Once she starts rummaging through all the failures of her past, 47-year-old Mary Gaffaney of South Miami, Fla. is almost unstoppable. Like a miser fingering coins, Mary loves to count and recount the many ordinary ways that she has been a flop.
Mary Gaffaney is a mediocre cook of long standing. Bursting with sardonic pride, she says, "After years of work my chicken-noodle soup by Campbell is excellent. Tonight at home I will prepare a seven-course dinner—seven pieces of Colonel Sanders' Kentucky Fried Chicken." In a promotion scheme in Miami, Mary was once named Cook of the Week. When she was interviewed on television, the best advice she could summon for aspiring chefs was "If at first you don't succeed, do not be discouraged." Subsequently when Mary was invited to a gathering of eminent cooks, her mother, Letty Tracy, made a meringue pie for her to take as a credential. Alas, the day of the big get-together was rainy. Before Mary, super-cook, had a chance to impress her peers, somebody misplaced a pair of galoshes on top of her pie.
As a gardener Mary also fast loses heart. The one-story home that she occupies with her husband Charlie, her 84-year-old mother and three dogs, two the size of small moose, is garnished with palms and subtropical shrubbery, but none of it is Mary's doing. "Someday maybe I will get a green thumb," Mary says, reveling in her incompetence, "but as yet I have never planted anything that grew."
Since her grammar school days Mary has not had the time or the desire for ordinary sports. She grew up on the soggy tip of Florida but has no love for water. She swims only well enough to keep from drowning immediately. She gave league bowling a fling for a few months and once scored 198, but is best remembered for her gutter ball.
March 12, 1973
Mary has been driving a car since 1945 with no ill effects. Still, she maintains she is a hack: after 28 years she cannot get her car into a tight parking spot without laboring at it for 10 minutes. When she first drove an old Ford at the age of 18, she was afraid to turn left across traffic. Instead, she would drive a block beyond and make three consecutive right turns to get on the proper heading. During her driver's test the examiner asked her to turn left across traffic. Mary stalled in midstream. When the examiner told her to park parallel on a street devoid of other vehicles, Mary missed the curb by a car's width. The examiner got out and, after pacing off the distance from the car to the curb, said, "Lady, if you got the nerve to come down here and try to get a license the way you drive, I guess I got enough nerve to let you have one."
Mary's older brother Jack was an academic whiz who usually made dean's list at MIT. Mary was a scholastic dud. As a high-schooler in Allapattah, Fla. she made the National Honor Society, but only, she insists, because she took crip courses. "I never took anything hard like chemistry or physics," she remembers. "I took basic math and first-year algebra. I took typing, but I can hardly type. I tried Spanish but dropped it. I don't even speak English well."
Mary's many failures on this earth—even as exaggerated by her—are easy to explain. To put it tritely, Mary does not have her two feet on the ground. She is an aviatrix—one of the world's best aerobats—and since her senior high school year her head has been in the clouds.
In the past 26 years Mary has logged nearly 16,500 flying hours. Most of her air time has been spent in an ordinary way—teaching. She is a qualified instructor in propeller craft, helicopters and sailplanes. Since 1955 she has served as co-proprietor, chief instructor, office manager and mother confessor of the Kendall Flying School at the Tamiami Airport on the western edge of Greater Miami. More than 5,000 students have passed through the portals of Mary's school. Nearly 1,500 of them have gone on to get their transport pilot's rating and are now flying prop and jetliners on commercial routes.
Small planes like the Cessnas and Piper Apaches in which Mary now instructs are forgiving creatures. A pilot can be a trifle sloppy in them and get by. Despite this, Mary is stuffily old-fashioned in her belief that a pilot's technique should always be clean and neat, never begging the limits of his craft. Perhaps, as she claims, Mary is not capable of parking an automobile without a lot of backing and filling, but when she flies a plane she is surgically precise.
In the course of teaching safe and sane flying, Mary also has managed to enjoy a whoopsy-doopsy second life. Her avocation and overriding passion is aerial acrobatics. There are many aviators and aviatrixes with teaching credentials equal to hers, but in the refined and giddy art of aerobatics there is no woman in the world (and very few men) quite as good as Mary.
On the 28th of last July, during the World Aerobatic Championship at Salon-de-Provence in France, Mary Gaffaney climbed into her Pitts Special, a bi-wing plane that is far better stressed and somewhat bigger than a box kite. Since the competition that day allowed her to fly maneuvers of her own choice, on her instrument panel Mary taped the diagrammatic instructions shown at right.
Superficially, the diagram resembles the kind of maze a psychologist might devise to test the skill of a highly talented rat. It is, in fact, a cryptogram of aerobatic maneuvers. As translated by Mary Gaffaney in her little Pitts biplane, the cryptogram becomes a beautiful aerial dance, a catena of exquisite trickery that captivates and confounds—and seemingly defies accepted truths. For brief shining monents during Mary's mad dance in the sky Bernouilli's theorem is forgettable and the immutable laws of Newton are in abeyance. Following the drab diagram on her instrument panel—while traveling 170 miles an hour—Mary hauls her little biplane around a hard vertical corner and shoots straight up into the sky, twisting and catching the sun like a bright salmon rising from the boil of a cascade. Then she throttles back. Her little Pitts hangs dead still, then falls toward earth, soundlessly, tail first, as planes are not supposed to do. In an instant, flippity-flop, the plane comes around, turns another hard corner and roars away into the next part of the mad dance.
At the world championship Mary completed her aerial maneuvers in slightly less than seven minutes. For nearly 2½ minutes of that time, betwixt loops and figure eights, half loops, humpty-bumps, hammerheads and tail slides, she was traveling vertically, either up or down, rolling, snapping and spinning. In her whole performance she was in straight and level flight less than two minutes and never more than seven seconds at a time. For nearly half of her horizontal flight she was scorching along upside down.
In two respects aerobatics resembles springboard diving. Both are art forms executed in midair and both depend on the scoring of judges who are usually competent and probably biased. Although the sports have other facets in common beyond these two obvious parallels, they are not much alike. In springboard diving, as in aerobatics, there are recognized maneuvers. A three-meter springboarder has 104 basic dives and variations from which to select a repertoire of 12 for a big test like the Olympics. In aerobatics there are more than 300 accepted maneuvers and variations. For example, there are 24 ways to loop a plane. There are plain old inside loops, and then there are outside loops and loops begun inverted. There are round loops and triangular loops and rectangular, hexagonal and octagonal loops.
In a world aerobatic meet there are at least three tests: 1) a known sequence of maneuvers that may be practiced in advance; 2) an unknown sequence that the competitor does not see until 24 hours before he flies it; and 3) a free sequence of the competitor's choice. Whereas a springboard diver can practice his entire repertoire years ahead and then continue practicing right into actual competition, once an international aerobatic meet begins, even on off days, nobody is allowed to practice anything, known or unknown.
After each dive in a meet, a springboarder has time to collect his wits, curse the judges and consider his next stint. The known, unknown and free sequences of an aerobatic contest are composed of somewhere between If and 30 different tricks. While the terra firma is swirling around her in the middle of on" trick of a sequence, Mary Gaffaney must start thinking about the next impossibility she is expected to perform. By pulling a dive in too tight, springboarders sometimes strike the board. But no matter how much of their scalp or wits they leave on the plank, no matter how badly they belly whop, there has never beer a case of a diver missing the pool. By contrast, an aerobat does his act inside an invisible box in the sky. In international aerobatic meets the box is 1,000 meters long and 800 wide and reaches from 100 to 1,000 meters above ground. While doing her gyrations, Mary Gaffaney must also mind where she is in the sky. If she makes so much as a quarter roll the wrong way to correct for a diagonal wind, she may end up flying offstage and lose points. If she goes under the lower limit of her invisible stage, she is docked severely. If by mistake she ever drops 100 meters out of the bottom of the stage, it is curtains forever.
In the course of an aerial dance, when she turns a hard corner from level to vertical flight, Mary often suffers a gravity loading six times her normal weight—as they say in the trade, she is pulling six positive Gs. When she is pushing vertically up around a hard corner from inverted flight, she is often held into the plane only by strappery against a negative load of four or five Gs that is pulling her outward. As she alternates quickly from positive to negative Gs and back to positive, her blood is trying to get from her feet into her brain and back to her feet. This sort of push-pull on the human system is not conducive to rational thought.
Because of the peculiar pressures of their art, aerobats often goof in a clutch. In the known sequence in the world meet at Salon-de-Provence last July, the defending champion, Igor Egorov of Russia, became addled and finished a tail slide precisely the wrong way, getting a goose egg from the judges. In the final free program he failed to wind his stopwatch and exceeded the time limit by 20 seconds—an excessive error even without a watch. At the end of the known and unknown sequences in France, Bill Thomas, a 47-year-old rookie American, was in second place. Then, in the middle of the free sequence he designed for himself, Thomas plumb forgot two lines of maneuvers—a half outside loop, a snap roll at 45°, a humpty-bump and such as that. He came down out of the sky feeling he had done well and found he had plummeted from second to 30th place. Before he took up aerobatics, Thomas enjoyed himself sedately playing cello in a symphony orchestra in Olean, N.Y. He acknowledges the difference between his old entertainment and his new. As a cellist in Olean he never goofed a symphonic line, but then he was never called upon to perform orchestrally while pulling four Gs upside down.
Although there were separate titles for men and women in the world meet last summer, the sexes competed together. By secret lot for each competitive sequence, men and women drew their order of flight and then flew the same requirements before the same judges (who, as usual, were biased nationally but not sexually). Mary Gaffaney won the women's world title with 17,197.8 points. Out of 47 male competitors from 11 countries, only the high scorer, Charles Hillard, a compatriot from Fort Worth, and three other men—a Russian, an American and a Swiss—did better than Mary. No other woman has scored so high in a world match, and probably none ever will.
The consensus among Mary's past and present peers is that she has succeeded in aerobatics because she works hard at it and, since she is in the flying business, she can afford the game. That is true, but it is a truth only of the moment and insufficient. Mary's success began in the tradition of Horatio Alger when as a schoolgirl she worked for slave wages and could afford almost nothing.
Before and after her junior high school classes and on Saturdays, 13-year-old Mary worked in an Allapattah five & ten, earning $6.20 for a 31-hour week. Through high school she worked 32 hours a week in a drugstore for $16. In late 1944—the fall of her senior year—when the training of military fly-boys for World War II was on the wane, the Embry-Riddle School of Aviation in South Miami passed out leaflets inviting boys and girls to learn to fly. Mary gambled nine dollars for half an hour of dual instruction to see what it was like. During her first flight the instructor asked her if she was nervous flying over water, and Mary was. He asked her if steep banks bothered her, and they did. Still, she was a sucker for it. She was seven months getting a license because a half-hour dual or solo was usually all she could afford on her Sundays off from school and work. Lewis Smith, her Embry-Riddle instructor, remembers that at first she was shy on the ground and timid in the air. "She started slowly," Smith recalls, "but once she got the idea she had it forever."
Among Mary's professed failures on land, the only one relevant to her flying is her command of English. When excited, she uses words the way Niagara Falls uses water. "I have been known to talk for two hours," she admits, "without solving a problem." At times she is at a loss for words, but only because there are few in the dictionary that convey her true feelings about being in the air. To describe a flying experience, she often resorts to polyphonic peeps, burps, chirps, barks and clucking noises. On the second solo flight of her life she tried to stall an old J-3 Cub deliberately to get into a spin. She throttled back too slowly and, because she is only 5'4", from the rear seat she could not reach the carburetor heat control. The carburetor iced up, the engine quit. "Suddenly beemp-beeop," as Mary retells it, "the propeller stopped. I started picking up air speed with my heart going dittity-dittity-dit. I slowly eased back on the stick and toopity-toopity I landed wumphity-wumph in a grass field."
Although profanity is commonplace among aviators, Mary is never profane. In extreme instances of stress, she sometimes exclaims "Sheesh!" In her early days she had a few close calls that rated at least a double "Sheesh!" In her third year of flying, with a lap to go in an air race, Mary thought she was well ahead of everybody. But there was a rival nearby, blanketed by Mary's outside wing. As she turned a pylon, Mary saw the other plane crowding in on her. To avoid a collision, she hauled around so hard she went into a power stall and flipped upside down, 200 feet off the deck. Ground bound at 45°, she got the plane upright and gutfully obeyed the good book. Resisting the temptation to pull back hard on the stick, she gently pushed, hoping at least to get air speed enough so the wheels would strike first. At this point the air show announcer collapsed. Movies of the race show Mary's plane disappearing behind a row of parked cars before it started flying again. "I seldom perspire," Mary says, "but, sheesh, when I landed, my blouse was stuck on me."
To keep flying in those days, Mary took any odd aerial job she could get. She never crop-dusted or fertilized, but early on she gave frost-flying a brief fling. Some 22 years ago Mary tried her first frost flight (the idea is to stir up the air close to the ground) over 20 acres of tomatoes. She went aloft in a Stearman in the last hour of darkness before dawn, since that is usually the coldest part of a day. No one had given her much advice, and Mary presumed that the best way to keep a field defrosted was by flying as low as she could without reducing the tomatoes to a paste. This proved to be her salvation and almost her undoing. No one remembered to tell her there was a power line guarding one end of the 20 acres or that there was an outhouse made of pine trunks solidly planted among the tomatoes. Three times Mary flew under the power line that she did not know about. On her third pass a foot above the tomatoes, sheesh, she ran smack dab into the outhouse, totaling the Stearman. The impact tore the engine off and flipped the plane. Mary remembers hanging upside down, aching and dazed, smelling gas—then the comforting feeling of going boompity-boompity-boompity as rescuers dragged her across the tomato rows.
By her second year of flying Mary was doing aerial tricks of a simple sort, motivated more by economics than by love. Cross-country flying, the ambition of most new pilots, costs money. Mary turned to aerobatics to get more out of the scant flying time she could afford. This early stunting did not help her get where she is now, but it did teach her to keep her wits. Because the planes she flew aerobatically 25 years ago did not have an inverted fuel or oil system, she got used to conking out while flying upside down. Today if her plane busts a crankshaft in the middle of a trick, or gets a vagrant washer in a cylinder, or suffers any of the many ills that aircraft are heir to, it is usually no big deal for Mary. Limping or dead stick, she manages to get down safely.
After high school Mary earned $66.50 by working 78 hours a week—48 hours in an engineering company and 30 more at night in an ice-cream parlor. Here again, for want of money and time, she was three years getting a commercial air license and an instructor's rating. Although she grew up at a time when Uncle Sam was offering all kinds of benefits to the deserving and to sponging slobs alike, Mary paid her own way. But she did capitalize indirectly on one benefit of the Federal Government. In 1948 she persuaded five veterans—including the cook and dishwasher of the restaurant near her ice-cream parlor—that they should learn to fly under the G.I. Bill. Then, with five signed-up students in tow, she applied for an instructor's job at Brown's Airport in South Miami and got it.
While instructing, Mary fell into an arty sideline: skywriting. Because his own smoke signs in the sky were punk, a Stearman owner named Cleon McLendon hired her to try it for $125 a week. At the outset Mary did no better than McLendon. Pulling around as tight as possible, she could not even complete one letter before part of it was fading away. She succeeded only after a veteran skywriter let her in on the great secret of the art: to hang up letters that last, you have to fly high in very stable air. In her career Mary sometimes wrote quickies like "7-Up" and "Fox Furs," but her big accounts were Hi-C orangeade and L.P. Evans, a used-car dealer. Within a year she was ripping off "L.P. Evans" in exquisite script and could put up 16 Hi-C signs with 50 gallons of smoke oil. Pepsi-Cola had its own team of skywriters. Although they often competed with Mary for sky space over Miami, the rivalry was always cordial. When he was done with his own chores, the Pepsi pilot would help Mary hang up her Hi-C signs. When Mary's job was done, they sometimes used their remaining smoke oil to play a game of tick-tack-toe.
The little old airports where Mary learned to fly and survive are now all gone, victims of urban sprawl. Chapman Field, where she timidly began, is a power plant and public park. Sunny South Airport, where she got her instructor's license, and Brown's Airport, where she first taught, are residential plats. Amelia Earhart Airfield, where she was nearly killed in the air race, is gone, and so is the old Tamiami Airport where her flying school once prospered. Her present base, the new Tamiami Airport, sits far west of town amid fields of pole beans and tomatoes. And to practice aerobatics, Mary moves even farther west, beyond the geometry of road and field, to the edge of the Everglades. "Some of my best flying," she says, "has been seen only by alligators and pygmy rattlesnakes."
On semisubmerged land that Mary and her husband Charlie purchased out on the edge of nowhere, the Gaffaneys have built a runway. Originally intended for sailplane instruction, the strip is now used by sky divers who would rather take their chances landing on a rattlesnake than tangling with a passing jetliner closer to town. Mary and Bill Thomas, the cello player who now teaches aerobatics in Miami, also practice off the strip, checking and critiquing each other.
For small-plane pilots the farmlands and boondocks west of Miami have a peculiar drawback: quite a few wild species of the area are freeloaders. There has never been a case of an alligator getting on a plane, but lots of lesser creatures do. When Mary's Pitts biplane is on the ground, she puts a plug in the line venting her gas tank and also in the pitot tube of her air-speed indicator. Why? To keep mud-daubing hornets out. While Mary was flying a Stearman six years ago, a snake stuck its head out of the landing wire hole of her lower left wing. The snake seemed to enjoy the slipstream; for more than a minute it pressed its head forward into the blast as dogs are wont to do in an open car. Mary has had small tree frogs get inside the instruments on her panel—God knows how. While she was flying upside down, yawning to relieve ear pressure, a tree frog jumped off the outside of the instrument panel, missing her open mouth by inches, and sailed out into the slipstream. Since Mary was above 2,000 feet at the time, the frog undoubtedly broke all previous frog-jump records. While giving dual instruction in a sailplane, Mary felt something suspiciously like a snake worming around under her slacks on the back of her right leg. Fearful that it might be a pygmy rattler, she reached down and gave it a tentative touch. It was not a snake at all, merely a small rat that ran, hickory-dickory, back down her leg and forward under her student's seat. "A rat just ran under your seat," Mary said. "Do you see it?" Distressed at this news, the student lost precious altitude, and since they were downwind, Mary had to really sweat to get the sailplane safely back to the strip.
If they are not used often enough, classic biplanes built in the tough old way, with wings of wood and fabric, may suffer from invading forces of mice. The wing interior is a lovely nesting place, and the dacron stitching that holds the fabric to the ribs is dandy stuff with which to build a nest. If the wing fabric bulges, it may be only minor structural failure—or it may be mice at work. Although in rural country it is hard to keep mice out of fabric wings, Mary's little Pitts has never been afflicted. She tries to get in one aerobatic workout a day, but actually averages about half that. Twenty minutes of snap-rolling, looping, tail-sliding and humpty-bumping every other day does not satisfy Mary, but it is more than enough to discourage mice.
Most games played on a world level are beset by two demons: nationalism and amateurism. Aerobatics has dispelled both, simply by being realistic. In aerobatics chauvinism is an accepted fact. Aerobatic judges are every bit as warped nationalistically as those of diving, figure skating and gymnastics. By custom an aerobatic judge also anoints the competitors of his own country with high scores, and his scores are thrown out for being too high. When everybody plays the game in the same puerile way, it all evens out. When it comes to the other great bugbear, amateurism, aerobatics is most sensible. In a world meet the high finishers get trophies, and it matters not whether they are paid by their governments or are getting money under the table from Santa Claus. It further matters not if they are paid for endorsing some commercial devil's brand of fuel, so long as they comply with the strictures of the meet. They may be stunt men who earn money doing hairy tricks at air shows, but at the world competition they fly disciplined sequences, cleanly, without oil smoke pouring out to wow the spectators.
The U.S. Aerobatic Championship is a similarly disciplined affair. Though tainted slightly by prize money, the nationals are faithful to the origins of the word amateur—a competitor has to love it. The average cash award to the men's champion for the past five years has been about $1,500—an Indianapolis 500 winner gets that much for drinking a bottle of milk after the race. Considering that the Pitts plane used by almost all top aerobats costs $21,000 and needs at least $5,000 in maintenance care annually, aerobatics is definitely a losing game.
In the past seven years, placing second once and winning the women's title five times, Mary Gaffaney has taken home a little over $4,000. In 1970 there was no other woman in the unlimited class, so Mary was allowed to compete with the men and placed fourth out of 12, gaining $500 and a trophy. But in the rankings it was decided that Mary could not really compete with the men after all, women's champion or not. As an added indignity, the man who had finished fifth behind her was moved up to fourth.
In the 1972 nationals in Sherman, Texas, again there was no women's competition. Mary tried to get rivals to come, but on short notice two of the ladies she persuaded were informed that they were not capable enough for the maneuvers and the hazards of low-level flight in the unlimited class. This irked Mary. In the middle of the men's competition, standing seventh, she up and quit in what she now considers a justifiable albeit ill-timed protest. Before leaving for home, she posted a notice that her little Pitts was for sale. Chuck Car-others, an aerobatic dentist from Nebraska, bought it for $15,000. The opinion was put forth that Mary had cut off her nose to spite her face. Back home and cooled off, Mary agreed. She asked Chuck Carothers if she could buy her Pitts back, and he consented. When Mary mailed him a $100 check as interest for the time she held his money, he returned the check uncashed. Mary now campaigns for the sexes to compete together, but this is not likely to happen because the fathers of the sport feel the move would discourage women. The whole problem is a convoluted one. Suffice it to say, Mary is still dancing in the sky and plans to keep at it for 20 more years.
At the age of 65 Mary intends to give up official competition and restrict herself to air shows, where she can blow smoke and fly low to wow the crowd without worrying about winning. Today at aeronautical affairs where profits go to worthy causes, Mary often flies stunts for little or nothing. At commercial shows she gets $800 for doing a couple of smoky acts. When travel expenses and maintenance and wear and tear are reckoned in, $800 is not what it seems. Still, Mary concludes, it is better than the $6.20 she used to get for a 31-hour week at the five & ten back in Allapattah.