If they are not used often enough, classic biplanes built in the tough old way, with wings of wood and fabric, may suffer from invading forces of mice. The wing interior is a lovely nesting place, and the dacron stitching that holds the fabric to the ribs is dandy stuff with which to build a nest. If the wing fabric bulges, it may be only minor structural failure—or it may be mice at work. Although in rural country it is hard to keep mice out of fabric wings, Mary's little Pitts has never been afflicted. She tries to get in one aerobatic workout a day, but actually averages about half that. Twenty minutes of snap-rolling, looping, tail-sliding and humpty-bumping every other day does not satisfy Mary, but it is more than enough to discourage mice.
Most games played on a world level are beset by two demons: nationalism and amateurism. Aerobatics has dispelled both, simply by being realistic. In aerobatics chauvinism is an accepted fact. Aerobatic judges are every bit as warped nationalistically as those of diving, figure skating and gymnastics. By custom an aerobatic judge also anoints the competitors of his own country with high scores, and his scores are thrown out for being too high. When everybody plays the game in the same puerile way, it all evens out. When it comes to the other great bugbear, amateurism, aerobatics is most sensible. In a world meet the high finishers get trophies, and it matters not whether they are paid by their governments or are getting money under the table from Santa Claus. It further matters not if they are paid for endorsing some commercial devil's brand of fuel, so long as they comply with the strictures of the meet. They may be stunt men who earn money doing hairy tricks at air shows, but at the world competition they fly disciplined sequences, cleanly, without oil smoke pouring out to wow the spectators.
The U.S. Aerobatic Championship is a similarly disciplined affair. Though tainted slightly by prize money, the nationals are faithful to the origins of the word amateur—a competitor has to love it. The average cash award to the men's champion for the past five years has been about $1,500—an Indianapolis 500 winner gets that much for drinking a bottle of milk after the race. Considering that the Pitts plane used by almost all top aerobats costs $21,000 and needs at least $5,000 in maintenance care annually, aerobatics is definitely a losing game.
In the past seven years, placing second once and winning the women's title five times, Mary Gaffaney has taken home a little over $4,000. In 1970 there was no other woman in the unlimited class, so Mary was allowed to compete with the men and placed fourth out of 12, gaining $500 and a trophy. But in the rankings it was decided that Mary could not really compete with the men after all, women's champion or not. As an added indignity, the man who had finished fifth behind her was moved up to fourth.
In the 1972 nationals in Sherman, Texas, again there was no women's competition. Mary tried to get rivals to come, but on short notice two of the ladies she persuaded were informed that they were not capable enough for the maneuvers and the hazards of low-level flight in the unlimited class. This irked Mary. In the middle of the men's competition, standing seventh, she up and quit in what she now considers a justifiable albeit ill-timed protest. Before leaving for home, she posted a notice that her little Pitts was for sale. Chuck Car-others, an aerobatic dentist from Nebraska, bought it for $15,000. The opinion was put forth that Mary had cut off her nose to spite her face. Back home and cooled off, Mary agreed. She asked Chuck Carothers if she could buy her Pitts back, and he consented. When Mary mailed him a $100 check as interest for the time she held his money, he returned the check uncashed. Mary now campaigns for the sexes to compete together, but this is not likely to happen because the fathers of the sport feel the move would discourage women. The whole problem is a convoluted one. Suffice it to say, Mary is still dancing in the sky and plans to keep at it for 20 more years.
At the age of 65 Mary intends to give up official competition and restrict herself to air shows, where she can blow smoke and fly low to wow the crowd without worrying about winning. Today at aeronautical affairs where profits go to worthy causes, Mary often flies stunts for little or nothing. At commercial shows she gets $800 for doing a couple of smoky acts. When travel expenses and maintenance and wear and tear are reckoned in, $800 is not what it seems. Still, Mary concludes, it is better than the $6.20 she used to get for a 31-hour week at the five & ten back in Allapattah.