Tennessee State College was used as a training detachment for the Army Air Corps. At the time, a young woman named Mary worked on the wings of the planes at the airport with one other girl. Today that young woman is 90-years-old. I sat down with her and talked with her about her experience. It gives unique insight to another time.

Mary Barnard working on Piper Cub
Mary Barnard working on Piper Cub

You say you worked on the wings of the planes, what did you do?

I doped them when they’d come in with a slit in the wing or a hole over here or over there. They were small planes, Piper Cubs. We’d have to keep dopin’ the fabric wings until they went booonggg and made a noise like a drum, and then the inspectors would come in to inspect them before the test pilots took them up to test them.

What is your favorite memory?

One day a Colonel in the Air Force watched the two of us work on the wings and he said, "Mary would like to learn how to fly?"

“Oh, I’d love it!”

He said, "I could tell that by the way you worked on the airplane." He smiled and said. "You’ve never flown?"

I shook my head. "I’ve never had a lesson."

"How 'bout me giving you lessons?"

My heart flip-flopped. “That would be wonderful.”

Mary in the Piper Cub.
Mary in the Piper Cub.

As you learned to fly what was your most memorable moment?

He took me up in a little Piper Cub. The worst thing I did was when we were takin’ off. The Colonel was teaching me how to take off and land safely. Everyone that knows me knows that I like to do everything quick. I turned the plane around too fast and it almost turned over.

The Colonel let out a breath and said, “Mary, you scared me to death. We almost ground looped.”

That was scary for him, what was the scariest thing to you?

After the lesson of the ground loop, he went on to teach me the good things and bad things that could happen. He said, “Mary, we’re goin’ up now and today we’re going to do the stalls.” That’s cutting your motor off completely while you’re up in the air. Needless to say you’re in bad trouble if your motor doesn't come back on. You had to be able to do it to get your license, so learning the stalls was important.

"You just take your little plane straight up until the motor stalls, and you’re up there without a motor or anything.You know what you do then? Pray.

With the Colonel's direction, I nosed the plane straight down to catch the motor up. It coughed, hiccoughed and died. We raced toward the ground. My heart was in my throat, and then the plane started. Relief mingled with adrenaline as I headed in for the landing. The Colonel didn't say a word, but watched my landing. The plane came to a stop and he congratulated me.

Why did you want to fly?

When I worked on the planes I pretended I was Amelia Earhart. That’s back when she was in the news. I got my hair cut like hers. She wore her hair real short, and she had freckles. I copied her haircut and already had the freckles. Bless her heart, she’d already crossed the Atlantic, but she tried to go around the world. She had to go across all that water and she disappeared. Nobody ever heard from her again. I just loved her, and it hurt me when she disappeared and they couldn’t find her. I couldn’t believe it. She was in a Piper Cub too.

After Amelia Earhart went missing, I didn’t keep up with my flying. I lost confidence, but my days of flying leave me with many happy memories.

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