Life Stories: Marie Miller, aviation pioneer, knew the greats of flying

CorrespondentMarch 24, 2013 

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Marie Miller in about 1934, in front of the hangar at Raleigh Airport.

PHOTO COURTESY OF PATSY MOORE

  • Marie M. Miller

    Born: June 11, 1907 in Battle Creek, Neb.

    1925: Graduates from North Denver High School

    1926: Graduates from business college in Colorado

    1927: Marries Elmer Meyers

    1928: Works at Curtiss Flying Service in New York and takes classes at New York University, focusing on aviation law

    1930: Moves to Raleigh where she helps operate Raleigh Municipal Airport

    1931: Becomes the country’s first female traffic agent

    1934: Serv-Air is incorporated

    1936: Birth of first child, Patricia

    1939: Meyers dies

    1940: Marries Truman W. Miller

    1951: Moves to Kinston

    1959: Moves to Lakeland, Fla.

    1974: Begins retirement

    1990: Inducted into the OX5 Aviation Pioneers Hall of Fame

    Died: Feb. 11, 2013 in Lakeland.

When Marie Miller took flying lessons, she was issued two parachutes – one for the usual purpose, and one to sit on so she could reach the controls. Barely 20 years old, and slightly more than 5 feet tall, she was among the first generation of women to learn to fly a plane.

“She loved it. She wanted to be a pilot,” said her daughter Patricia Moore of Greenville. “I think Mother thought that when she started out, I think that was her goal. But I think that life events took Mother in another direction.”

Miller’s career in aviation would ultimately take root outside the cockpit, where she went on to manage Raleigh Municipal Airport, the area’s first, and to co-found the civil aviation corporation Serv-Air.

Miller died last month at her home in Lakeland, Fla. She was 105, and had spent her career fostering aviation throughout the country.

“They were on the ground floor of building a new industry,” Moore said. “That’s really where she made her mark as a pioneer.”

Her family contends that she was one of the first women in the country to work at an airport. She may have been the first.

It was the late 1920s, and she was hired as a secretary at Curtiss Flying Service on Long Island, N.Y. Part of her weekly pay included three hours of flying lessons, Moore said.

When E.H. Brainard became president of Curtiss, he approached Miller about working directly for him, Moore said. He offered to pay her $750 (an exorbitant amount of money at the time) to discontinue flying lessons for fear of losing a good assistant. She agreed, though that did not stop her from sitting as co-pilot in her family’s planes for decades to come.

“We really were an aviation family,” Moore said.

Planes were a part of their life. Miller’s only son became a United Airlines pilot, Moore said. When Miller was raising her family, planes were far more affordable, and they always owned at least one small plane for personal use.

Moore can remember one flight when she and her parents, en route to a funeral, had to make an emergency landing in a Kentucky cornfield. Moore had somehow slept through the landing. She awoke to find her mother piling blankets atop her because it was snowing.

Miller’s family also believes she became the first female traffic agent in the country in 1931, when Eastern Air Transport began passenger and mail service in and out of Raleigh.

“Mother was not a gun-toter,” her daughter said with a chuckle. “Mother was a lady.”

But her job as traffic agent required she wear a .38 Smith & Wesson on her hip when meeting mail flights.

“She covered it with her manifest so passengers couldn’t see it,” Moore said.

Miller made her first foray into aviation under a different name, Marie Meyers. She and her first husband, Elmer Meyers, read about Charles Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic flight in 1927, and were so inspired that they left Denver and moved to Long Island to work at Curtiss Flying Service, Moore said.

Miller and her first husband left New York in 1930 to operate Raleigh Municipal Airport, the area’s first airfield. Curtiss had leased the land and built three runways and a hangar near what is now the intersection of Tryon Road and US 70-401.

After Curtiss went bankrupt a few years later, the city leased the airfield, and the couple incorporated Serv-Air, a “fixed-base” civil aviation company. Serv-Air assumed management, leasing the airport from the city of Raleigh. Miller handled the office work while her husband managed the airport.

In 1939, the Meyers were driving between Raleigh and the airport when their car was hit by a cement truck, Moore said. Elmer Meyers died, and Miller barely survived. Their daughter Patsy, who was not in the accident, was just 2 years old.

“We can’t imagine” what it was like for her, Moore said. “When I had my children, that just was an unthinkable thing.”

Miller took charge of the airport until she hired Truman Miller, an engineer for the Civil Aeronautics Administration and an accomplished pilot, as manager and president of her company. She became the secretary and treasurer. The business relationship soon blossomed into romance, and the two were wed the following year.

Truman Miller happily took on the role of father, Moore said, and they Millers went on to have two more children, Truman II and Carolyn.

Marie and Truman Miller spent the rest of their careers working side by side, running airports and managing the expansion of Serv-Air.

Miller also wrote a column called “Wing Tips” for the News & Observer in the 1940s, where she chronicled the early years of North Carolina’s aviation scene.

“It was a small group and they had contact with one another,” Moore said. Her parents had relationships with the Beech and Piper families, known for their aircraft companies. Miller told stories about her run-ins with the likes of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. She apparently dropped off Lindbergh’s dry cleaning under her name to help him maintain some privacy.

In 1939, the same year she was widowed, Serv-Air participated in the first Civilian Pilot Training Program, a federally-funded project that sought to interest college students in learning to fly. The Millers worked with local undergrads, and Truman Miller conducted much of the training himself. (He was a News & Observer Tar Heel of the Week in 1956.)

Serv-Air grew to include contracts with the U.S. Navy and NASA, and the couple frequently traveled to military bases around the country. The Millers went on to operate other airfields, and sold Raleigh Municipal Airport to developers in the 1970s. They also sold Serv-Air during that period to E Systems, a Houston-based company. They retired in Lakeland, Fla., where they had been living since the 1950s when they managed Bartow Air Base.

In addition to aviation, Miller had a passion for collecting china, and spent much of her retirement adding to her collection.

Though her mind remained sound until the end, Moore said, Miller had long lost her eyesight. Having flown in planes without pressurized cabins for much of her adult life did her ears no favors, either.

“As she aged and couldn’t see, she would touch someone’s face as a way of getting to know them – and totally won them over,” Moore said.

“With all these things, she could have complained – she never did. She considered herself fortunate.”

News researcher Teresa Leonard contributed to the reporting of this story.

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