The name Mary Elizabeth von Mach is unlikely to stir the memory of a majority of Wichitans, but the wealthy and sophisticated aviatrix from Detroit, Michigan, came to the prairie city in August 1929 to take delivery of her Travel Air Type B4000 biplane. She was to fly that ship in the inaugural All American Women’s Air Derby to be flown from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio, as part of the 1929 National Air Races.
Miss von Mach was the first female to earn a pilot’s license (Number 4117, on October 11, 1928) in the state of Michigan and is reported to have been the first female to own and fly an airplane in that state. Mary was born on October 1,1895, in Detroit. Her interest in aviation led her to attend ground instruction training at the Stinson School of Aviation located in the city’s General Motors Building.
Full of enthusiasm for flying. Miss von Mach planned an 1,800-mile flight from Detroit to Phoenix, Arizona, in a Travel Air (registered NC6045) that was gifted to her by a relative. Accompanied by her flight instructor, Mr. R. L. Baumgardner of the Stinson school, she landed at Tucson, Arizona, at least three times during her journey in February 1929. A key reason for making the flight was to help Mary familiarize herself with the terrain of the Southwestern United States in preparation for her participation in the upcoming Air Derby.
She arrived in Wichita in mid-August and took delivery of Travel Air registered NC631H – a Type B4000 powered by a Wright Aeronautical, nine-cylinder, static, air-cooled radial engine rated at 200 horsepower. Her ship was one of seven entered in the Air Derby, and one of five built by workers at the Travel Air factory specifically for the cross-country race. She christened her biplane “Mary Ann II” in honor of her mother. She took off from Wichita heading west and landed at Tucson on August 15 before continuing westward to Santa Monica.
Miss von Mach completed the Air Derby without serious incident, arriving at Cleveland airport in ninth place within the “Heavy Aircraft ” category. Her friend and pilot of another Travel Air, Louise McPhetridge von Thaden, took first place in the Heavy Category. After the Air Derby Mary became the first woman to enroll at Parks Air College near St. Louis, Missouri, where 18 months later, in May 1931, she graduated having earned a Transport Category license and a flight instructor certificate.
When America entered the Second World War in December 1941, Miss von Mach worked for the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft engine company as an inspector at the massive Willow Run facilities (also designated as “Air Force Plant 31”) in Michigan that built nearly 50% of all Consolidated B-24 “Liberator” heavy bombers during the war.
Mary Elizabeth von Mach continued to fly until 1961, and in 1969 she traveled to New York city to attend a meeting of the famous “99s” women’s pilot association. In 1987 she was inducted into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame. Although her brief association with Wichita centered on obtaining her Travel Air biplane for the Air Derby, Miss von Mach chose a flying machine designed and manufactured in Wichita, the “Air Capital of the World.” She died on February 4, 1980.
Note: The author thanks the International Women’s Air and Space Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, for background information on Mary von Mach, along with additional information provided by the Davis-Monthan Aviation Field Register.