Sunday, May 11, 2014
Marion Jayne and her daughter Patricia
By Patricia Jayne Keefer, WAI 6315
It was 20 years ago on May 1 that we launched from Montreal for the first day of the 24-day round the world Air Race. I remember that on Mother’s Day we were receiving the first place award for the race leg from Istanbul, Turkey to Dubai, United Arabic Emirates. It had taken ten hours and 54 minutes over Turkey, around Iraq over Iran and the Persian Gulf above 15,000 feet without enough oxygen for both of us. As Mother’s Day approaches, Mom-memories come flooding back to me. 

Mom is Marion Jayne, legendary cross country race pilot, founder of four pilot-skilled speed air races and three other businesses. Before she was Mom, she was that little girl from Chicago that took the swimming world by storm and went to the Olympic Swim Trials at age 13. Before she was Mom, she was invited to ride for Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet. Before she was Mom, she married at 17, and as a professional equestrienne she was one of the first to jump a horse over a seven-foot fence. She was already flying high.

She learned to fly at the same time as Dad (George). They knew it would be easier for both of them to reach nationwide Horse Show judging commitments. She found a new talent. She was 39 and a mom to four. In short order she was famous for her cross country racing expertise as she earned her private, instrument, commercial, instructor, and airline transport pilot (ATP) certificates in just five years. In 1970, Flying magazine put her in the same category as Amelia Earhart, and ironically this was prophetic. In December 1969, we were told she was the 12th woman to earn her ATP rating. Who knew that with such a “late” start in flying she would be recognized as one of the 100 Aviation Heroes in the First Century of Flight at the 2003 Kitty Hawk Centennial Celebration with the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart, John Glenn, and Sally Ride; be inducted into the WAI Pioneer Aviation Hall of Fame; be nominated to the National Aviation Hall of Fame; and be inducted into the Ninety-Nines International Forest of Friendship in two different states. She is honored with her own exhibit cabinet at the 99s Museum for Women Pilots in Oklahoma City.

She made life look easy even though she had significant challenges. As young parents of three children under the age of five, George and Marion returned from their first family vacation to find their home burned to the ground. Later, she was widowed at 44 with three children still to support and no income. She survived by building, owning, and profitably operating an indoor tennis club. She was a self-made woman and figured out that with sponsors and her track record of winning air races, she could afford to keep the 1970 Piper Twin Comanche they’d bought just eight months before Dad died.

Mom with the airplane and trophies in a photo for her Speed Queen sponsor. These were just a few of her trophies won under their sponsorship in the All Women's International Air Race nicknamed "the Angel Derby."

Founding four air races and an aviation gift catalog, serving on airport boards and holding the world record for the most pilot-skilled speed cross country race victories set her apart from other pilots. She won the races with her awesome flight skills and a Civil Air Patrol Cessna 172, a rented Piper Cherokee Warrior, a vintage Beech Bonanza and her famed Piper Twin Comanche. She won them: flying solo, with other pilots, with family members, and she won them with me. When I was a teenager, I thought all moms raced planes. 

Me is child two of four. Initially, I was a nervous kid who sat in the back of the plane and chewed her nails.

The 1971 race from Columbus, Ohio to Managua, Nicaragua made the largest change in my life. It was six months after Dad died. I took a bus ride from college and visited Mom in Columbus before the race started. For the first time, I recognized her as an adult. She and United Airlines Instructor Doris Langher were on the floor of the Holiday Inn studying their charts with breaks only for TV weather forecasts. Clearly, Mom was a talented pilot and skilled strategist. Their efforts were so intense that Mom didn’t notice that I read Sex and the Single Girl and tossed it in the trash in the same room. That’s when I learned that flying is as much about preparation, experience, and judgment as it is about flying the airplane. Mom and Doris won that race.

That summer I worked at the Elgin, Illinois airport. During lunch and after work, Mom taught me to fly. It was racing that cemented our relationship as teammates. I was only one of many she inspired and encouraged to do their best at whatever challenge they pursued. 

Airplane made three. We won races using other planes but most of the time the airplane we raced was/is the 1970 Piper Twin Comanche that my husband and I still fly today. My parents bought it for business and took possession of it on their 26th wedding anniversary. Before today’s electronic navigation aids, racing a fast twin was a disadvantage because staying on course was so difficult. Before the term “cockpit resource management” was invented, we were doing it. Mom had all the aircraft flight controls with weather responsibilities and I handled navigation, fuel management, and communications. We laughed that I could “tell her where to go” and that was a good thing. It was amazing to me that she trusted me to pre-flight the Twin by myself when I was a 50-hour pilot. She trusted me with her life and her airplane. 

This same Twin Comanche survived to carry us as we competed in the oldest and slowest plane in the pilot-skilled speed 1994 World Air Race. With a combined 49 years of racing experience, 11 months of preparations, awesome teamwork and a sturdy plane flying at FAA permitted 27 percent over the manufacturer’s allowed weight with 252 gallons on board in 11 fuel tanks, we won the FAI Gold Medal in the longest race in history. The 24-day competition was the most effective diet ever and produced a 15 percent weight loss—for us, not the airplane. Despite maximum power non-stop flights of over 11 hours in jungle heat, arctic cold, icing, thunderstorms and the edge of a monsoon, the Twin kept running. Like 80 percent of the racers coming out of India, Mom had gotten New Delhi Belly (later than most) and went to Japan in an organizers’ aircraft. Mom said the hardest part for her was watching the Twin’s extremely long take-off roll in steamy Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She knew if I could get the plane off the ground with the heavier co-pilot and more forward center of gravity, I’d get the Twin across the South China Sea to Okinawa—even if I had yet to earn my instrument rating. The Twin had helped us win 10 of 12 race legs by small margins. The exception was a huge margin of victory on the Alaskan leg because of our knowledge of where the Twin performed best coupled with Mom’s creative strategy and my navigation. So far, this Twin Comanche is one of only two planes and Mom the only U.S. pilot to have raced twice around the world.

As I walked past the aisle of Mother’s Day cards this week, I realized the combination of Mom and me and the airplane was a triangle that inspired and motivated me to realize I could grasp more of life than I would have if I’d been left to my own devices with a degree in Physics and an MBA. I wasn’t alone. My younger sister, Nancy, thought the air racing thing looked pretty cool so Mom taught her to fly. To the best of my knowledge Mom and Nancy were the first mother-daughter team to fly/race an airplane around the world. They teamed again to found (and now, Nancy continues to run) Tailwinds, Catalog of the Skies at My husband thought flying was neat; so yes, he learned to fly from his mother-in-law. Makes you smile, doesn’t it?

It is easy to reminisce about all the other fun things Mom taught me—how to tie my shoes, which way was east, how to ride a horse, how to have a rich, wonderful marriage and also be respected for your own contributions and how to die. Not many people talk about the last of an accomplished person’s life but when someone does it so well, I think it is uplifting to hear how at least one person handled the difficult and scary process.

Non-smoking, teetotaling Mom was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer after a 4-hour surgery to remove an abdominal mass. She was given 20 percent odds for 5 more years if she had 8 more hours of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. She considered what her quality of life would be and declined further curative treatment. Since I had Healthcare Power of Attorney, a room of a dozen well-intentioned medical professionals lobbied me for two hours to overrule her decision—because, after all, “she’s older” and “she doesn’t really understand.” I finally stood up, reminded them that just two years earlier we’d won the world air race gold medal with Mom as pilot in command for all but one leg, that she may have had recent surgery but she was in full command of her mental faculties and I supported her right to decide about her future.

During the 79 days from diagnosis to death, Mom organized her affairs, flew in each child, her older sister and all 7 grandchildren for a Texas visit. She did not complain or lament and only asked that people send funny cards. With my husband’s backing, IBM’s blessing, the support of friends, family, Mom’s doctor, hospice and Meals on Wheels, I lived and worked at Mom’s home (four blocks from ours) and kept her as comfortable as possible.

The day before she died—of course at the time, you don’t know that it is the day before—my sister Linda came down from Chicago to give me a break. By this time Mom had maybe 20 good minutes in a day, rarely spoke and when she did talk, it was in a whisper. My sister’s youngest son called to report he was home from school and started to cry because he knew his Mom was there to help his dying Grandmother. His anguish was audible across the room and our Mom held her hand out for the phone.

Somehow she found her normal voice and with some effort said, “Jonathan, I want you to be happy for me. I will be free from pain and I will see your grandfather. You don’t know your grandfather, but I love him and have missed him for many years.” She handed the phone back. Sometime during the night, she died.

Thank you to so many friends that have encouraged me to write down the Mom memories. Mom, Marion Jayne, was such an inspiration to so many that we were flooded with Marion stories long after her death and I continue to hear new ones. I’ll close with a quote from Ohio’s Jeanne Wolcott’s condolence letter, “Whenever I saw Marion’s feats, I felt like they were the accomplishments of all women pilots.”

It looks like it will be a Texas blue-sky day today and a good day to fly. When I fly that famous Twin Comanche airplane and have an especially good landing, I think of the woman who taught me and when mom and me and airplane made three.

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