Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Mary S. Feik (1924-2016)
MSA SC 3520-17119

Biography:

Colonel Mary Feik holds the title of the first female Master Aeronautics Mechanic by the Federal Aviation Association, is regarded as an “Eagle” aviation pioneer by the National Conference on Aviation and Space Education, and is one of only 100 other women named a pioneer of aviation. Through her lifelong love of engineering and aviation, Feik has inspired many women and younger people to serve their communities by joining her on the path of flight.1

Mary Feik was catapulted into a passion for aeronautics and engineering when she was just a 7 year-old girl in Upstate New York. One day she saw an airplane flying overhead and immediately exclaimed that she knew she “wanted to fly like that pilot!” Her father, an automobile mechanic, happily took her for a ride with this travelling barnstormer in his World War I-era biplane, and, for little Mary Feik, it was love at first flight.2

Feik began her career in mechanics and engineering as a young girl navigating the Great Depression by dutifully helping her family by working in her father’s auto repair shop. She was proficient at welding at age 11, and she successfully overhauled her first V-8 engine at age 13. Passionate about learning more about mechanics and aeronautics, she intended to study engineering, but, in applying to Buffalo University’s School of Engineering, barriers quickly sprang up between her and her dreams. Feik vividly remembers when the registrar at Buffalo looked at her skeptically and told her that, because they could not handle the work, the school did not admit women.3. Her father, the man who kindled and nurtured Feik's passion for aeronautics and mechanics, managed to find her a job teaching aircraft maintenance. Eager to surmount the hurdles that blocked her from her goals, she applied for the job and was hired. At the time, she had no experience with airplanes, but she had faith in her ability to master them.4

At age 18, Feik moved to North Carolina, where she quickly picked up on the inner workings of airplanes. She began teaching maintenance to crew chiefs and mechanics in the U.S. Army Air Corps.5 In North Carolina, Mary quickly became skilled in aircraft maintenance and teaching, but grew frustrated by limited, obsolete equipment and inadequate instruction manuals. Feik also decided that she wanted a greater challenge. She sought assistance from experts at the Engineering Division of the Air Technical Service Command of Wright Field, Ohio, who immediately recognized her talents and bid her transfer to Dayton to work for the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), later the U.S. Air Force, as an engineering aide. Enthusiastic about this new challenge, Feik moved to Dayton. 6

As World War II was beginning, and military aviation was on the rise, Feik proved to be an incredible asset at Wright Field. She excelled in her work with the USAAF and her status was continually elevated. Despite this incredible trajectory, Feik had to, yet again, overcome a rough start. Feik noted that the all-male engineering staff at Wright Field strongly resisted the idea of a woman engineer, and refused to assign her a project for weeks. In a recent interview, she recalled, “Finally, one of the engineers saw me sitting on the bench one day and said, `Oh hell, I'll take her'". This chief engineer would not regret his decision.7

As a part of her work, Feik needed to know how to fly a plane, something she had not yet learned; however, as one of the most capable and respected mechanics on the crew, many of the pilots around her, all men, became her instructors.8 In addition to learning to fly, Feik also earned the designation of engineer. Despite having been rebuffed by engineering schools, and therefore missing her engineering education, Feik earned the title of engineer simply through her abilities on site.9 She became an expert on many military aircraft and is credited with becoming the first woman engineer in research and development in the Air Technical Service Command’s Engineering Division at Wright Field. She logged more than 6,000 flight hours as a test pilot in just about every military aircraft available.10 Upon mastering her engineering and flight skills, Feik began a project to convert planes into flight simulators, called “Captivairs.” One of her flight simulators became the prototype design for several types of high-performance fighter planes, according to the Civil Air Patrol.11 Feik not only developed these flight simulation lessons, but has also authored pilot training and operational manuals for many of the military aircraft and reports in engineering and the physical sciences for distribution throughout the nation.12

While working in Dayton, Mary married Bob Feik, the Chief Scientist and Director of Research for Army Air Forces Communications. 13 Mary and Bob adopted a baby girl who they would name Robin and settled in Annapolis, Maryland where Feik still remains. Although Feik had a family, she was definitely not the typical 1950s housewife.

Having chosen this rather rebellious life path Feik also experienced a series of push backs. Many doubted her ability as a woman working in a male-dominated field, but she always proved them wrong through her skill and hard work. At a Women’s History Month event at the Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Feik recalled one of these stories. She spoke of a sergeant who expressed doubts that she could deal with an aircraft’s engine block.

"How many engines have you overhauled?" she asked him.

"Ah, none," he answered.

"Well, I've done more than 30," she said.14

This engineer did not limit herself to her field, either; rather, she would continually branch out to serve her nation and her community. At the onset of the Korean War, Feik volunteered as a medic to help wounded and dying soldiers. During the Vietnam War, she learned about the psychological trauma that many returning soldiers faced, so Mary took classes at the University of Kansas to learn more about psychology and how to help these returning soldiers. Feik volunteered in the psychology wards at veteran’s hospitals. While other volunteers may have struggled to get these veterans to open up, Feik easily found common ground with many of these soldiers when she brought up her own long career with the U.S. Army Air Force.15

Feik retired from the Air Force in 1976, and immediately joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), an auxiliary of the Air Force, as a Senior Member.16 She jumped into working with the cadets at CAP, and found a new passion in teaching and speaking. She constantly travels with the CAP program as a mentor. Because of her dedicated, exemplary service with this organization, Feik achieved the rank of Colonel, was awarded a Distinguished Service Award, and granted a lifetime membership.17

Feik has received many awards for her prowess and her service, but she often points out that it is the CAP achievement ribbon named in her honor that is one of her greatest accomplishments. This honor cited her leadership and pioneering contributions to the world of aviation, and she joins the prestigious ranks of other trailblazers like Charles Lindbergh, Neil Armstrong, and Amelia Earhart, to name just a few. Feik is also the only woman other than Earhart to have an aviation award named in her honor, and the only living individual for whom a CAP award is named. Though she’s getting into her 80s, Feik continues to speak and mentor for CAP, as well as attend CAP ceremonies. She takes immense pleasure and pride in presenting her award to recipients. In fact, Feik has personally given the award to about 10,000 people.18 Feik finds joy in her work as a mentor with CAP, saying, "I have a commitment to pass on my skills… I'm not taking this to the grave."19

Feik is an accomplished mechanic, researcher, and educator, but after she retired, she also became an expert aircraft restorer who has helped work on famous planes for many collectors and museums. For ten years she worked with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Paul Garber Restoration Facility to refurbish planes from World Wars I and II. Her greatest challenge, she regaled, was with the SPAD XIII, a rare French-designed, American flown fighter aircraft. Despite the difficulties this project presented it was deemed fly-ready after Feik finished with the plane.20

Feik was honored by Women in Aviation International in their Pioneer Hall of Fame in 1994, and was later named one of the most influential women in the aviation and aerospace industry.21 In 1996, at the age of 72, Feik was the first woman to receive the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award, the most prestigious award issued by the Federal Aviation Administration that is only given to those who have worked 50 years or more as an aircraft mechanic.22

As one can imagine, Feik’s passion for flying has not waned in the least. "My love of airplanes hasn't diminished one single iota," she said. "It's still a thrill to watch a plane fly." 23 She continues to restore planes in the two garages off of her house in Annapolis. She still flies her Piper Comanche, and she is also a very active mentor for those future aviators, servicemen, servicewomen, pilots, and aeronautical engineers, often journeying a total of 30,000 miles annually to inspire young people to serve their communities and work in science and engineering fields.24 Feik’s passion and diligence in aviation have allowed her to consistently surpass other’s expectations for her and become both a pioneer of American flight and an inductee of the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.

Colonel Feik passed away at her home in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 10, 2016.



Endnotes:

  1. Joanne Alloway, “Mary Stan Feik,” A Quiet Strength: Inspirational Stories of Older American Woman, (Baltimore: Publish America, 2013), https://books.google.com/books?id=Adzlcg0y4nEC&pg=PA1&lpg=PA1&dq=A+Quiet+Strength:+Inspirational+Stories+of+Older+American+Women&source=bl&ots=GR1rhMXnH7&sig=qL5-wPidb0d6zky9VgZUz-lPRR0&hl=en&sa=X&ei=KVRnVb79KpXdsASU6oDwDQ&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=feik&f=false. Return to text.

  2. "Arundel Woman's Fondness for Flying Intact After 60 Years," The Sun, 28 October 1990, ProQuest (ISSN: 19308965).Return to text.

  3. Susan Gvozdas, "6 DECADES OF FLYING HIGH." The Sun, 28 August 2008, ProQuest (ISSN: 19439504). Return to text.

  4. Theresa Winslow, “Still winging it,” The Capital, 24 August 2008, News Bank (Ref. Number: 0438192271). Return to text.

  5. Ibid.Return to text.

  6. Ann Lewis Cooper and Sharon Rajnus, “Mary Stan Feik: A Matter of Mastery,” in Stars of the Sky, Legends All, https://books.google.com/books?id=MsP-Q9TPW0cC&pg=PA4&dq=Stars+of+the+Sky,+Legends+All:+Illustrated+Histories+of+Women+Aviation+Pioneers,&hl=en&sa=X&ei=wEhnVcuTIKa0sASQoYA4&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=mary%20feik&f=false. Return to text.

  7. "Arundel Woman's Fondness for Flying Intact After 60 Years." Return to text.

  8. Alloway, “Mary Stan Feik.” Return to text.

  9. Cooper and Rajnus, “Mary Stan Feik: A Matter of Mastery.” Return to text.

  10. Mary Feik’s Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame Nomination Packet. Return to text.

  11. Gvozdas, "6 DECADES OF FLYING HIGH." Return to text.

  12. "Arundel Woman's Fondness for Flying Intact After 60 Years." Return to text.

  13. Alloway, “Mary Stan Feik.” Return to text.

  14. Sarah Lesher, "Riveting Lesson on World War II ; Women: A Program at BWI Recalls the Contributions of the Country's Female Work Force during the War.; Anne Arundel," The Sun, 31 March 2004. ProQuest (ISSN: 19308965). Return to text.

  15. Alloway, “Mary Stan Feik.” Return to text.

  16. Ibid. Return to text.

  17. “My Time: Civil Air Patrol honors pilot’s 90th birthday,” The Capital, 13 April 2014. News Bank (Ref. Number: 0fca25d4-bf64-11e3-9ad5-00163ec2aa77). Return to text.

  18. Julie Debardelaben, “Happy Birthday, Col. Mary Feik!!” Civil Air Patrol: Cadet Blog, 10 February 2014, http://www.capmembers.com/cadet_programs/?happy_birthday_col_mary_feik&show=entry&blogID=1200. Return to text.

  19. David Brown, "What goes up ... - Cape woman is expert at restoring aircraft," The Capital. 17 August 1998, NewsBank. (Ref. Number: 94f7bb91a976138a4c9f47ee61cff1a1d6aebdfc). Return to text.

  20. Alloway, “Mary Stan Feik.” Return to text.

  21. “Women in Aviation's 100 most influential women in the aviation and aerospace industry,” Women in Aviation International, https://www.wai.org/pioneers/100women.cfm. Return to text.

  22. Cooper and Rajnus, “Mary Stan Feik: A Matter of Mastery.” Return to text.

  23. "Arundel Woman's Fondness for Flying Intact After 60 Years." Return to text.

  24. Debardelaben, “Happy Birthday, Col. Mary Feik!!” Return to text.

 Biography written by 2015 summer intern Amelia Meman.

Return to Mary S. Feik's Introductory Page


 
 
 


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