Willmar woman was one of state’s first female pilots

If your name is engraved on a plaque alongside the likes of Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle, and Sally Ride, you know you are in elite company.

But Mary Jane Rice, of Willmar, doesn’t consider herself special, despite being honored over the years by several aviation and aerospace organizations.

“I was just someone who loved to fly,” she said, with an endearing smile.

Mary Jane Rice holding a photo of herself seated in a UPF-7 Waco open cockpit around 1947. Rice was one of the first female pilots in the state of Minnesota. Photo by Scott Thoma

Rice is one of the first female pilots in Minnesota history. The 97-year-old earned her private pilot’s license in 1940, just three years after Earhart disappeared while attempting a circumnavigational flight around the globe.

“I would have loved to have met her,” Rice said about the famous pilot. “She was in the Cities in 1935 peddling the book she had written, but I wasn’t able to make it there to see her.”

Rice’s interest in flying began as a teenage school girl in Hector, where she was born in 1919. A high school classmate of hers, Allen Kirkpatrick, often talked about airplanes, and eventually, Rice became intrigued by what life was like among the clouds.

“My dad and I took an airplane ride with Glen Clark, and I got the bug for flying from that first ride,” she explained. “I rode with Glen for four hours after that, and he showed me some of the basics of flying. He didn’t even have a pilot’s license or a plane license, but that wasn’t uncommon in those days.”

At age 19, Rice took her first “official” flying lessons from Jack Robinson, of Redwood Falls, a licensed pilot who was also a flight instructor.

“My dad got the bug, too, after the first flight with Glen he took with me, and he agreed to let me take flying lessons,” Rice said. “Women flying planes was frowned upon in those days, but my dad was so supportive.”

Rice only stood 5-foot 3-inches and couldn’t reach the rudder in Robinson’s plane, so wood blocks were added.

After surpassing the required 40 hours of flight time, Rice obtained her pilot’s license in 1940.

“I remember the first time I soloed,” she recalled. “Jack landed in a field somewhere and got out and told me ‘Now, Mary Jane, you will fly solo now,’ and he gave me some instructions. I really wasn’t nervous, but I wanted him to stop talking and let me go before he changed his mind.”

It was also in Hector that she met her husband, John, who also became a pilot. The two were married in 1946 and eventually moved to Willmar.

When World War II was raging, Mary Jane wanted to do her part to help the United States military.

“I wanted to fly in the worst way, but not in combat,” she said with a chuckle. “I wanted to ferry airplanes from the factories to the air bases in the United States.”

Rice had all the qualifications, but she was still turned away.

“I thought everything checked out, and I was going to get to ferry the planes,” she remarked. “And just when I was getting ready to leave, they asked me how much I weighed.”

Pilots were required to be at least 5-foot 3-inches and had to weigh a minimum of 112 pounds. During a physical at the Naval Airport in Minneapolis, Rice just made the height qualification. But she fell short of the weight requirement as she tipped the scales at just under 100 pounds.

Meanwhile, John Rice had been named the manager of the Willmar Municipal Airport beginning on Aug. 1, 1945, and remained in that capacity until 1980. Bruce Jaeger, the Rices’ son-in-law who married their daughter, Janet, then managed the airport over the next 30 years.

The Rices’ other daughter, Laurie, also became a pilot.

In honor of John’s dedicated service to the airport, the Willmar City Council named the airport property John L. Rice Field. His name was emblazoned in large sky blue letters on the front of the main hangar.

Mary Jane was also an important figure at the airport, but kept a lower profile. Although her title was listed as secretary/treasurer of the airport, she was much more than that. When her husband was away, Mary Jane became the unofficial airport manager.

“I did just about everything there,” she laughed. “I took care of the business. I would be flying when I could spare the time.”

When the Rices first ran the airport, it included only a sod field, a windsock and a hangar built by the National Youth Administration that was big enough to house a DC-3 plane.

“The Mid-Continent Airlines used the field  for emergency landings between Watertown, S.D., and Minneapolis,” Rice said. “Planes could land anywhere in the boundaries set up. It was also first used as a farmer’s field, but he couldn’t plant corn. It could only be low crops so the planes could land if they had to.”

The Rices also co-founded Willmar Air Service, Inc. in 1946.

“We offered flight instruction, airplane rentals, fuel, and mechanical work,” said Mary Jane. “We even sold planes.”

A paved 75-foot by 3,500-foot runway was added in 1956 for $120,000, with the city getting state and federal assistance. A repair shop was also built at the airport that year.

John Rice passed away in 2004.

When the city of Willmar built a new airport in 2006, the old airport remained standing. The unused hangars, shops, office and beacon still remain today.

Pat Curry, a family friend who is also the chairman of the Willmar Airport Commission, was instrumental in urging the city of Willmar to have John Rice’s name memorialized at the new airport west of town.

“When I was making a cross-country flight in 1956 and I needed landing instructions a Willmar,” Curry said, “a lady was answering the radio, and it was Mary Jane. I became good friends with John and Mary Jane after that.”

The entrance sign to the new airport bears John L. Rice’s name. Photo by Scott Thoma

Four years ago, the Willmar Municipal Airport sign leading into the airport included John L. Rice Field. There is also a larger sign bearing his name near the runway that is clearly visible to planes landing at the airport.

Curry is still attempting to get the beacon from the old airport moved to the new airport, but red tape has made his attempts unsuccessful to this point.

Mary Jane’s prowess with airplanes and flying has earned her numerous honors. Among them was admission to the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame, where she and her husband were inducted in 1994.

And on June 22, 2013, Mary Jane was inducted into the Forest of Friendship Organization, which is a memorial to the world history of aviation and aerospace. A large tract of land in Atchison, Kan., contains trees from all 50 states and 35 countries. Honorees such as Rice, Earhart, Lindbergh, Doolittle, Ride and the seven astronauts who were killed in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster are among those with their names engraved on granite plaques throughout the site.

“It’s an honor to be included with Amelia Earhart and all the others,” said Rice. “It’s really a beautiful place with all those trees.”

Rice was nominated for the award by the Minnesota Chapter of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of female pilots founded by Earhart that Rice has been a member of since 1939.

Today, Rice lives in a comfortable retirement home in Willmar. Her memory is still sharp, especially when it comes to recalling the names of various planes she’s flown and the dates of events that have happened during her life. Her voice is strong, and her charm even stronger.

She hasn’t flown a plane for over 25 years and last rode in a plane around five years ago. But her love for planes and flying still exist today.

“I miss flying. There is nothing more beautiful than looking at earth from the sky,” she remarked. “It’s never the same when you are up in the air. Every day is different. The clouds are different, and the perspective is different every time you go up.”

Rice clutches a photo of herself as a young pilot wearing an aviator’s cap with the goggles resting on top. She is flashing the same warm smile in the photo that she possesses today.

“When I look at the picture it brings back a lot of memories,” she said. “It makes me think about how much I enjoyed flying. It was my other life.”