Fly girls: High school scholarship honors female pilot and flight instructor

  • Mary Shea with friends posing in front of a Piper Tri-Pacer at the former LaFleur Airport in Northampton. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Mary Shea’s radio days at WHYN while attending Holyoke High School. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • A young May Shea. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Barnes Airport in Westfield rolled out the red carpet for Mary Shea when she arrived in her all-time favorite airplane, the Cessna 152. SUBMITTED PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 3/19/2019 5:36:06 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A red carpet greeted Mary Shea when she touched down in her small Cessna 152 biplane at Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport on a sunny, spring afternoon last year. Usually reserved for pilots of larger aircrafts, the airport made an exception for Shea, who was a celebrity in the western Massachusetts aviation community for around half a century. Born and raised in Holyoke, Shea was a renowned pilot with a defined passion: sharing her love of flying with others. 

“When you got her talking about flying, she was very energetic,” said Rich MacIsaac, Northampton Aeronautics Inc. airport manager. “I always thought that her rapport with young students was amazing. She loved talking to them, telling them stories about flying and her experiences. She gave a unique perspective that others, including myself, couldn’t offer.”

This spring, the Northampton Airport will teach one young woman from either Northampton High School or Smith Vocational Tech to fly high like the beloved pilot with the Mary Shea Wright Flight Memorial Scholarship. The ideal candidate will be “a young woman who exhibits determination, focus and clarity towards achieving a goal” and who “is willing to commit the time and determination required to become a pilot,” according to the scholarship’s GoFundMe page, which cites the need for more women in aviation: “As of 2018, only 7 percent of all U.S. pilot certificates are held by women. Mary would be proud to have her name attached to a scholarship that would increase that percentage.”

The Northampton Airport set up the GoFundMe page with the goal of raising $10,000 to cover the costs of obtaining a private pilot’s license, including ground instruction, flight instruction, materials, a medical certificate and a flight  test. So far, the effort has raised $5,930 from 27 donations, and organizers are expecting more donations to come.

An early love of flying

Shea’s love of flying came from her father, a former military pilot who would take her to the airport at Barnes when she was a little girl. Together, they would stand at the fence and watch as planes soared into the sky, said Anne Reynolds, who was a close friend of the family.

Shea didn’t start flying herself until she was in her mid-20s. As a student at the Massachusetts School of Art in Boston, now named the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, she received her bachelor of arts degree in 1951. She later enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she studied English literature and education and became the editor of the Quarterly, a literary supplement to The Massachusetts Collegian that ran from 1938 to 1955.

Shea carried her love of English to Hopkins Academy in Hadley, where she worked as a teacher after graduating from UMass in 1954. In 1958 — five years after aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran became the first woman to break the sound barrier — Shea took her first solo flight, at the age of 26, at what was then known as the Atwood Airport in Northampton. The airport closed in 1966 when construction of Interstate 91 buried the grass runway.

After its closing, Shea, already an experienced pilot, began to fly at the Hatfield-Pilgrim Airport in Hatfield. She earned her private pilot license in 1966 and her commercial pilot license in 1970. Shea eventually left Hatfield-Pilgrim Airport to fly at Northampton Airport where she would spend three decades teaching and flying. 

Shea dedicated much of her time to various programs at the Northampton Airport, where she combined her love of both teaching and aviation. On weeknights, she could be found at the airport teaching ground school to her primary and instrument students, and on weekends, Shea held “Sunday School,” teaching pilots about aerodynamics, weather and regulations. The room was always packed.

Shea also volunteered to teach aviation history to middle school students in a STEM program, Northampton Airport Wright Flight, which aimed to inspire kids to enter the field of aviation in the future. 

Her commitment to teaching didn’t go unrecognized. A decorated pilot, Mary was recognized multiple times for her dedication to teaching and flying. The Federal Aviation Administration awarded her the General Aviation Flight Instructor of the Year in 1990. She received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award 24 years later, recognizing her for her “contributions to building, promoting and practicing safe flight operations for more than 50 consecutive years.” According to Reynolds, it was one of Shea’s proudest achievements. She was one of only 56 pilots in Massachusetts to have received the award since its creation in 2003.

Shea’s skill set wasn’t limited to only airplanes; she also knew how to fly helicopters, Reynolds said. Her other interests included gardening, golfing and aircraft scale modeling, “which she loved until the day she died,” Reynolds added.

As the co-founder the Eastern New England chapter of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots, Shea was an influential member of the female aviation community. The mission of the Ninety-Nines, to “promote the advancement of aviation through education, scholarships and mutual support,” aligned with her life’s work. 

Shea died of complications from knee surgery on May 18, 2018. She was 86 years old.

A few months before, Shea’s cousin and last-known direct relative died, according to Reynolds. However, Reynolds, who has always referred to Shea as her aunt, is dedicated to keeping Shea’s memory alive. 

“I would meet up for church with her every Saturday, and we just grew that bond,” said Reynolds, whose mother was Shea’s good friend from childhood. “We’re not related by blood or by marriage, but the eight kids in my family have always called her Aunt Mary.”

And then there is Shea’s flying family. Reynolds credits the Northampton Airport and their staff for honoring Shea’s life and legacy.

“They had a memorial service for her out there, they’re doing this scholarship for her. I can’t say enough about those people out at the airport,” Reynolds said. “Not only how much she meant to them, but how much they meant to her. They kept her going.”

The deadline for the Mary Shea Wright Flight Scholarship is April 1, 2019.

For more information regarding the scholarship requirements and application, visit the Northampton Airport website at


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