The Danger Zone 

Is Memphis air racer Mary Dilda the fastest woman in the world?

What we¹re doing is so far beyond the skills and abilities of most pilots and crews,? says champion air racer Mary Dilda of Memphis. ?What we¹re doing is taking these planes and putting them far above their normal speeds and capabilities. We¹re experimenting with danger. Every person is getting ready to go beyond their limits but hoping they don¹t go too far beyond their limits, because if you go too far beyond your limits, you are never coming back.?

From Thursday, June 2nd, through Sunday, June 5th, Dilda will be in Tunica for the Tunica Air Races. She¹ll be competing in the world¹s fastest motorsport, racing her T-6 ³Texan,² the same versatile aircraft used to train most WWII pilots, against a field of like-minded adrenaline junkies hoping to take home the first-ever Tunica Cup.

Dilda, 44, has a head of blond hair and an infectious school-girl giggle that masks the steely confidence of a seasoned racer with a history of winning. Among commercial pilots, 98 percent are men. In the world of air racing ‹ admittedly small with only 150 competitors ‹ she is a woman alone. She grew up in New Mexico with a father who she describes as one of the most talented single-engine pilots she¹s ever known. From the beginning she knew she would be a pilot, sort of.

³I wanted to be a fashion designer [where] I would fly my plane from show to show,² she says. ³And then I wanted to be an interior designer, and I would fly my plane from house to house. And then I wanted to be a physical therapist, and I would fly my plane from hospital to hospital. And then one day I realized that I just wanted to fly.²

Dilda became a licensed pilot at 18 and a certified flight instructor shortly thereafter. She went to Oklahoma State, the only college she could find that offered a degree in anything other than aviation education. She studied aviation marketing, hoping to build a career in airplane sales, but at the time of her graduation fuel prices were skyrocketing and sales were dropping through the basement. Besides, she really wanted to fly jets, so she joined the U.S. Air Force where she flew a C-9 Nightingale and a C-141 Starlifter. The Air Force is also where she met pilot Steve Dilda, who became her husband and her partner in speed. In 1994, Steve and Mary, now civilians, moved to Memphis to train FedEx pilots.

³My husband always wanted to be an air-show pilot,² Dilda says. So, the couple bought a WWII plane, named it Baby Blue, and entered the world of stunt flying. Six months later, they became racers. ³The plan was that we would take turns. I was going to race the first year, and Steve was going to race the second year.² But after the first go-round it became clear that Mary was to be the racer in the family: ³We decided that a pretty blond female would get a lot more attention.² In ¹97, Dilda won the gold in the T-6 class. She¹s placed in the top three for the last five years. ³And the guys HATE it,² she says, exploding into a fit of giggles.

Dilda talks to her plane: ³You take care of me, Baby Blue, and I¹ll take care of you.² She understands its personality: ³The more you fly, the more in tune you become with its vibrations and the sensitivity of the throttle. You become immediately aware of anything out of the ordinary. I¹m not mechanically minded like some [pilots] who can explain every detail in mechanical terms. I just Œstrap it on.¹ I get in tune with my plane. I know where I need to put it, and I put it there.²

It¹s the moments immediately preceding a race that get Dilda in the zone. Six airplanes are lined up wingtip to wingtip, and the pilots are watching the pace plane. The pilots, she says, are ³somewhere in the stack, jockeying back and forth. And then you hear the words, ŒLadies and gentlemen, we have a race.¹² From that point on, the racers are in a 70- to 90-degree bank at speeds approaching 250 mph, going around a five-mile oval 100 feet up. Their course is marked by telephone poles.

³You don¹t really see the speed unless you¹re passing and you have to look down to keep your distance,² Dilda says. ³You have to be a good pilot who can fly in formation. If you want to win, you have to have an ego, but it can¹t get in the way of safety. We¹ve had mid-airs.²

The sport of air racing has traditionally been limited to a single event in Reno, Nevada. But event promoter Jeff Landers hopes to enlarge the sport by making the Tunica Air Races a regular event. In addition to the T-6 class, the Tunica races will also include Formula One, for experimental home-built airplanes that reach speeds up to 200 mph, and Unlimited Class, featuring propeller-driven WWII aircraft that reach speeds in excess of 500 mph. n

For more information on the Tunica Air Races, go to TunicaAirRaces.com.

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