LOCK HAVEN - Mary S. Feik drove from Maryland to the Fly-In in her pickup (stick, of course) and carries her own screen for her presentations from tent to hangar this week at Piper Memorial Airport.
The 86-year-old Civil Air Patrol colonel could have driven one of her sports cars or even flown her beloved Piper Comanche to Lock Haven.
Her favorite aircraft is the P-51 Mustang, in which she logged 456 of her more than 6,000 hours in the cockpit.
She developed the first Captivair flight-training simulator, a P-51C Mustang, and went on to develop Captivair (on-the-ground) simulators out of a P-80 Shooting Star and others. She has flown both the P-51 and P-80 as well as the B-29 Superfortress, the P-38 Lightning, the P-47 Thunderbolt, the P-63 King Cobra.
Her remarkable career, which is still filled with aircraft and now with Civil Air Patrol (CAP) cadets, has taken her through the war years and well beyond.
It all began for her at age 7, when she caught a ride with a barnstormer in a Curtiss Jenny. At age 11, she was doing all the welding at her dad's auto business and overhauled her first engine at age 13. Five years later, she was an aircraft maintenance instructor in the U.S. Army Air Corps and became the first woman engineer in research and development in the Air Technical Service Command's Engineering Division.
She talked about aircraft and pilots she has known, showed what "Rosie the Riveter" was really like, and shared stories about the male reaction to "that woman ... fooling around with our engine," for annual Lock Haven Area Service Club luncheon held Thursday at Piper Aviation Museum and hosted by the Kiwanis Club of Lock Haven.
She recalled her years in the Air Corps in World War II, when she slept on hangar floors.
"I worked with vacuum tubes and hard wires," she said. "I'd have given my soul for a transistor."
Feik said she received her aeronautical engineering rating based on her demonstrated ability. (The University of Buffalo wouldn't take her as an engineering student because she was a girl.)
She also helped restore several aircraft for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and a 1910 Curtiss that is on display at the U.S. Postal Museum, also in the nation's capital.
One of her most challenging restorations was of a SPAD XIII, a French biplane from World War I that she said had been wrecked by poor storage. During the project, her team preserved its 64 bullet holes and 42 signatures from the original craftsmen who built its various parts. The plane was re-covered with 185 yards of Belgian linen, and Feik spent 10 days - some of it on a cot - hand-painting it.
She credited the Sentimental Journey to Cub Haven Fly-In with adding to her knowledge of covering a plane with fabric, something that at one time was considered women's work.
Feik said she will donate her late husband's Piper Tri-Pacer to the local museum, and said, "I have a wonderful Piper Comanche that I adore and love to fly."
The aircraft's platform is similar to the Mustang's, she said, although her Comanche has double the number of controls on its panel as the first P-80 fighter jet she flew, at age 21.
The word that she was going to fly a P-80 for the first time spread across Williams Air Force Base and she recalled turning out for her early morning flight to find about 200 spectators waiting for her.
"They were all thinking, 'She's either going to blow the aircraft up or kick the brakes and go flying,'" she related.
Of course, she did the latter.
She became the first woman to receive the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award from the Federal Aviation Administration, presented for 50 years as an aircraft mechanic. (She said of the honor: "I must have been the first woman to admit she's 50.")
A member of the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame, she is among the women pioneers featured in the book, "Stars of the Sky, Legends All."
Four years ago, she was honored with the Frank G. Brewer Award for her dedication to aviation education as a teacher, mentor, innovator, pilot, engineer and leader of America's youth.
These days, she energetically inspires CAP cadets, carrying on the ideal of one of her colleagues in the sky, Zack Mosley, who filled his "Smilin' Jack" comic strip with "plane facts" and the fun of the early days of aircraft.
If America doesn't have a comic strip dedicated to aviation anymore, at least we still have Feik, who has gone Mach 2 in the jumpseat cockpit of the Concorde and enjoys sharing stories that include phrases like, "if you over-primed, you'd melt the tail off."
The hardest thing for young people today is "deciding what they want to do," she said. "Everything is open to them, from the rivet to the cockpit."