Like a sparrow with a flock of condors on its tail, the tiny twin-engine Beechcraft leads Forest Service air tankers, heavy with chemical flame retardants, toward a fast-spreading forest fire in Northern California. Suddenly the little plane breaks off and swoops downward, vanishing into smoke. Pulling up only 200 feet above the rugged hills, the pilot finds the best way into the fire, then dives in time and again to guide each tanker as it dumps its load of heavy, smothering liquid on the blaze. Back on the ground, mission safely accomplished, the lead flyer gets a comradely thump on the back. “She’s a good pilot,” says a tanker jockey. “You can depend on Mary.”
As the height of the California fire season approaches, tanker pilots trust their lives to the skill of Mary Barr every week, sometimes flying blind into canyons with only Mary to bring them out again. “Of course, I feel a deep responsibility,” concedes Barr, 50, who has logged 11,500 hours over 30 years of flying and is the Forest Service’s only woman fire-fighting pilot. “Once these tanker pilots have faith in you, they’ll follow you right down into hell.”
Barr’s own passion for the air dates back to 1945, when she dropped out of Oberlin College in Ohio to work in a factory to pay for flying lessons. She earned her pilot’s and instructor’s licenses before setting out to make a place for herself in the intensely male world of commercial aviation. “There are all sorts of closed doors,” she says. “Aviation was not, and is not, open to women. For one thing, most men get their flying experience in the military.”
Still, she landed a job in 1946 training commercial pilots and two years later married her boss, David Barr. Settling in the Northern California town of Susanville (pop. 6,600), they established their own charter outfit. “We never talked about roles,” insists Mary, and that applied equally to the raising of the Barr’s two daughters, Molly and Nevada. “If Dave had a charter,” says Mary, “I stayed home and rebuilt airplane engines and looked after the girls. But if/was out on a job,” she grins, “Dave got the girls and the engine parts.”
The daughters seem to have thrived on the arrangement. Molly, 26, an aeronautical engineer, designs systems for nuclear power plants, while 23-year-old Nevada is finishing up her studies for a master’s degree in drama at the University of California’s Davis campus. Both girls are active in the women’s liberation movement. “I guess I had some influence on them,” says Mary.
As for her own career, Mom got started spotting fires on her own and phoning them in to the Forest Service. When torpedo bombers were put into service as air tankers in the late 1950s, a staggering death toll—22 out of 28 pilots in the first year—convinced the Service that a lead plane was essential. Mary was first hired as a contract pilot, then last year put on staff at $16,000 a year. “Dave was delighted,” she says. “And he knows the risks. It’s a lonely profession. Every decision is yours. I like that.”
The job sends Mary traveling throughout the West, while her husband, now retired, stays home. Once the fire season ends, they have more time together hiking and swimming—and talking about airplanes.