Mary Webb Nicholson: UNCG’s First to take Flight

Posted on March 18, 2024

Mary Webb Nicholson in the cockpit of a plane.

One of UNC Greensboro’s students took her dreams to the skies, ultimately giving her life for the war effort. A historical marker for Mary Webb Nicholson not only stands along Greensboro’s Friendly Avenue at New Garden Road, but across the Atlantic Ocean near Worcester, England.

Nicholson was born to a Quaker family in 1905 and studied music at UNCG while it was the Woman’s College in 1924. After taking a flight in 1927 at 22 years old, her goals took a lofty turn. Not having the money for flying lessons, she did parachute jumps to advertise a flight school in Ohio in exchange for free lessons. 

She became the first woman in North Carolina to earn a both commercial pilot’s license and a transport license. She was a charter member for the Ninety-Nines, Inc., an organization for female aviators led by famed pilot Amelia Earhart. She was personal secretary for another famous female pilot, Jacqueline Cochran.

Service and sacrifice 

With the outbreak of World War II, Nicholson joined the Air Transport Auxiliary in the United Kingdom. It was a group of female pilots who delivered planes to British airfields, freeing up Royal Air Force pilots for military missions.

Nicholson was promoted to Second Officer while ferrying planes. Her last flight was in May of 1943; the Miles Master she was flying lost a propeller in bad weather over Worcestershire County. Too low to parachute, Nicholson tried to land the wounded plane in a field. She hit a farmhouse and died in the crash. 

A plaque commemorating Nicholson’s sacrifice was unveiled near the crash site in 2019. The organizer, a historian named Geoff Hudson, said Nicholson was the only American member of the Air Transport Auxiliary who did not make it back home. He described Nicholson as a “rock star in America.” She was also one of the women honored in the Ruth Wicker Tribute to Women of Greensboro in 2019.

Legacy with no ceiling 

According to the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Nicholson promoted other female pilots through her work with organizations and by participating in air shows. She flew every New Year’s Day for good luck. 

The induction ceremony for Nicholson into the NC Aviation Museum Hall of Fame can be watched here:

Spartans making an impact in aviation are not confined to the cockpit. Elice Evans translates vital safety information to flyers who need sign language, thanks to her bachelor of science in interpreting, deaf education, and advocacy services (IDEAS).

Story by Janet Imrick, University Communications
Photography courtesy of the Greensboro History Museum and the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

Three UNCG students stand beside the flags of their military branches.

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