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Original Issue


At 83 and still very much in control, Marion Rice Hart bombs around in her Bonanza, often shooting down FAA rules

Not long ago a single-engine Beech-craft Bonanza took off from Mérida, on the Yucatan peninsula, and headed across the Gulf of Mexico for the Florida Keys. Through an error, Mexican authorities did not file the plane's flight plan, and the Bonanza turned up on U.S. radar as an unidentified aircraft approaching Cuba. Military jets were dispatched to identify the plane and escort it to Key West. A cordon of police surrounded the plane even before it came to a stop. As its door opened, one officer turned to another and said, "Jeez, will you get a look at the pilot! She's a little old lady!"

Marion Rice Hart, the pilot, is indeed a little old lady, though at 83 the description makes her cringe almost as much as when she is called "Widow Hart" or a "flying grandmother." She is quick to point out that she is neither. While she has no objections to motherhood other than that it leads to grandmotherhood, she has never been a mother, and she was divorced, not widowed, from a fellow named Hart whom she did object to because he insisted on asking her why she could not act like other women.

"Now, instead of being asked why I don't act like other women," she says, "people are always asking why I don't act my age. What has age to do with the way people act? I have no idea what other people my age are doing. I don't know any."

The truth is that Marion Hart has never acted her age, or like other women, and she has no intention of changing the habits of a lifetime. She has been a geologist, physicist, chemical engineer, artist, author, sculptress, surveyor, sailor and short-wave operator. She has worked in a copper mine in Arizona, served as a radio operator on a B-17, run a locomotive on the Southern Pacific, captained a 72-foot ketch to the Indian Ocean and beyond and flown her single-engine aircraft across the Atlantic seven times. Admittedly her solo landings in such distant places as Ceylon, Nepal, Jordan and Kuwait during the 11 months she recently spent winging around the globe evoked almost as much astonishment as her unexpected appearance on military radar, but as far as she is concerned, the flight was very ordinary.

There is little ordinary about Marion Hart. Nothing about the strong, self-assured voice, the lean, athletic appearance, the penetrating, intent gaze, the carefully styled brunette hair suggests an octogenarian. Seeing her in her Washington, D.C. apartment before a map of her wanderings, bare legs propped up on a coffee table strewn with navigational charts, flight manuals and a dissertation on wake turbulence, one realizes that the idea of offering to help her across the street is as preposterous as offering to drive A. J. Foyt home. Marion Hart may be little, old and a lady—she even wears tennis shoes, often patched with pieces of discarded inner tubes—but there the comparisons end.

"I was brought up to believe what you did mattered, not what you didn't," she says. "I am doing today what I have always done, which is what I want to do. There's nothing unusual about that."

The fourth of six children of Julia Barnett and Isaac Leopold Rice, Marion came naturally by her talent to be different. Her father, who attended the Paris Conservatory of Music, was poor, reduced to giving music lessons, when he met her piano-playing mother. She was the daughter of wealth and position. So far, the story is classic. Isaac's solution to his problem was not. After polling his friends as to who were the richest people they knew, he concluded that lawyers not musicians earned the most money and promptly enrolled at Columbia Law School. While he studied law Julia studied medicine and was graduated in 1883, a rare accomplishment for a woman of her time. "Mother thought the knowledge would come in handy in having and raising children," Marion says.

Once out of law school, Rice's fortune grew even faster than his family. After teaching and then lending a hand in the founding of the School of Political Science at Columbia, he went on to become one of the most prominent railroad lawyers in the U.S. From railroads he moved into industry, acquiring, among other successful ventures, companies that produced the first electric automobile, the first submarine, the first electric refrigerators, the first dried-milk products and the first taxi service in New York. His Electric Boat Company is known today as General Dynamics.

The six Rice children grew up in a zany confusion of opulent hotels, transatlantic voyages, revolving tutors, harried servants and disbe ieving neighbors. Numbered among the family's friends were the King of Spain, the Czar of Russia, the King of Sweden, Madame Curie, President McKinley and Pope Pius X. On one occasion the family was invited to the private Vatican apartment of Cardinal Merry del Val, who bounced the younger ones on his knee and entertained them with stories. "We were so taken with him," said sister Dorothy, who with her husband Hal Sims later became one of the most famous bridge-playing couples in the world, "that we all wanted to become cardinals."

"One of the amazing things about that family," says Dr. Paul Perez, a second cousin and professor of psychology at Colby College, "is that at an early age every one of the kids chose a life-style. Each was enormously intelligent and curious, and the father was willing to underwrite just about any interest any of them came up with. One had a seven-day bicycle racer for a tutor; another a three-cushion billiard player. Every one of them, including the girls—who were nicknamed Polly, Dolly, Molly and Lolly—grew up on a daily diet of calculus and chess. They used to spend hours as kids challenging each other to complex mental contests."

They had more than enough outside competition, since Rice was the president of the Manhattan Chess Club. The Rice Gambit is named after him, as are countless chess clubs around the world. When the eldest daughter, Dolly, showed a talent for writing poetry, he founded the Poetry Society of America, and then set up a salon in the grand ballroom of their 22-room apartment at the Ansonia Hotel which Theodore Dreiser, Richard Le Gallienne, Gertrude Atherton, Richard Watson Gilder and Frank Harris (always in white tie and tails) regularly attended. When the second daughter, Polly, took up motorcycle racing he built her a garage.

Of the six children, Molly, as Marion was called, was the most introspective. When she was not reading, a pursuit to which none of the others was addicted, she spent hours studying the excavations that blasted, burrowed and probed into the rocky innards of the city. At 15 she came upon a magazine account of the railroad that was being built across the Andes and decided she wanted to be an engineer. At 16, with three months of intensive tutoring behind her, she entered Barnard College where she stayed for two years before transferring to M.I.T. There her interest in railroads gave way to a fascination for chemistry. In 1913 she became the first woman to receive a chemical engineering degree from M.I.T.—or as far as anyone can determine, from anywhere else.

It was pre-World War I, there was a recession, and the chemical-engineering world did not need Marion Rice. She went to work instead as a physicist in the research lab of General Electric but was soon so bored that she quit to take a masters in geology at Columbia. This led eventually to a husband and the copper-mining camp in Arizona.

After Fifth Avenue mansions and European castles, home on the range proved more horror than heaven. Marriage, mining and Mr. Hart were more than she had bargained for, and Marion returned with no regrets to more sophisticated surroundings. In 1926 she bought a villa in Montfavet, France and took up painting and sculpture. "She was a better sculptress than painter," says Paul Perez, "but she approached art the way she approaches everything else in life. She learns everything she can about a subject, writes a book or an article, and having mastered it drops it like a hot potato. She was a fine photographer at one time, with a studio of professional equipment. She worked on a geodetic survey of West Point for the U.S. Army. And during World War II she was a radio instructor."

She was equally erratic in strictly female pursuits. "On the day of her wedding," a sister once recalled, "Molly suddenly remembered she needed a trousseau. She decided to start with a pair of new shoes, but just the thought of buying shoes was so discouraging that she compromised on a shine." On the family's grand tours through Europe she traveled light, seldom with a hat or a spare piece of underwear. She said they complicated her life. Her attitude toward clothes remains unchanged. She has designed a dress for all seasons—shapeless, sacklike, drip-dry with huge zippered pockets for carrying passports and flight manuals. When she needs one, she has it made up wherever she happens to be. Her sneakers are always worn until they are threadbare, and she has been known to sew large rhinestone buttons over holes in the toes.

"She has a tough streak of self-discipline," Paul Perez notes, "and extraordinary determination, but I don't think she had ever felt any sort of pressure to accomplish specific goals. If someone said to her, 'Do this and you will be the first woman...' she probably would not do it. She has never had any interest in setting marks or breaking records, and she gets annoyed when people try to make her out as some kind of female member of the Explorers Club. She once came within minutes of setting a gliding record for continuous time aloft, and then to everyone's astonishment, landed minutes from the mark. When somebody asked her why, she said, 'I had to go to the john.' It was as simple as that. When she bought a boat in 1936 to cruise the Mediterranean, she had no intention of spending the next three years sailing it around the globe from London to New York. It just happened."

At the time she was 44 and disenchanted with villas and sculpture and artists and gardens. "I was tired of being responsible for so many things and people," she explained. "I wanted to live a carefree life and drift around the world. In a flash I saw how to do it. I would buy a yacht."

Once previously she had taken a cruise, three weeks through the Greek Islands with a full crew. The captain had never put the sails up "because they had to come down again so soon." More challenged than daunted by her lack of expertise, she settled after several months' search on a ketch named Vanora, which was built along the lines of the Fife trollers that came out of Scotland at the end of the last century. It had an 18-foot-wide steel hull, drew nine feet, was 33 years old and had been rusting in a yard on the Isle of Wight for six years. When estimates to put Vanora in sailing shape proved too high, Marion enlisted the help of several artist friends and with chisel, hammer and paintbrush spent the next three months doing the job herself.

Hiring a captain presented a knottier problem. Her first was fired while still in the shipyard when he turned out to be even more inexperienced than she. The second sailed the boat into a storm and almost wrecked it before leaving the English Channel. He compounded the situation by taking to his bed seasick. Marion took the wheel and with the help of her mates and 15-year-old Perez, who stayed with the Vanora throughout her three-year voyage, managed to get to Brest. "Everything that could break did," she says. "The stores were ruined, the crew was drunk, the captain was fired."

"Next to getting married," she later wrote in her book Who Called That Lady a Skipper? (The Vanguard Press), "there is nothing quite so aweinspiring in its finality as choosing a captain for a long voyage."

The book, basically a compilation of letters she wrote home from sea, chronicled a voyage that took her through two additional captains and a course in navigation, self-taught on the Mediterranean between Gibraltar and the Greek Islands. She finally decided to man the ship herself and forget about outside help.

"By the time we reached the Gulf of Suez and I had fired the third captain," she says, "I knew how to read a sextant and figured, with 1,500 miles to practice in, that I could not get very lost in the Red Sea. Instead of going back to England, I just sailed on."

Throughout her account of the voyage of Vanora, Marion's sense of humor and her impatience with stupidity and pretension are evident. She made a tough and respected captain.

Those who have flown with her say the same thing. "As a pilot, she does a lot of things right," says Leighton Collins, former owner and editor of Air Facts magazine.

Collins recalls meeting Marion for the first time back in 1946. "She was having trouble learning to fly, or more accurately, finding someone to teach her. This was after the war. The instructors who were available were not much interested in teaching a woman. She'd had several, all of whom treated her like a cranky lady. I don't doubt that she gave them a hard time. She is not the type to be shown how without also being told why. Since she probably knew more, in theory, about flight than they did, her endless questions must have driven them to quit.

"I asked her why she wanted to fly, and she said she wanted to buy a plane and fly it places. I said 'O.K. See a man called Jim Welsch, and then buy a Cessna.' A month later I got a postcard from Cuba. I was shocked. I called Welsch immediately and said, 'Is that woman safe? Can she navigate?' "

Collins had no way of knowing then that she was an expert navigator before she ever started to fly. Not long after the three-year voyage of Vanora, she had written a book on celestial navigation. How to Navigate Today (Cornell Maritime Press), now in its fifth edition, is still considered an outstanding manual for small-boat sailors and beginning aviators. In its forward she explains: "This book makes no pretense of being an exhaustive scientific study of navigation. It is not intended to discipline the mind, nor train the character. It does claim to give the essentials necessary for intelligent navigation."

"That is exactly what the book does," says retired TWA Pilot and Aviation Writer Robert N. Buck, "which is why it is still around. It is excellent. Marion took a scientific field, which had a morass of technical writing by learned geniuses who were only trying to show off what they knew, and translated it into terms that are understandable."

Writing has been the one pursuit to which Marion Hart has been most faithful. In over 25 years of writing for Air Facts she has developed a broad-based and generally appreciative audience of aviation enthusiasts who regularly pick up their magazines to find out where she has been lately, or what restricted area she has inadvertently flown into, or what battle she is currently waging with whom.

"She is a great nitpicker," says Collins, "especially where the FAA is concerned, but she also performs a genuine service for aviation. She can find a flaw in practically any regulation it makes, and she is not at all shy about pointing mistakes out."

"Some people who read about her latest contretemps with government may snicker and laugh," says Buck, "but most of them are pretty proud of her. She has a tremendously analytical mind, and she devotes a lot of study to determining what can be done to improve flying in general. This means getting at government and the FAA. They may scream, but a lot of their rules need getting at and a lot of people in aviation respect Marion for getting at them."

Recently the new management of Air Facts began editing her copy. Four articles that appeared in the past two years have not only been cut but rewritten in a prose style distinctly not hers. "Just read this," she says, making sure that the articles are out of reach. "I wrote, I puzzled....' They changed it to 'The inner pilot in me puzzled....' Isn't that disgusting? I sent a letter saying the proper place for editors' comments is in a footnote properly annotated."

Marion obviously makes no effort to hide her scorn for editors. "When I wrote my flying book," she says, "do you know what they wanted to call it? With a Powder Puff in My Cockpit." Pity the editor who came up with that one.

The book—I Fly As I Please—was published by Vanguard in 1953 and is a lively, frequently funny account of her adventures in the air and her observations above and on the ground. In it she writes: "People fly for a variety of reasons, but speaking personally I have never had that intoxicating sense of freedom in the air that is so movingly described by most writers on flying. I don't feel in the least like a bird and have no desire to dart and swoop, not to mention the fact that a plane is rather a clumsy instrument for such endeavors, being considerably less maneuverable, even if higher powered, than a swallow."

Marion has spent little time on the ground since taking to the air. She has flown over virtually every square mile of the U.S., over much of South and Central America, Europe and Africa. In the early years she made the ocean crossings with co-pilots, usually choosing off-duty commercial pilots here or in Europe. After the completion of her first successful solo crossing at 74, she decided she had no future need for co-pilots. "They just take up room," she says. "If you have a co-pilot who is a better pilot than you, then you are just a passenger. If he is not as good as you, then he is just a nuisance. If the plane is already overloaded, there is no reason to add another 160 pounds to it."

She often refuses to carry a life raft although officials repeatedly insist that she must. "Flying across the North Atlantic, the water is 37°," she says. "How long will you last sitting in a rubber tub?"

She prefers to carry her extra weight in gasoline. With its auxiliary tanks, her Bonanza has a 2,300-mile range that is enough to fly detours around bad weather. She does carry a survival kit of sorts. It consists of a Boy Scout hunting knife, a quart canteen of water, a flashlight, a book of matches and, when flying over jungle, a can of Flit and a machete. Fortunately, she has never needed to use it.

"I'll tell you an amazing story about her," says Leighton Collins. "I knew a physicist who, like Marion, was a nut about single-engine aircraft. He crossed the ocean nearly as frequently as she did. With their scientific backgrounds, it seemed natural to get them together. I introduced them one day in New York, and they decided to fly up to Boston together in a new plane he borrowed while his was being repaired. En route the engine failed, and they had to come down in a field in Connecticut. As they were approaching ground Marion asked quietly, 'Are you going to put the landing gear down?' He did, they made a perfect landing, and they both dismissed the incident."

It is not Marion Hart's nature to worry. "I can't say I was ever so frightened I was hysterical," she says, "but things happen. A bird flew into a wing and ripped it open in Ethiopia. On my first Bonanza the main spar that holds the wings on cracked in flight. Fortunately, the wings did not fall off until I was on the ground. I had two radios on the trip last year and lost both of them between Ceylon and Pakistan. Before I managed to get where I was going by dead reckoning, I inadvertently flew through a military zone closed to air traffic.

"Then, coming into Iceland my communications receiver went bad. At the same time the Iceland beacon went off the air. I did not know whether the beacon, my radio, or what, was out. When I passed the weather ship they told me I was on a course I did not expect to be on. I decided my compass must be faulty. I reached up and felt a drop of compass fluid. But I had eight hours of gas left, so I could not very well declare an emergency. I just kept going, and fortunately, Iceland turned up.

"People always ask me about close calls," she says. "My answer to that is 'nothing fatal.' "

She is even more positive when asked about being lost. "I have never been lost," she snaps. "Only mislaid."

It is difficult to imagine Marion Rice Hart being lost or mislaid anywhere, but it is even more difficult to imagine her ever slowing down. Age, after all, is for old people, and Marion Hart is 83 years young.