When Mary Barr was pregnant with her first child, she knew she wanted a woman obstetrician to deliver her baby. But she lived in rural, isolated northeastern California, where ob/gyns in general were rare and men. The closest woman doctor Barr could find was in Nevada. So, sensing her baby was coming soon, a very pregnant Barr climbed into her plane and flew herself to Nevada where she gave birth to a girl she named after the state. Then, after a brief rest, Barr bundled up her newborn, carefully placed little Nevada behind the pilot’s seat in a small cargo space, and flew her little girl home. All by herself.
This was a very Mary Barr thing to do. It’s unclear why her husband didn’t accompany her, but it’s entirely possible Barr didn’t bother to ask. Barr was not the type to expect or court help from anyone. A pilot for most of her life, she eventually became the first lead pilot for the US Forest Service fighting fires from the sky. This was a woman unafraid to live her life exactly the way she saw fit.
“She said that pilots were the rock stars when she was growing up,” Nevada Barr, said after her mother passed away. And Mary, according to Nevada, always “wanted to be a rock star.”
Mary Barr was born in New Jersey in 1925, though she grew up in leafy Oberlin, Ohio. Her mother was a grade school teacher and her father a speech professor at Oberlin College. The product of a bookish upbringing, Barr attended a boarding school back east and enrolled in college, following her parents’ example.
Barr had been in love with the machines since she was a little girl, awed by Charles Lindbergh’s fame. She surreptitiously took a flying lesson and that was that. Barr told her parents she was dropping out of college to become a pilot. Their response: Gulp.
She worked in a factory and as a dishwasher to pay for her lessons. Once she’d earned her license, she flew just about anything, anywhere. She transported military aircraft around the country for the US Army. Prisoners? You need prisoners flown somewhere? Give Mary a call. She learned aircraft maintenance and wrenched on planes for a time. Taught flying lessons where she could. Chased moose off the runway at a small Idaho airport. That’s where she met her future husband, the one who stayed home when she flew herself to give birth.
By the time her daughter was born, Barr had moved to Susanville, California, north of Lassen National Park, with her husband, where the two ran an airstrip. She flew for local government agencies doing a bit of wildlife spotting, which gradually morphed into a job flying fire suppression.
In the early 1970s, Barr officially became lead pilot Pilot for the local Forest Service district. It was the first time a woman had ever held the job. Reaching that level took a quiet determination that rubbed off on her daughters.
“When Mama decided to go full-time with the Forest Service, she knew for a fact that as a female pilot, she had to be twice as good, twice as calm in the face of upsets, to get anywhere,” her daughter Nevada said. “But because she had so many flight hours on her Forest Service application, it looked like a lie. So she reduced the number of hours she had in the air.
“She kind of taught us to be our own people because she had a determination to do what she needed and wished to do that was pretty impressive.”
And it was quite a job. Lead pilots fly small, highly maneuverable planes that work with on the ground firefighters to guide large tankers through smoke and haze and treacherous mountain passes to dump water or retardant on forest fires. They essentially coordinate all air suppression tactics by deciding how to approach the flames, whether it’s safe enough to do so, and they’re responsible for waving off tankers if the approach is too dangerous.
The skill set means very few pilots are qualified. Flawless judgment, steel nerves, and ultimate confidence in one’s ability are the bare minimum.
“It’s like playing chess,” said Michael K. Savage, a Forest Service lead pilot trainer, except “with the chess board on fire.”
“I mean, it's scary as hell,” Nevada Barr told the NY Times. “But Mama thought it was just great.”
As if that wasn’t enough aerial excitement, Barr also raced in the legendary Reno Air Races. She was one of the first women pilots to do that too.
Rock stars, remember?
By the 1990s, Barr had retired to her family’s Susanville property. She’d had a second daughter, Molly, who had trained to become a commercial pilot. Nevada has become a bestselling novelist writing mysteries about wilderness crimes.
Barr continued flying well into her 70s, then slowed down to enjoy her ranch. The Barrs had 300 acres on the east side of the northern Sierra, a sparsely populated region dotted by volcanic peaks, run with crystal clear streams, and some of the best fly fishing in the world. She lived there and ran the ranch even into her 80s after her husband had passed away.
No doubt she’d see contrails crisscrossing the big, open sky above the ranch, look at them with a smile, satisfied she’d achieve her dream.
Knowing too she’d fly rings around those pilots.
Barr was elected to the Women in Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame in 2001. She passed in 2010.
Words by Justin Housman