Overlooked No More: Mary Barr, Who Fought Wildfires From Aloft

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This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

Beginning in the 1940s, the pilot Mary Barr took almost any opportunity to get herself off the ground. She worked as a mechanic, gave flying lessons and even transported prisoners.

She ultimately eloped with a fellow pilot, and in 1952 she flew their newborn daughter home — solo.

“She said that pilots were the rock stars when she was growing up,” that daughter, Nevada Barr, said by phone. And, she added, her mother “wanted to be a rock star.”

Above all, Mary Barr is known for fighting wildfires as the first woman lead pilot for the United States Forest Service, which required adamantine nerves, impeccable judgment and so much skill in the cockpit that flying became second nature, almost like walking. The job was one of the most demanding in the sky, and she was a natural.

Lead pilots for the Forest Service help larger planes navigate the treacherous airspace over wildfires, while coordinating with firefighting teams on the ground.

Barr spent more than a decade in this role, mainly in Northern California. She worked as a contractor for several years before she was hired full time in 1974, said Lincoln Bramwell, the Forest Service’s chief historian.

There were other women in the Forest Service at the time, Bramwell said in an interview. But few were directly involved in firefighting efforts, and none had served as a full-time lead pilot before Barr.

“She carved her own path,” Bramwell said, in a job for which “your record and experience need to speak for themselves.”

Lead pilots use small, maneuverable planes to find the safest approach for unwieldy tanker craft to dump water or flame retardant on fires, while other pilots perform duties like deploying smoke jumpers or dropping supplies.

Lead pilots also choreograph the broader response to a wildfire, and decide when the situation is too perilous to keep going. They are not only the mine manager; they are also the canary in the shaft.

“It’s like playing chess,” said Michael K. Savage, who trains and evaluates the Forest Service’s lead pilots, except “with the chess board on fire.”

Of the Forest Service’s roughly 50 current pilots, nine are full-time lead pilots. There are also six lead pilots on contract; nine who work for other agencies, like the Bureau of Land Management; and seven trainees. One of those trainees, Maddie Wilbanks, is the only woman on her way to becoming a lead pilot.

“There’s more astronauts than there are lead plane pilots,” Savage said in an interview.

Lead pilots face innumerable hazards in the air. They could be blinded by smoke or by ash raining down. Shifting winds and sudden updrafts could roll their plane, flip it upside down or slam it to the ground.

“I mean, just scary as hell, but Momma just thought it was great,” Nevada Barr said of her mother’s job in an interview with StoryCorps. She and Barr’s other daughter, Molly, who has worked as a commercial airline pilot, sat down for the interview last year to discuss their mother’s legacy.

The lead pilot job is in some ways more complicated today, Savage said, because there are more fires, more fire teams working together, more vehicles in the air and more airborne hazards, like drones.

But in Barr’s time some of the firefighting procedures and policies that guide pilots had not yet been developed, he added, so “they had to be creative.”

“We’ve got all that policy and procedure in place, which keeps people safe,” Savage said. “It’s much more organized than it ever was in her day.”

Barr was not fazed by the danger, said Nevada Barr, a novelist known for her series about a ranger named Anna Pigeon who solves mysteries in national parks around the country. Rather, she said, her mother was stoic and matter-of-fact about her accomplishments.

“She knew for a fact that as a female pilot she had to be twice as good, twice as calm in the face of upsets to get anywhere,” Nevada Barr told StoryCorps.

Her humility may be part of the reason her story was not widely known, and why her death from complications of dementia, on March 1, 2010, at 84, went largely unreported.

“She never boasted about it,” Nevada Barr said. “But I know that she was really proud of the fact that the other pilots would follow her into this hellacious scenario with complete trust.”

Mary Alice Utterback was born on July 11, 1925, in Hanover, N.J., and grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, where her father, William Utterback, taught speech at Oberlin College, and her mother, Margaret (Granger) Utterback, was a primary-school teacher. Her fascination with flying was kindled by famous aviators like Charles Lindbergh.

Mary’s parents divorced when she was young. She went to a private boarding school in Massachusetts and started college, but after taking her first pilot lessons she dropped out to pursue flying.

She paid her way through flight classes by working odd jobs, including as a dishwasher, then flew planes across the United States for aircraft manufacturers during World War II. After moving to Lewiston, Idaho, she worked as a bookkeeper and flying instructor at a small airport.

The airport’s manager, David Barr, who was married, grew enamored of Mary. Mary soon left Idaho for Jackson Hole, Wyo., where she flew charters and “chased moose off the runway,” Nevada Barr said.

David Barr was not far behind. They soon went to Florida so David could get a “quickie divorce,” Nevada Barr said, and married not long after.

The Barrs managed an airport in Santa Fe, N.M., for several years before moving in the early 1950s to Susanville, Calif., about 90 miles northwest of Reno and bordering Lassen National Forest, an 1,875-square-mile preserve where the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges meet.

They managed a small airstrip there, and she helped government agencies count wild horses by air and flew charters that transported prisoners and elevated parachutists. She also competed in the Reno Air Races, though her husband asked her to stop because he worried that racing was too risky.

When Barr was pregnant, she flew to Nevada, the closest place she could find a woman obstetrician to deliver her daughter, whom she named after the state. She then flew her newborn back from the hospital on her own, tucking her into the baggage compartment behind the passenger’s seat of her small plane.

By the early 1980s she was a national Forest Service air safety officer, responsible for overseeing other pilots and training them to fight wildfires.

David Barr died before his wife, who never remarried. In 2001 Barr was inducted into the Women in Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame.

Nevada Barr said that even though her mother flew through glass ceilings, she never mentioned facing any unequal treatment. Her mother’s example, she said, taught her and her sister that they could achieve anything.

“Lots of kids, I think they grow up and think, ‘I’d like to do this, but it’s impossible,’” Nevada Barr said. “And we weren’t raised that way.”

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