In the years following Wilber and Orville Wright’s first successful flight of a motor operated aircraft in 1903, the possibility and popularity of flight gripped the nation and the world. Advancing technology, the growing availability of planes, and just the plain thrill of being in the air encouraged men (and more than a few women) to learn to how to fly. One of these was Mary Alice Mabb, the first woman to obtain a pilot’s license in Bradford.
An only child, Mary Alice Mabb was born on Dec. 21, 1912, to Katherine and George Mabb, a steam fitter for a local plumbing company. Her father died of tuberculosis in 1919 and Mary Alice and Katherine moved in with her grandparents. Her mother went to work in a local laundry. Mary Alice attended Bradford High School as a commercial student (in those years, students were separated into two groups, Academic and Commercial) joined the Girls’ Literary Society, the Spanish Club, and the Shorthand Club among other activities and graduated in June 1930.
After graduation she applied for a job at the newly built Taylor Brothers Aircraft factory in the West Branch area, now the location of the University of Pittsburgh campus and was assigned to be a secretary and stenographer for William Piper, one of the investors (and eventual owner) of the new aircraft company.
Taylor Aircraft had relocated to Bradford from Rochester, N.Y. in May 1929. Bradford was the perfect location for an airplane factory — it was in a good geographical location, an established airport and most importantly, had eager investors and an interested Board of Commerce to help fund the move. Production began that spring once governmental licensing of its new monoplane, the “Chummy,” was approved.
In a way, the timing could not have been worse. The Great Depression, which started in September 1929 was not conducive to selling airplanes and the Taylor Aircraft company often struggled to meet payroll. Consequently, as an incentive to its employees and to boost morale, the company offered free flying lessons. Eager to learn, Mary Alice Mabb was the first woman to sign up.
Early in December 1931, Mary Alice Mabb began flying lessons. Bud Haven, a Taylor Aircraft pilot, offered to teach her in an E-2 open sided Taylor Cub. She was nineteen years old. Now, the dead of winter in Bradford is cold. Really cold, especially in an open cockpit airplane. Years later she said, “We used to put a piece of cardboard in front of the engine to keep the oil from freezing while we were flying. One day it blew off, and I thought the prop had broken.”
That early Cub had no radio, no radar or automatic pilot. The cockpit was open to the air, because navigation was done by sight. There was only an oil pressure gauge, an oil thermometer gauge, tachometer, an rudimentary altimeter and a stick for steering the darn thing.
Nevertheless, she loved it. Asked once, how she felt as a pilot she said, “I am not at all afraid at the controls and have all the confidence in the world when I’m in the air. Flying is a novel, thrilling experience and I hope that more girls will become interested in studying aviation.”
She flew solo after only eight-and-a-half hours of instruction in the air, and took her pilot’s test in Buffalo, N.Y., on Dec. 29, 1931 — and passed! (Today, in general, a private pilot license requires 40 hours in the air but it varies depending on type of aircraft and flight school). She was the first woman in Bradford to become a licensed aviatrix.
Some people just have the knack for it.
One of her goals was to win the Lady Mary Heath silver loving cup, offered by the National Glider and Airplane News magazine, which would be awarded to the first girl who obtained a pilot’s license after Dec. 1st. She won it, too – but never received the prize because the magazine went out of business before the presentation could be made.
William Piper soon realized that a young, attractive woman would be useful in company advertising: “Even a woman can fly it!” and soon had her flying airplane parts or even airplanes to prospective customers in nearby states. She flew to air shows to demonstrate the Cub and occasionally took part in short distance races to demonstrate it capabilities. Once, she even met Amelia Earhart.
Unable to afford her own plane, she joined the company flying club to get access to one. Piper gave the club the use of one of the Cubs and charged the members $1 a hour. The seventy members or so wore it out and Piper promised them a new one once production of Cubs reached fifteen planes a day. That happened in 1936 and club members put 800 flying hours on it in only three months!
When the Taylor factory burned in March 1937, and it moved to Lock Haven, Mary Alice Mabb went with them. Her flying days dwindled as the club membership had grown so large that it was difficult to schedule flying time. Eventually, she stopped flying altogether.
In all, she worked for the company for six years in Bradford, and one more in Lock Haven. She left the company in 1938 and returned to Bradford where she married Edward Spencer and had two children. She died in 1971 at the age of 59.
But she never forgot those extraordinary moments spent as a pilot among the clouds. As Amelia Earhart once said, “there’s more to life than being a passenger.”