AKRON, Ohio — Some daughters inherit their father’s nose; others their dad’s hair color. For Mary Hruby, it was an awe of aviation.
As a youngster, Mary recalls Ellsworth William “Bill” Luther always stopping whatever he was doing when he heard a plane overhead, scanning the skies in reverent homage to the pilot at the controls. During World War II, Bill’s eyesight wasn’t good enough for certification as a military pilot, so he would up in the Merchant Marines instead. “But his whole life he wanted to fly and he always talked about it and we went to air shows,” Mary remembers.
The Luther family moved to what was then Hudson Township around 1950, when her father purchased 2 acres. Later, Bill bought an additional piece of property, about 1,100 feet long and 250 feet wide, at a sheriff’s auction to use as a landing strip. “He had always wanted to fly,” Mary recalls, “but he waited until after my mother [Dorothy] passed because I don’t think she would’ve liked the idea.”
Bill purchased a gyrocopter, built a hangar and hung out a windsock
Bill purchased a gyrocopter, built a hangar and hung out a windsock – a welcome mat of sorts for fellow pilots – just off Stow Road. Bill also learned to fly an ultralight at a little grass field to the east. So gripping was his love of aviation that Bill took his ultralight to Kitty Hawk once, where he rode the sky first harnessed by the Wright brothers a century ago.
“For a while, it was a bit of a busy little field,” Mary says, “particularly because there aren’t many fields for ultralights anymore.” Mary’s dad died in March 2007.
Mary understands the unforgiving nature of aviation. The last time she flew in a small private plane, it crashed. Her first husband, the pilot, was killed on impact. Mary was seriously injured. “But I hold no ill will against it [flying],” Mary says. “You balance the risk with what you like about it.”
When Mary married Michael Wolf, he was already a pilot, with six years experience under his belt. Mary enrolled in a class for non-pilots to teach them what to do if a pilot becomes incapacitated; by the time she’d completed it, Mary says she wanted a license of her own.
There weren’t that many female private pilots at that time
“He [my dad] was proud of it,” Mary says, though she never took him up and he never asked. Her [disapproving] mother was still alive at the time. There weren’t that many female private pilots at that time, Mary recalls. She usually flew out of a little field on Route 44 south of Chardon in a dog-earred but well-loved Piper Colt.
Mary earned her license in 1970/71 and flew for several years until that fateful day in October 1973. On a flight from Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico to San Jose, California, Mary and Michael flew over the Sierra Mountains in a Cessna 172 they had owned for a few months.
Three months pregnant at the time, Mary recalls, “There was an unexpected storm that came up, a snow storm, and we were up high. I looked over and saw ice on the wing and I [told Michael] so he went to a lower altitude right away. He was not licensed to fly instruments … We were, at that point, too low to really navigate from radio beacons and we basically crashed in the forest.”
The plane wound up upside down and lay undiscovered overnight. Luckily, Mary says, the crash occurred close to a road and on a weekend. The next day some state troopers who were hunting discovered the plane.
“Michael had died on impact,” Mary says, “basically he broke his neck. But I don’t remember any of that. I don’t remember the crash. I remember seeing snow, clouds, treetops and that’s all …”
Mary was transported to the nearest hospital in Fresno, where she remained for several months recovering from a concussion and frostbite on her hands and feet. Miraculously, she says her unborn baby was unharmed.
She eventually went back to Ohio to live with her parents until she was well enough to care for her daughter, Julie, who had since arrived. “I was very sorry to have lost my husband and a whole way of life that we had shared,” Mary says, ” … It was a huge loss in my life, I won’t gloss over that, but I’m not angry at flying or aviation … The reason I didn’t go back to flying small planes was just I didn’t have the opportunity, it was too expensive and it was something that I really shared with Michael. So when that part of it is not here … it’s less appealing.”
When Mary graduated from high school, in 1964, she says it was customary for women to become teachers, secretaries or nurses. “There were very few female doctors or engineers,” Mary recalls, “So every time I see a woman doing well in something that would have been unavailable or looked askance at in those days, it thrills me – I think it’s great.”
There are lots of things I think are too risky to do but you balance the risk with what you like about it
Despite the death of her husband, Mary says she was never angry at flying. “Except for that incident I would still be flying,” Mary says, “and I would still love it … there’s such an appeal to flying – I wouldn’t go parachuting if you paid me and there are lots of things I think are too risky to do but you balance the risk with what you like about it and it was something we shared as a family.”
Mary eventually remarried and had another child, Laura, with second husband George Hruby. Laura, 32, is employed by the U.S. State Department in Istanbul, Turkey. Julie, now, 35, is a Bronze Age Aegean archaeologist.
Mary never discouraged her daughters from flying; but she says she’s proud her children have found “their own important challenges.”
Recently Mary was a passenger on a small commuter plane from New York to Cleveland. Upon touching the tarmac, Mary says the passengers spontaneously applauded that pilot’s smooth landing after a turbulent flight.
“Of course, that plane is much bigger than a 172, but it was small enough to remind me of the immediacy of feeling all the vibrations and of paying attention to all the sounds, of the thrill of being ready for takeoff and feeling the airplane respond to pushing the throttle in, of the privileged view of the countryside, of the satisfaction of a nice smooth approach and landing,” Mary says.
While being a pilot is a thing of the past, Mary admits she still looks skyward when she hears a plane. Her feet may be grounded, but that siren, the sky, continues to call her — just as it did her dad.