Hall of Fame 1991 Mary Gaffaney

1991 Mary Gaffaney

Sports Aerobatics, 1972

Mary Gaffaney of Miami, Florida has been the reigning queen of U.S. Aerobatics for many years. Mary was the first American ever to win a Gold Medal in World Competition, having done so at the 1970 World Championships.

Mary added to her list of fantastic flying accomplishments by winning the 1972-1973 Women’s World Aerobatic Title. Mary forged into the lead on the first flight and never relinquished it. Flying superbly, Mary held off a determined charge by the Soviet Women’s Team.

Mary also is no stranger to World Competition, having competed in East Germany and England previously.

Mary also is very well known in the aerobatic field, performing in Air Shows and competing throughout the U.S. Mary flew her beautiful black and yellow 180 hp Pitts Special at the competition.




By Gordon Penner, IAC34 Newsletter Horizon – June 2006

Mary Gaffaney had the fire in her belly to be a champion, but apparently you would never know it to look at her. These are the words of the great columnist Gordon Baxter who, in the July 1972 issue of Flying Magazine, said the following; “Mary Gaffaney is sweet and gentle and 46 years old and looks like she ought to be cutting out biscuits to win a Pillsbury bake-off instead of being the winner - five times in row – of the women’s national aerobatic title and holder of the gold medal for the women’s world championship.”

Baxter wrote these words and those that follow right before the US team went to Salon de Provence, France to eventually win the 1972 Men’s World Championship, the Women’s World Championship, and the Team World Championship. They also won in an American aircraft, the Pitts Special S1S. Since the 1972 World Championships had not happened yet when the article was written, the gold medal in the World Championship that Baxter spoke of was for placing first in one of the individual events in the 1970 World Championship in Hullavington, United Kingdom, where Mary placed third overall.

Again, from Mr. Baxter’s’ article; “Well, she is a competitor. Not just a competitor, but also the diamond-hard stuff of which world champions are made: practice, dedication, practice, self-confidence and practice. She likes it. She’d have to, or she wouldn’t do it. She likes the fame, the excitement, and the roar of the crowd. She didn’t say this, of course; to do so would be to break the code of American heroes. But the trophy-case wall of her office says something, and the wall of autographed plane-side photos of other members of this most exclusive club says something, and the replica of the Hullavington gold medal fixed to the side of her Pitts is very tribal.

If Mary Gaffaney had never met Curtis Pitts or gotten an airplane bottoms up, she could still take her place in the high aerie of aviation’s loftiest spires. She has her ATR (Air Transport Rating, now called the Air Transport Pilot license) – the PhD of flying – in singles, multi and helicopters. She has her masters in instruments, commercial, flight instructor, seaplanes, gliders, box kites, rubber bands, paper darts, all of it. And the omnipotent FAA has laid hands upon her and vested her as a designee and holy examiner in five categories. A gathering of all the senior pilots in this land with such credentials would hardly crowd the ballroom of your local Holiday Inn.”

In the above paragraphs I like that practice is mentioned so many times. Mentors who have advised me in my aerobatic career have all said that one’s level of success in aerobatics is directly proportional to the amount of fuel that goes through one’s fuel injectors. For myself and for those that I have observed I have found this to be quite true. For the champions it is true in spades.

As a young man I was transfixed by the stories of the great combat aces and gutsy bomber pilots, and I aspired to be like them. Later I became an airline captain and instructor, and in that capacity taught many women captains. They were all very talented and did well, so I always had good experiences in that regard, but I always wondered who inspired them? Patty Wagstaff had not started her rise to fame yet, so there wasn’t a lot printed about heroic female pilots except for maybe Amelia Earhart, and none of us at that time knew about Mary Gaffaney. As I did my research I found there was not much printed about her.

One thing that I was struck by in research about her was her singleness of purposes. She liked flying and everything went toward that goal. It wasn’t a hobby, it was a life. As a glider instructor myself I was struck by how many glider pilots talked about starting their gliding career with, and gaining inspiration from, her. She even purchased an airport on the edge of the Florida Everglades that, according to the Miami gliders website, was perfectly placed. They said it had some of the best soaring conditions in south Florida as it was at the convergence of the Atlantic Ocean and sea breeze fronts. A glider there could, on a good day, work its way up to 8500 feet. She taught glider flying there, in addition to other forms of flight, for 20 –odd years.

That singleness of purpose was also illustrated by Gordon Baxter later in the 1972 article. “At 40 hours, she was looping a Stearman, just for the fun of it. She denies that she married Charlie because he had a Stearman and Monocoupe, but they were married in 1950, bought a clipped-wing Cub, and Charlie coached her in aerobatics with the idea of doing air shows. Then the racing stopped, and the air shows died out. There wasn’t any action anywhere. (A bad crashe into the crowd in the early 50’s killed air racing and aerobatic competition, and held down air shows for the next 10-plus years.) “The next decade and a half drifted by while a friend and neighbor over at Homestead was experimenting with a little homebuilt biplane. His name was Curtis Pitts.”

“Mary talked of those early Sundays back in 1966 when they would all gather at Curtis Pitts’s strip and sit in the shade and play with his airplane. She spoke of these early times softly, as a woman remembering family reunions. “I always had to use both hands to snap the old Stearman, so the first Pitts I flew, Zoom! Zoom! They said it was a beautiful double snap. I had to tell them I only meant one” As Mary described the Pitts, an inner glow came to her face. She acted it out, bouncing in her chair, hands karate-chopping the air, tossing her head. “It‘s so easy to fly. Point it, it goes; pull it, it snaps! Bang! Bang! Oh, it’s fun.” I had the fleeting impression that to arm-wrestle Mary would be to lose.” She was good at what she did but she worked for it. She also saw the life that she wanted to live, and lived it.