Monday, July 22, 2013

Mary Webb Nicholson: First in Flight

Courtesy of Greensboro Historical Museum
While many women of her time were grounded by more domestic roles, Greensboro native Mary Webb Nicholson yearned for the skies. Her passion for flight would earn her many "firsts" in women's aviation, but would also lead to her untimely death in the service of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II. 

Nicholson entered The North Carolina College for Women (now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro) in 1924 to study music, but after her first airplane ride in 1927 her true interest became flying. She received her first flying lessons free of charge by agreeing to parachute from a plane as an advertisement for the flying school and continued to take jobs as a stenographer and a bookkeeper to support her passion. Soon, she gained enough experience flying at Lindley Field (now Piedmont Triad International Airport) and as a stunt pilot to become the first woman in the state to earn a private pilots' license, a commercial license, and a transport license. By 1931 Nicholson had set the North Carolina light plane altitude record.

By 1937, this North Carolina girl was living in New York City and working as a personal secretary to Jacqueline Cochran, another pioneer in flight, who was directly involved with the formation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). As the Second World War raged in Europe, Nicholson and Cochran formed a group of American women pilots who assisted the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) by delivering planes from factories to various RAF bases, transporting service personnel, and performing air ambulance duties. By fall of 1942, Nicholson was in England ferrying British planes. She flew her operations without benefit of radios or maps so they would not fall into enemy hands in case she, or her fellow ATA pilots, was shot down.

Nicholson was asked to make a speech for The North Carolina College for Women's fiftieth year celebration. She was in England at the time, but her speech on women in aviation was read by her mother. The speech foretold a greater involvement of women in aviation and the military. She wrote, "[It] is not too much to imagine that women will be given an even greater part in protecting the freedoms of our Democracy. And if they are called upon to give this service, the women of America will not be found wanting." In May of 1943, Nicholson's plane crashed in flames in Worcestershire County, England, after an oil leak caused the engine to freeze and the propeller to fly off mid-flight. Even though she never took her flight skills to the battlefield, she cleared a path for the over 600 women pilots who currently fight in combat zones for the United States military.

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