The Engine Whisperer

Mary Heidenreich Solbrig, Mechanician (1869-1954)


Most Americans had never seen an aeroplane, much less one in flight. The enthusiastic and naive public was unaware of the restrictions placed upon aviator and machine due to rain or wind. Inexperienced air meet organizers expected aircraft to fly straight up, without providing adequate ground for take-off and landing.

When Mary saw an obstacle in Oscar’s path, she refused to allow him to fly until trees were cut or fences torn down. Angry crowds as large as 10,000 often threatened to destroy an aeroplane and do harm to the aviator when a flying schedule was delayed or cancelled. “They didn’t come to see the airplane fly,” Mary once remarked, “they came to see the flyer killed.”

Oscar broke his collar bone and dislocated his shoulder in two separate accidents. Weeks of recuperation for Oscar and repairs to the machine ate into the profits earned, but as Mary put it, “If it were a good season, the hard work and risk had been worth it.”

During 1913, Oscar traveled to Hammondsport, NY, and attended Curtiss’s aviation school. There he spent more hours in the factory learning how to put together an aeroplane than he did flying. It was time well spent.

In the winter Mary and Oscar kept regular business hours in their shop, then concentrated on refurbishing, repairing, and testing the Curtiss. After her family went to bed, Mary often worked through the night cutting and fitting the linen fabric for wings.

During harvest season she alternated between mechanician and homemaker, canning and preserving vegetables grown in her large garden. “You had to have a garden or you didn’t eat,” Hope later recalled. “She was a good cook . . . It seems like there was nothing she couldn’t do.”

Mary made power plant and airframe repairs in their house and ran tests in their yard. The Solbrigs’ neighbors must have been good sports. Des Moines Register reporter George Shane complained that at top rpm, the Roberts sounded “like an outboard motor without the muffler.” Oscar once summarized the capriciousness of the temperamental Roberts. “One day the engine ran smoothly and the next it would be completely out of commission.”

A horse whisperer can intuitively understand and sooth an ill-tempered horse. In like manner, Mary Solbrig was an engine whisperer. She could detect the slightest mechanical irregularity and Oscar did not fly until she was satisfied the Roberts “ran smoothly.”

With WWI looming, Oscar joined the U.S. Army Aviation Reserve Corps in 1915 at the rank of 1st Lieutenant. Mary billed him as “Lt. Oscar A. Solbrig — Patriotic Programs — Mail Carrying — Sky Battles and Races.”

Mechanician in an apron
The Solbrigs always traveled together during the flying season, sometimes accompanied by their teenage son, Alfred, who thoroughly enjoyed the adventure. The family had worked out a system of assigned tasks comparable to today’s NASCAR pit stop.

Mary’s watchful eye was all the more discerning for the man she loved and the father of her children. No detail was too small for Mary. Before her husband took off, she walked back and forth checking for divots, stones, trash, and unusual dips in the grass and dirt. She always wore an apron over her dress, partially to keep her skirts clean and partially to carry tools in one pocket, dirt in the other.

When she discovered a hole deep enough to cause the slightest jolt to Oscar’s fragile aeroplane wheels, she filled it with dirt and smoothed it over. Her pre-flight checklist included straining gasoline for the Roberts engine through a chamois into a 3-gallon tank, which could keep Oscar aloft for 30 minutes.

After Oscar had cranked up the prop and sat behind the controls of his aeroplane, he nodded to the four men holding on to the struts of the wings. Their job was to hold back the aircraft until the Roberts engine had reached its proper rpms for take-off. The Davenport Sunday Times Democrat paraphrased Mary’s account of Oscar’s take-off procedures, capturing the moment when the Roberts engine spoke to her:

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