Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Defying gravity and convention: aviator Marjorie Gray

The 1997 Douglass College Alumnae Directory lists Marjorie Gray, class of 1933, as a retired technical editor for Grumman Aerospace Corporation. Nothing in the listing refers to her pioneering achievements as one of America's vanguard of women pilots, except for the designation "LTC." Those three letters stand for "lieutenant colonel," Gray's rank when she retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1972.

Born in New York in 1912, Gray was raised in Cliffside Park. A few years after graduating from the New Jersey College for Women (now Douglass College of Rutgers University), she flew her first solo flight at Nelson Airport in Franklin Lakes. It was a start of a lifelong love of aviation that saw her gain a commercial license and fly 19 types of military aircraft.

Gray was a social worker and air traffic control trainee when famed aviator Jackie Cochran invited her to join the first class of Womens Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Started in 1942 to relieve the shortage of eligible male pilots not already serving in the military, the WASPs were civilian pilots recruited to transport military aircraft to their points of embarkation during World War II. Participants had to be between the ages of 21 and 35, hold a commercial license and 200-horsepower engine rating, a minimum 500 hours flying time, and cross-country flying experience. Many WASPs had more experience and were more skilled pilots than many of their male counterparts in the Army Air Corps.

Stationed at Newcastle Air Force Base in Delaware, Gray logged over 750 hours flying B-24s, B-25s, B-26s, DC-3s and other aircraft. Though I haven't been able to track down any additional information on her service, it's possible that she served as a flight instructor for the Air Corps, as many of her colleagues were.

Her wartime service alone would be enough to make Gray a notable name in aviation history, but after the WASPs were disbanded in 1944, she continued making aviation history. She returned to New Jersey and became one of the first women in the country to operate a fixed-base operation, or airport services business. Based at Teterboro Airport from 1946 to 1950, Marjorie M. Gray Aero Service offered flying lessons, piloted charter flights and assessed new aviators for licensure as a pilot examiner. No doubt, her customers could rely on her versatility: besides her commercial license, she had earned ratings for seaplane, multiengine and instrument flying.

Gray later joined the Air Force Reserve and worked as a writer and editor for Grumman, Curtis Aviation and Flying Magazine. She was active in the aviation community through leadership positions in the Ninety-Nines, the organization founded by 99 licensed women pilots in 1929 for the mutual support and advancement of aviation. The Womens' International Association of Aeronautics awarded her the Lady Drummond-Hay trophy in 1956 for her many achievements and contributions to the field.

Describing her years in aviation as "the best time in my life," Gray accumulated more than 3000 hours in the skies. She died in 2008, at the age of 95.

I discovered Gray's story at Teterboro's Aviation Hall of Fame of New Jersey, into which she was inducted in 1992. Hers is one of many fascinating stories of people with a Garden State connection who've made air and space history locally and worldwide. We'll be returning to some more of those people -- and the Hall of Fame's museum exhibits -- in future Hidden New Jersey stories.

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