SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
March 12, 1973
It used to be that she could do nothing right. Cooking, gardening, swimming or driving—she was prepared to foul up anything down to earth. But a sky-high proposition was something else
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March 12, 1973

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary

It used to be that she could do nothing right. Cooking, gardening, swimming or driving—she was prepared to foul up anything down to earth. But a sky-high proposition was something else

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On the 28th of last July, during the World Aerobatic Championship at Salon-de-Provence in France, Mary Gaffaney climbed into her Pitts Special, a bi-wing plane that is far better stressed and somewhat bigger than a box kite. Since the competition that day allowed her to fly maneuvers of her own choice, on her instrument panel Mary taped the diagrammatic instructions shown at right.

Superficially, the diagram resembles the kind of maze a psychologist might devise to test the skill of a highly talented rat. It is, in fact, a cryptogram of aerobatic maneuvers. As translated by Mary Gaffaney in her little Pitts biplane, the cryptogram becomes a beautiful aerial dance, a catena of exquisite trickery that captivates and confounds—and seemingly defies accepted truths. For brief shining monents during Mary's mad dance in the sky Bernouilli's theorem is forgettable and the immutable laws of Newton are in abeyance. Following the drab diagram on her instrument panel—while traveling 170 miles an hour—Mary hauls her little biplane around a hard vertical corner and shoots straight up into the sky, twisting and catching the sun like a bright salmon rising from the boil of a cascade. Then she throttles back. Her little Pitts hangs dead still, then falls toward earth, soundlessly, tail first, as planes are not supposed to do. In an instant, flippity-flop, the plane comes around, turns another hard corner and roars away into the next part of the mad dance.

At the world championship Mary completed her aerial maneuvers in slightly less than seven minutes. For nearly 2� minutes of that time, betwixt loops and figure eights, half loops, humpty-bumps, hammerheads and tail slides, she was traveling vertically, either up or down, rolling, snapping and spinning. In her whole performance she was in straight and level flight less than two minutes and never more than seven seconds at a time. For nearly half of her horizontal flight she was scorching along upside down.

In two respects aerobatics resembles springboard diving. Both are art forms executed in midair and both depend on the scoring of judges who are usually competent and probably biased. Although the sports have other facets in common beyond these two obvious parallels, they are not much alike. In springboard diving, as in aerobatics, there are recognized maneuvers. A three-meter springboarder has 104 basic dives and variations from which to select a repertoire of 12 for a big test like the Olympics. In aerobatics there are more than 300 accepted maneuvers and variations. For example, there are 24 ways to loop a plane. There are plain old inside loops, and then there are outside loops and loops begun inverted. There are round loops and triangular loops and rectangular, hexagonal and octagonal loops.

In a world aerobatic meet there are at least three tests: 1) a known sequence of maneuvers that may be practiced in advance; 2) an unknown sequence that the competitor does not see until 24 hours before he flies it; and 3) a free sequence of the competitor's choice. Whereas a springboard diver can practice his entire repertoire years ahead and then continue practicing right into actual competition, once an international aerobatic meet begins, even on off days, nobody is allowed to practice anything, known or unknown.

After each dive in a meet, a springboarder has time to collect his wits, curse the judges and consider his next stint. The known, unknown and free sequences of an aerobatic contest are composed of somewhere between If and 30 different tricks. While the terra firma is swirling around her in the middle of on" trick of a sequence, Mary Gaffaney must start thinking about the next impossibility she is expected to perform. By pulling a dive in too tight, springboarders sometimes strike the board. But no matter how much of their scalp or wits they leave on the plank, no matter how badly they belly whop, there has never beer a case of a diver missing the pool. By contrast, an aerobat does his act inside an invisible box in the sky. In international aerobatic meets the box is 1,000 meters long and 800 wide and reaches from 100 to 1,000 meters above ground. While doing her gyrations, Mary Gaffaney must also mind where she is in the sky. If she makes so much as a quarter roll the wrong way to correct for a diagonal wind, she may end up flying offstage and lose points. If she goes under the lower limit of her invisible stage, she is docked severely. If by mistake she ever drops 100 meters out of the bottom of the stage, it is curtains forever.

In the course of an aerial dance, when she turns a hard corner from level to vertical flight, Mary often suffers a gravity loading six times her normal weight—as they say in the trade, she is pulling six positive Gs. When she is pushing vertically up around a hard corner from inverted flight, she is often held into the plane only by strappery against a negative load of four or five Gs that is pulling her outward. As she alternates quickly from positive to negative Gs and back to positive, her blood is trying to get from her feet into her brain and back to her feet. This sort of push-pull on the human system is not conducive to rational thought.

Because of the peculiar pressures of their art, aerobats often goof in a clutch. In the known sequence in the world meet at Salon-de-Provence last July, the defending champion, Igor Egorov of Russia, became addled and finished a tail slide precisely the wrong way, getting a goose egg from the judges. In the final free program he failed to wind his stopwatch and exceeded the time limit by 20 seconds—an excessive error even without a watch. At the end of the known and unknown sequences in France, Bill Thomas, a 47-year-old rookie American, was in second place. Then, in the middle of the free sequence he designed for himself, Thomas plumb forgot two lines of maneuvers—a half outside loop, a snap roll at 45�, a humpty-bump and such as that. He came down out of the sky feeling he had done well and found he had plummeted from second to 30th place. Before he took up aerobatics, Thomas enjoyed himself sedately playing cello in a symphony orchestra in Olean, N.Y. He acknowledges the difference between his old entertainment and his new. As a cellist in Olean he never goofed a symphonic line, but then he was never called upon to perform orchestrally while pulling four Gs upside down.

Although there were separate titles for men and women in the world meet last summer, the sexes competed together. By secret lot for each competitive sequence, men and women drew their order of flight and then flew the same requirements before the same judges (who, as usual, were biased nationally but not sexually). Mary Gaffaney won the women's world title with 17,197.8 points. Out of 47 male competitors from 11 countries, only the high scorer, Charles Hillard, a compatriot from Fort Worth, and three other men—a Russian, an American and a Swiss—did better than Mary. No other woman has scored so high in a world match, and probably none ever will.

The consensus among Mary's past and present peers is that she has succeeded in aerobatics because she works hard at it and, since she is in the flying business, she can afford the game. That is true, but it is a truth only of the moment and insufficient. Mary's success began in the tradition of Horatio Alger when as a schoolgirl she worked for slave wages and could afford almost nothing.

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