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The People Of The Reno Air Races
People Who Race:
Mary Dilda
Reno Air Race Update
Report by: Birgitta Nurmi

The AMAZING Mary D.
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Mary Dilda is amazing because of who she is. She is a beautiful woman with a natural elegance, a wonderful smile and Southern charm. She has the uncanny ability to make everyone she speaks with feel important, even fans approaching her for autographs because she pays total attention to each individual. She also knows how to party and have fun. A party at the Reno National Championship Air Races does not seem complete until Mary has arrived. And Mary has a passion: airplanes. Not only is she is a superb race and aerobatic pilot, Mary flies a regular schedule as a commercial pilot for a major air cargo carrier. She is passionate about airplanes because they have been an integral part of her entire life.

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Mary’s interest in aviation began early in her life. She was born on a ranch in Clayton, New Mexico, and the nearest large city was Amarillo, Texas. Because Amarillo was nearly three and one half-hours away by land, her father always kept an airplane at the ranch where they had a landing strip near the family home. Her father also had an active interest in aviation.

Mary recalled "I would go with daddy and check the cattle and go chase coyotes. So being close to the ground in an airplane wasn’t any big problem for me. I basically grew up flying close to the ground with him. Growing up on a ranch really fostered independence and taking responsibility, which are good characteristics for a pilot. We also had some friends who were airline pilots and we went to air shows and things like that – I think that this is where my love of aviation came from – going to these air shows and seeing people do these exciting things with airplanes and so I thought that I would like to be an airline pilot. I started thinking this when I was about 6 or 7 years of age."

Mary is the youngest of three and the tomboy in the family. She has two older sisters who are close to her in age. Their interest was not in flying, but more in horses and boys. Mary commented "My sisters and I were always close but I was the little sister". Mary ended up spending a lot of time by herself "because if I was with my sisters they would just tease me". Mary also loved riding horses bareback. "I’d take a horse and I’d go off by myself for the afternoon riding all over the place". But most of all Mary loved hanging out with daddy, especially when he went flying somewhere.

Her parents valued education above all else so that each of the girls would be able to provide for herself. Mary commented "So we were guided into the direction we most favored considering the strengths and interests each of us had." Mary wanted to travel and loved airplanes, so her parents supported and encouraged her to find her way in that direction. She added "And the best part about it – we are all really good friends."

When Mary was approximately 6 or 7 years old, she already knew that she wanted a career in aviation: becoming a stewardess or selling planes were options. However Daddy stated firmly "If you are going to be in the aviation world, you are going to be a pilot."

Mary does have other interest aside from flying. She learned to sew when she was around 4 years old. She enjoyed making dresses for her Barbie dolls so she briefly entertained the idea of becoming a fashion designer. Even when contemplating other careers, airplanes still feature prominently in her thoughts and she thought that if she became a fashion designer, she could fly her "Baron" from show to show. She also toyed with the idea of becoming an interior designer and then "I could fly my "Baron" from house to house or become a physiotherapist and fly my "Baron" from hospital to hospital". Daddy’s dry response was: "Why don’t you first get your license and see if you’d like to fly for a living."

"I graduated from high school and every morning at 6 o’clock, daddy and I would get in the Cessna-177 that he had at the time. We’d leave the house and go to Clayton, 16 miles away, to meet with my certified flight instructor and fly with him for an hour and then daddy and I would take the airplane home. The CFI soloed me when I had four hours in the airplane - I was 18 years old. Daddy did not solo me until I had 12 hours. I earned my license in less than two months. Then I decided to go to college and consider a career selling airplanes. Oklahoma State University had programs that allowed me to major in marketing and take a minor in aviation".

The university also had a College Flying Team associated with NIFA (National Intercollegiate Flying Association). Team members competed in ground events, cross-country flying and spot landings. Mary made the team when she was a freshman. At age18, she placed first in both the "power on" and "power off" landing competition and won the Top Regional Pilot award. Mary laughed as she recalled people asking, "Who is that girl anyway?" The team went on to the NIFA National Competition and Mary won Top Woman Pilot there too. "That was really neat" she chuckled.

The following summer, another opportunity came knocking. Mary’s instructor decided to start selling Bellanca aircraft, small fabric type tail wheel airplane. He made her an offer she could not refuse. If Mary would be able to get ten students in Clayton NM, she could have the Citabria for the summer after which it would be sold. She had already obtained her commercial/ instrument at age 19 and at age 20, when she became a Certified Flight Instructor; she started to teach at the college. Mary knew that this arrangement would work out beautifully. "It was so much fun" she exclaimed. "Here I was, I was - 20 years old – I got my own plane; my own flight school, my own students and a lot of responsibility".

Mary had always felt very comfortable in the pilot seat, but on one occasion she did discover that the activity that she had approached with such ease, should perhaps be taken a little more seriously. She decided that she was going to teach herself how to fly aerobatics from a book. Following the instructions meticulously she tried to do some snap rolls. She recalled: "I was pointed straight at the ground and boy, I really scared myself. I didn’t do that anymore". Mary recounts this story as one of the more scary experiences in her life as a pilot and added philosophically "Well, you learn from your mistakes and fortunately that mistake didn’t kill me". She concluded: "That was a fun summer".

After she graduated in 1981 from Oklahoma State University, it was time to really make a decision about what to do next. Mary’s parents had always said: "We’ll pay for school but after that you’re on your own" and they meant it. "So I got to thinking that the military wouldn’t be too bad – may be they’ll let me fly jets. I went to a recruiter on the street and told him ‘I’ve got a thousand hours and I would like to fly jets’. That is how my military career got started." Her application was approved and Mary started the next phase of her life, which turned out to be a rather interesting ten-year stint of active military duty. "It is like everything else as long as you do a good job and work well with your peers, I don’t think a person would have any problems with their job."

During her pilot training at Enid, OK, she learned to fly T-37’s and supersonic T-38’s. For the uninitiated, these are military jet fighter trainers. After her training, Mary was stationed at Scott AFB, near St. Louis, and became an aircraft commander flying the C-9 "Nightingale", the Air Force medical evacuation plane. This meant that she flew to any city in the US that had a military hospital, to transfer patients wherever they needed to go. Mary described this as "really neat". "Here I am, 24 years old and in the left seat of a DC-9, flying into little airports and into places like JFK and Atlanta".

In 1985, while Mary was traveling with a girlfriend en route to Hawaii, she met this "tall blond guy", an Air Force C-5 pilot by the name of Steve Dilda. He was the first man in her life she brought home to meet her parents. The only problem with the relationship was that Mary lived in St. Louis and Steve was based at Travis AFB in California. The military would not move them together until they had a marriage certificate. So eight months later (June 1986), "we called the parents and said ‘we’re getting married in July and we’d like to do it at the ranch’ and my mother said ‘Let me get back to you on that and check with everybody and see what would be a good week’". Despite the fact that the wedding was a quickly arranged and intimate ceremony, a number of people in the area who had airplanes found out about the wedding and gave Mary and Steve a fly-by. Five of the seven pilots who participated had been Mary’s students! It was, as Mary put it, "a cool wedding".

Three months after they were married, Mary was transferred to join Steve at Travis AFB in California and assigned to fly the C-141 "Starlifter". This was a fantastic opportunity for Mary. She flew all over the world and landed on every continent including Antarctica.

In 1989, Mary and Steve were transferred to Altus AFB, Oklahoma, where they were both assigned as flight instructors at the "Airlift Schoolhouse". They primarily taught newly upgraded Aircraft Commanders how to air-refuel. They also became interested in the civilian side of aviation. They purchased a Maule M-5 (235 hp tail dragger), and later started a flight school with five flight instructors and four trainer airplanes at the municipal airport.

Then Desert Storm happened. Mary, who has a way of putting a positive spin on just about anything, commented "It was a nice break from being an instructor – we flew out of England, Spain and Germany into Saudi Arabia. We would fly for three weeks, about 125 hours, and then return to Altus for three weeks because we were needed back home as instructor pilots".

Mary has a few stories from that time too. She was once at a small auxiliary field in Saudi Arabia, third in line with her C-141 behind a C-5 and another C-141 waiting to refuel from four huge fuel bladders positioned next to the taxi way. The crew was sitting on the airplane waiting their turn, when someone said "What the heck – where did everybody go?" and they suddenly realized that there was no one around! Shortly thereafter they found out that an incoming missile warning had been issued and everyone had run to the bunkers without telling the airplane crews what was going on, "so we were out there just sitting on the airplane and they were launching missiles overhead". Despite Mary’s positive attitude about the whole venture, being involved in Desert Storm was not exactly a cakewalk. Mary continued, "We were there the second day of Desert Storm, when the war had started and our biggest fear was a possible chemical warfare attack".

In September 1991, Mary left the Air Force and interviewed for a job with United Airlines but was not hired at that time. Fortunately, the Air Force still needed instructors on the C-141 simulator, and she was able to work for a year as a civilian back at Altus AFB while Steve was still on active duty. Steve was transferred to McGuire AFB, NJ, as an evaluation and check pilot for East Coast C-5 Squadrons. Mary, Steve and the Maule moved to New Jersey.

In 1992, a phone call to Mary from a friend led to another job with "Private Jet Airlines", a Scheduled-Charter Company. Using MD-80’s, they flew people on vacation from the East Coast to the Caribbean. May laughed and exclaimed "That job was a lot of fun!" Two years later, in 1994, another phone call once again led to a job change. FedEx was not hiring pilots at the time but they were looking for flight simulator instructors, which was considered a good way to get started with the company. Mary taught the DC-10 flight simulator for three years before she became a FedEx pilot in 1997. Mary explained that FedEx is very particular with regard to the pilots that they hire. They look for very qualified people, recommended by other pilots because of their ability to fly and who are able to get along well with others under a variety of circumstances even when feeling tired and grumpy! Of course Mary fit the bill perfectly. She started in the backseat of a 727 and is now a DC-10 First Officer.

Meanwhile Steve and Mary had moved their Maule from Oklahoma to New Jersey and now to Memphis. The hangar where they kept their plane also had a beautiful T-6 named "Blue Bayou". Scott Dill who had bought it from Jimmy Gist, a familiar name in air racing, owned the plane at that time. Before Jimmy Gist owned the plane, it had been a National Champion when Ralph Rina owned the plane and it was called "Miss Everything".

When the plane came up for sale, Mary realized that her dream of becoming an air show pilot could now come true. In March 1996, they bought the T-6, re-named it "Two of Hearts" and affectionately call it "Blue". It was none other than Gene McNealy who commented offhandedly: "Well, you’ve bought yourself a racer, you might as well race it". Steve and Mary, being true airplane people, had already attended the National Championships in Reno, Nevada a few times and thought that it was "just awesome". For Mary and Steve to go racing really did seem like a natural progression.

However, one plane, two excellent pilots both interested in racing. How to solve this little dilemma? Mary explained "Steve being his wonderful self, proposed an adequate solution: They would take turns racing. They made the trek to Reno and Mary flew her first race in the "Two of Hearts" in September 1996 and placed fifth in the Silver race. They became an unstoppable team when they discovered "This is fun!" 1997 was a great year. Steve was to be the pilot that year, but Mary was also offered her own ride in "Mystical Power", a wonderful T-6 then owned by John Darznieks. Much to everyone’s delight, Mary won the Gold. In 1998, Mary was back to being the pilot of the "Two of Hearts" and placed 4th in the Gold. Meanwhile she also started flying air shows in 1998 and received a number of sponsorships that same year.

Also in 1998, Steve became the T-6 Class President and started flying the pace plane at the Reno Air Races. Steve and Mary bought another T-6, "Felix", from Bob Chisholm. This meant that Mary could continue to race the "Two of Hearts". And race she did, placing 3rd in the Gold in 1999 and 5th in the Gold in 2000.

A devastating event in New York September 11, 2001, led to the closure of American air traffic of any kind and the Reno National Championship Air Races were put on hold. Yet there was plenty of activity in the Two of Hearts pit as many people came to call on Mary and Steve. When the races were actually canceled Friday evening September 14, 2001, their pit became the meeting place for friends.

In 2002, Mary decided to add a little spice to her racing experience and she not only raced the T-6 to 4th place in the Gold race but she also placed second in the Jet Race flying an L-39 "Albatross", a dramatically blue and red painted Albatross Jet named "Heartless". Mary’s showing in the jet class prompted the talented aviation cartoonist Keith "Kraz" Kraznowski, to caricaturize Mary in the jet running in first place while painting her nails and talking on her cell phone, while most capably flying the jet of course… That’s Mary!

Racing stories? Yes, Mary has a few! "I hit a large bird once! At first I only knew that there was something wrong and that I should get the airplane on the ground immediately so that I could race it again." There was quite a bit of damage, but repairable damage and Mary did continue to race. That happened at the Reno Air Races in 1999.

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Mary has never regarded it as a problem to be a female in a decisively male dominated sport. She explained: "It is really a pilots’ world – as long as you have the ‘right stuff’. If you can focus and you are good enough to be out there, that is what really counts." She has felt accepted when other pilots realized that she was at the Reno Races to race and that she is a good pilot. She believes in having a good time but she takes the racing very serious. Mary explained that she loves the competition and the adrenaline flow. She enjoys proving to herself that she can fly a really good course. Every race she tries to be her "top best" and totally focuses on the task at hand. She likes the feeling of pushing the machinery seemingly beyond its limits. She appreciates it most when she can say to herself "That was a really good race". Mary continued "But it isn’t just the pilot. To be good takes a whole group of friends who put in effort to make it work. The team does not go away. It is constantly there".

What does the future hold? More races and more air shows! "Sun and Fun" and "Oshkosh" – watch for the amazing Mary D!

For more information about Mary Dilda, her race team and her AirShow schedule,
click here

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This article first appeared in the January issue of "Texans and Trojans", the magazine of the North American Trainer Association. It is reprinted here with their permission.

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