SAN MANUEL, Ariz. – On a sunny spring day in April a small crowd of people gathered at the San Manuel Airport outside of Tucson. They traveled from as far as Colorado and California to attend the two-day Gyrocopter “Fly-in” event.
In attendance was a woman known as the “Gyrocopter Queen,” 81-year-old Marion Springer, a Choctaw pioneer in the rotorcraft – or rotary wing aircraft – industry. The first female certified flight instructor, she has been flying gyrocopters since the late 1960s.
Most people are probably not familiar with a gyrocopter or gyroplane. At first sight it looks like a cross between a go-cart and a mini-helicopter. It is a home built rotorcraft with a propeller allowing it to take flight. There is a growing interest in the specialized area of rotorcrafts among aviation enthusiasts. The low cost, build-your-own sport craft, first invented in the 1920s, has taken flight in the market today.
Springer is not only a gyrocopter expert, but in 2009 she was recognized as one of the top women who hold the most hours in a pilot’s seat, and since women account for only about seven percent of licensed pilots in America (according to Federal Aviation Administration statistics) she certainly holds a place in history.
Gyrocopter pilot Marion Springer prepared to take flight with fellow pilot Britta Penca at the San Manuel Airport outside of Tucson in April.
During the fly-in, she flew with fellow gyro pilot Britta Penca. Springer and Penca are among only 20 women in the world to have earned this specialized aviation license and at this event, they took flight together in a tandem aircraft. It was the first time two female gyro pilots flew together in the same aircraft, and the crowd watched in awe. The two took a 20-minute flight and returned safely.
Springer has become a role model for many women. “She has inspired me in many ways, as a strong woman – she can really hold her own in what is traditionally a man’s world of aviation,” Penca said.
Emma Juan, a 16-year-old Tohono O’odham who is just starting pilot’s training, came to the event to meet Springer. Finding other Native women pilots has been a challenge for her.
“It is amazing to see her, especially still flying at 81. … I am incredibly inspired by her.” In her 40-year career, Springer has not come into contact with any other Native women pilots. “I know they are out there, but very few,” she speculated that it might be more due to economic reasons, rather than traditional ones.
Springer moved to California from Oklahoma when she was young. It was there that she met her late husband Alden Springer, or “Docko” (as she calls to him) who was from the Shoshone tribe. They married and raised a family.
She began flying in the mid-60s, after she told her husband that she had always wanted to. He decided to help make her dream a reality and arranged flying lessons for her. She started out flying fixed-wing aircrafts and eventually bought her own plane. She said she fell in love with the gyroplane after her husband first built one and soon had to have one of her own.
“It is such a sense of freedom, being up in the air in one. It is very different from a fixed wing, closed in aircraft.” She and her husband started a flight school for the specialized aircrafts, but she retired from flying after she lost her husband in 1995. She returned to flying just a few years ago. She said, without her “Docko,” it was just too painful.
Her return to the gyro community was met with a large crowd of supporters and gyrocopter enthusiasts, as she flew again for the first time in 2008 at the Annual Ken Brock Freedom Fly-in in El Mirage. “It was so amazing to see her return to flight,” Penca said as she choked back a tear.
Springer is one of a kind. Her adventuresome spirit and positive attitude comes across in her autobiography, published in 2004 “Born Free – My Life in Gyrocopters,” where she shares her life experiences in an uplifting and entertaining writing style. Springer is also an artist; she constructs handmade Indian dolls, which she sells online. Links to her book and dolls are on her Web site at www.msgyro.com.