Head in the clouds.
"It was incredibly close all the way," Mary remembers. "I was on top of him (the winner). Our airplanes were closely matched. As we circled the pylons, I stayed high. My adrenaline was really flowing. I could get a little bit ahead but there wasn't room to pass. Our top speed was about 240 miles an hour."
Mary, first officer on Fed-Ex MD-11 cargo planes and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, also performs aerobatic maneuvers in air shows. She is used to flying close to the ground and, in the air races, often with other aircraft at her wingtip.
"It gets real interesting when six airplanes all aim for the same point in space. One time, one of my racing compadres actually' had his wing between my propeller and windshield. It was caught on camera by ESPN."
Mary and her husband Steve, currently upgrading to a 727 captain with FedEx, know the dangers of Reno racing. "Usually each year we lose one pilot," she says. "last year was a good one. We didn't lose anyone. It is a moving experience to lose friends, and it makes all of us realize that we aren't bullet-proof."
Mary is a self-confessed tomboy. "When I was child," she explains, "my father used to take me to air shows. Those fliers were always heroes in my eves--the ones who could get down low to the ground and do the aerobatic routines."
Mary's dad took her along when he flew over the family ranch to check on feedlots, cattle, and windmills. On occasion, they would chase an antelope into a thicket.
In grade school, Mary began taking part in 4-H rodeos. She quickly learned the intricacies of riding required for barrel-racing and calf-roping. "Rodeos are a competitive sport that I enjoyed through high school," she says. "I have been competitive all my life."
When she was 19, Mary qualified for a certified flight instructor's license. About this time, a friend gave her a very small fabric-covered airplane called a Citabria ("That's 'airbatic' backwards.") Never wanting for confidence, she was determined to duplicate some of the aerial stunts she had seen her early heroes perform.
"I told myself, 'I'm good enough to do this. I have 400 hours as a pilot. I can do anything I want to do.' I took a book from my father's office that explained basic aerobatics. I put it under my legs and went up to teach myself. It isn't a very good way to start, because I almost ended up smacking it in New Mexico."
But Mary has the never-say-die spirit of Little Orphan Annie. She enrolled in a course in aerobatics at Oklahoma State University and continued to do aerobatics when she joined the Air Force. "I have found this is a great way to express yourself in the air and really boost your adrenaline level. When something doesn't go right--especially at surface level of about 50 feet--it brings your heart up into your throat."
Mary performed in her first air show in 1998 and has now been one of the star attractions in more than 100. Her schedule for 2005 calls for her to do her unique aerial stunts at 10 shows. Two of the major ones are Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland, Florida, and Airventure Oshkosh in Wisconsin ("about a million people show up for this one").
One of the promotional pieces for Mary Dilda Air Shows enthuses: "The graceful, magical performance by Mary Dilda is punctuated by the staccato of her aircraft's powerful radial engine against a backdrop of billowing white smoke. This incredible display of aviation prowess is justifiably called a dynamic 'Ballet in the Sky.'"
The crowds usually react the same way when slender blonde Mary Dilda climbs out of the cockpit in her blue and white flight suit: "Wow, that's a girl that flew that airplane!"
The official name for the T-6 plane Mary flies is "Two of Hearts," a name denoting the intertwining of Mary and Steve's love for flying and each other. This aircraft, built in 1945 and once stationed at Pensacola Naval Air Station, offers a challenge to those who dare fly it in aerial maneuvers because of its age, weight, and short zero-G tolerance.
Mary admits that "Blue," as she and Steve affectionately call the plane, wasn't built for some of the maneuvers that delight the spectators. "One thing I do is a straight and level aerobatic roll. This means I am upside down pushing it to minimum 2 Gs. So I am pushing the nose when I am upside down to remain straight and level. When you are upside down and pushing, this airplane doesn't have an inverted fuel or oil system, so at times the engine quits. You just keep rolling, and when it gets positive Gs, it starts right up again. It's amazing."
Mary estimates that "there are no more than 10 women who perform in the air shows across the country." Before she took to the air in her first Reno race, she lacked the ability to focus on all that is required to circle the pylons at terrific speed and keep her airplane in contention. Steve had a solution for this problem. He enrolled her in a school for NASCAR drivers. There she learned "to get away from all diversions and outside influences. Air racing is much like NASCAR, except it's 3-D and we don't bump."
"I used this race car mentality to get myself into my aerial maneuvers," she says. "I could then concentrate on the race only, keeping my mind on my air speed, any unexpected problems, and what I was looking for picturewise in front of me."
Ten years of Air Force flying enabled Mary to fulfill another career ambition: traveling to the far corners of the world. During Operation Desert Storm, she flew the C-141 Starlifter, a troop and cargo carrier, delivering "everything from toilet paper to helicopters to our soldiers. This was before women could fly in combat."
Mary's most memorable flight was to Antarctica in support of a National Science Foundation expedition. "That was beautiful," Mary recalls. "We landed two miles off the coast on a shelf of ice. They had cut a 10,000-foot-long, 300-foot runway out of the ice. We had a navigator on board, and he dealt with all the magnetic variations of flying down there. They say when you land an airplane on the ice shelf that the ice shelf itself goes down about two feet and then springs back up. We weren't aware of this."
Mary is a recognized star at Reno, the only site of air races for many years, though the sport will make its way to Mississippi in June for the first Tunica Air Races (see "Off to the Races," pg. 62).
While Mary was only second in her category at Reno last year, she hopes to notch another victory this year. She began her racing career in 1996 and achieved the first Gold T-6 championship a year later. It was Steve's turn to fly Blue, but Mary borrowed a friend's plane and beat out her husband. In 2003, she set a new T-6 speed record.
That year was a banner one for Mary, as she won the Gold in the Jet Classic Race flying the L-39 Albatross Jet "Heartless."
Mary first planned to compete in the Jet category in 2001. "Unfortunately, they didn't have the races because of September 11. So 2002 was the first time for me to compete. I have raced (in this category) three times. The first year, I was second. The next year, I won. Last year, I was going to race a borrowed plane, but the owner decided to let someone else use it. I borrowed another plane but finished tenth."
Because of her daring aerobatic performances and her racing recognition, Mary says, "Several air shows have taken me under their wings. When the promoters are chosen to arrange an air show, they will recommend that I be included."
This is borne out by the number of sponsors (15) that she now has. She is proudest of all of FedEx, her regular employer. Others include Snap-On Tools, Lincoln Electric, Tulsa Aircraft Engines, and Sherwin-Williams.
At 45, Mary is more gung-ho than ever about her aerial achievements. This year she aspires to win the Gold in both the T-6 and Jet races. "Each year I am getting better. I have reached a point where this is not all for me. I want to blaze a trail for young women--offer inspiration to them--as some of my heroes, the WASPs of World War II, once blazed one for me."
RELATED ARTICLE: Off to the races.
Mary Dilda's Mississippi fans will have a chance to see her in action close to home this summer as she takes part in the first annual Tunica Air Races and Air Show June 2-5 in Tunica.
"The Tunica Airport will be the venue for only the second air racing competition in the world," said Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau president/CEO Webster Franklin when the event was announced in January. "This is an extraordinary and very unique sporting concept."
"My racing team and I are elated that the event is coming to the Memphis area," Mary said when the plans were unveiled. "... I foresee a strong base of support from race pilots all across the United States."
The event will feature 50-60 aircraft competing in up to four classes over a 2- to 8-mile course. The championship races will end with the awarding of cash prizes and the presentation of "The Tunica Cup." In addition to the races, the event will also feature an air show with stunt performers and aerial acrobatics, and civil and military aircraft will be on display.
Some 50,000 spectators are expected to attend, though organizers say they expect crowds "well in excess of 100,000" as the event grows in years to come.
For more information, call 888/4-TUNICA or see www.tunicamiss.com.