Friday, May 24, 2013

Female stunt pilot began flying in 1960s

Linda Mathias, a Windsor native, started her flying career in the late 1960s. In addition to serving as an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, she also has participated in cross-country races and aerobatic stunt competitions. 
(Nicole Paitsel / Daily Press, Nicole Paitsel / Daily Press / May 24, 2013)

By Nicole Paitsel, Daily Press 
May 25, 2013

Flying over the Smithfield Foods plant in her 1978 two-seater Decathlon single-engine plane, Linda Mathias speaks through her headset.

"When the wind blows the right way, you can smell the ham," she says.

Mathias has been blazing a trail in the sky since 1968, when she was a 27-year-old government civilian learning to fly in the Navy's flying club program.

It wasn't unheard of for women to pursue a pilot's license at the time, Mathias says, but female pilots in the commercial sector, especially, were still a rarity.

"A sailor started telling me about his flying lessons through the club, and I thought 'you can do that?' And that's where it began," she says.

Mathias is selling one of her airplanes — the 1978 Decathlon — in a Memorial Day auction at Phoebus Auction Gallery in Hampton. It's the first airplane the auction house has sold, says manager Bill Welch.

"The great thing about this (auction) business is that you find things that tell the story of how society has changed over the years," he says. "You just can't find these planes made in America anymore."

Welch says he would like to see a bid of $35,000 on the plane, which is known as an aerobatic, or stunt, aircraft.

"This one is a tail dragger. See the wheel at the back of the plane," Mathias says. "It takes more skill to fly those."

Mathias, who recently moved from Windsor to Norfolk, is downsizing her plane collection, which also includes a piper cub from the World War II-era.

When her husband was alive, he died in 2011, the couple would fly and restore classic airplanes together. At one time, they owned anywhere between seven and nine planes, she says. Without her husband around, who was skilled in airplane mechanics, maintenance and repairs are costly.

Mathias, who has seen more than four decades as a female pilot, is a Designated Pilot Examiner for the FAA and the governor — which is like a regional president — for the Mid-Atlantic chapter of The Ninety-Nines, a nonprofit organization for female pilots that promotes aviation education. Amelia Earhart is listed as the organization's first president.

Over the years, Mathias has participated in cross-country races and aerobatic competitions, performing stunts such as loops, rolls, hammerhead dives, inverted flying and other tricks. That part of her flying career was just for fun, she says.

"She has always been an ambitious person in the organizations she's involved in," says Charles Griminger, of Hampton. Griminger is retired from the military and now flies World War II airplanes for the Old Dominion squadron of the Commemorative Air Force, an organization that promotes education about historical military aircraft. The pilots often perform in air shows.

"She's an excellent person," he says.

Mathias, who exudes a combination of no-nonsense efficiency and gentleness, doesn't speak much about the hardships of being an early female pilot. She does admit that she took some serious, and sometimes crude, ribbing from male pilots and instructors in the late '60s and early 1970s.

"I do remember during one lesson the instructor said that he would leave a string for me to follow so I could find my way back," she says.

She smiles about those stories, but her determination to pass on her passion to a younger generation of women is evident.

"I had considered commercial airlines, but you just didn't see very many women then," she says. "They were just starting to break in. You see a lot more women (pilots) in the terminals now."

She is exuberant when talking about the upcoming event "Women Can Fly," scheduled for June 22 at the Hampton Roads Executive Airport in Chesapeake. During the event, girls ages 8 and older will be offered free flights by pilots like Mathias.

"We want to show them how open the airlines are now," she says.

More online

See a video of Linda Mathias flying her 1978 Decathlon airplane at

Want to go?

What: Memorial Day Auction, featuring Linda Mathias' 1978 airplane, several classic cars, including a 1979 Firebird, many household items, including silk rugs, firearms and other items.

Where: Phoebus Auction Gallery, 16 E. Mellen St., Hampton

When: 10 a.m. Monday, May 27

Information: 722-9210 or

Women Can Fly

On Saturday, June 22 Linda Mathias and other female pilots will host a "Women Can Fly" event from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m at the Hampton Roads Executive Airport in Chesapeake off of Route 58. Girls 8 years old and older will be offered free flights. Call 488-3166 for more information.

More information about The Ninety-Nines can be found at The group was named for the first 99 charter members at its foundation in 1931.

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