Mary Webb Nicholson (1905-1943)

Mary Webb Nicholson was born on July 12, 1905 in Greensboro, North Carolina. She attended Greensboro Women's College and Guilford College, studying music. She also studied business in Portsmouth, Ohio. Her passion for flying began when she took her first plane ride in 1927 at the Tri City Airport in North Carolina. However, it wasn't until 1928 that she had the opportunity to learn to fly. As she later told aviation historian Glenn Buffington, "I had no money to begin my flying lessons in '28, and when the Raven Rock Flying Service in Portsmouth, Ohio offered to give me free instructions in return for parachute jumps to advertise the school, I accepted the proposition and made three jumps during the six months I was there. I also did the office work for them."

Later Mary returned to North Carolina where she worked as a bookkeeper and stenographer at a local hospital to earn the money she needed to continue flying. In 1929, she received her private pilot's certificate with 26 hours of flying time, becoming the first woman licensed pilot in North Carolina. Shortly thereafter, Mary also became the first woman in North Carolina to receive both her commercial and transport licenses. She took advantage of every possible opportunity to fly, including barnstorming and flying in air shows throughout the south. Mary set the light plane altitude record for North Carolina in 1931, when she flew a Curtiss-Wright Junior, complete with 45 horsepower motor, to 15,200 feet out of the Miller Municipal Airport in Winston-Salem.

Mary became a charter member of the 99's when the organization was formed in 1929. Amelia Earhart appointed Mary to serve as Governor of the Southeastern Section in 1932, which Mary continued to do for several years. In 1937, Mary moved to New York City to be the personal secretary to Jacqueline Cochran. During this time she was also elected Governor of the New York-New Jersey chapter of the 99's.

Mary was instrumental in helping Jacqueline Cochran set up a group of American women pilots to ferry airplanes for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in England during World War II. She herself was thrilled to join the last group of women pilots who went over to participate in the war effort. After initial flight training in Canada, Mary traveled by barge with several other women pilots to England. She was stationed at Maidenhead, in Berkshire, England. In May of 1943, shortly after being promoted to Second Officer, Mary was ferrying a Miles Master when, due to mechanical difficulties, the propeller flew off her plane over Worcestershire County. In poor weather conditions, she made an emergency landing in a farm field. Unable to avoid hitting a farm building, Mary's plane crashed and burst into flames. A nearby farmer attempted, unsuccessfully, to rescue her. Mary was the only American woman in the ATA to lose her life in the war.

Mary's passion for aviation lives on in her family. Her first flight student was her brother Frank, who also flew in the war and went on to become a commercial airline pilot. One of Frank's sons and a daughter also fell in love with flying and continue to fly today.

Article submitted by Lauren Nicholson Scott and Mary Nicholson Walton, neices of Mary Nicholson. Please contact mdwalton1@comcast.net if you would like more information on Mary Nicholson's life.

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