July 1, 2006
By Alton K. Marsh
How fast does a North American T-6 go? Ask Mary Dilda and she'll tell you 239 mph. That's the qualifying record she set in 2003, at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, so let's be exact: 239.398 mph. She won the T-6 class Gold championship in 1997 and 2005 and is one of only two women to have raced at Reno. Interesting note: Until last year she taught pilots to race at Reno, so some of the competitors she has beaten are men who attended the racing school where she and husband Steve are instructors.
The 1997 race was a sign of her growing respect at Reno, because it wasn't in her own T-6, the Two of Hearts, yet the aircraft's owner trusted her to beat all the men. She's actually won gold three times at Reno in three different airplanes; the 2003 win was in a Czech Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatross named Heartless. A cartoon presented to her that year shows a cool Dilda piloting the jet in the lead and chatting on a cell phone while painting her toenails. She placed second in the T-6 race that year, although she started the race at the back of the pack because of a blown cylinder during her second heat race.
You don't have to go to Reno to see her fly, though, since she has been on the airshow circuit since 1998 ( see her schedule on the Web). She takes the 5,000-pound T-6 through a graceful routine including her signature maneuver, two loops with a snap roll (horizontal spin) at the top of each. If the wind is right, the resulting smoke trail forms two hearts signifying the couple's passion for aviation. They both fly for Federal Express. She is a first officer on the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 and Steve recently upgraded to captain on the MD-11.
They met in the U.S. Air Force, where Mary was an aircraft commander pilot on the McDonnell Douglas C-9 Nightingale medical evacuation airplane and an instructor and examiner on the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter, and Steve was a Lockheed C-5A pilot and examiner.
When asked her age, she offered something less precise than her record qualifying Reno airspeed. "I've been flying 29 years," she said. And that will have to do.
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