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Marie McMillan: Las Vegas’ Pioneering Female Aviator by Christina Lamoureux

By Su Kim Chung on March 25, 2019 5:47 PM | Permalink


Left:  Marie McMillan in 1990 posing with one of her airplanes. Right:  Marie McMillan in 1994. From the Marie and James B. McMillan Papers (MS-00482).

Archival processing assistant Christina Lamoureux is a PhD student and Teaching Assistant in UNLV's Department of History. 

Aviator, civil rights activist, humanitarian, Nevada Test Site employee, UNLV alumnus, and lecturer are just a few of the roles Marie (Stever) McMillan has had in the course of her fascinating life. Marie Stever was born in 1926 in California. She earned her Associate’s degree in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley and in 1957, Marie and her husband Elisha “Duke” Daly moved to Las Vegas where she became one of the first women to work at the Nevada Test Site (NTS). Marie and Duke divorced in the early 1960s and in 1964 she married Dr. James B McMillan, Nevada’s first African American dentist and a prominent civil rights activist. She spent much of their thirty-five year marriage supporting his efforts for racial tolerance and integration in Nevada, all while pursuing her own life goals.


marie and james McMillan

Marie and her husband, Dr. James B. McMillan, in 1969. From the Marie and James B. McMillan Photograph Collection (PH-00334).

Wanting to fly since she was a young girl, Marie finally made that dream a reality while working as an administrative assistant at the Nevada Test Site. After befriending one of the NTS pilots and learning the basics of flying, she attended the Thunderbird Field Flight School, completing her ground certification in 1963. In 1978, after learning that the U.S. National Aeronautic Association would offer special citations for any records set during the 75th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight, Marie obtained the first of her many aviation records by establishing the speed record from Fresno, California to Las Vegas, Nevada. As an aviation pioneer, Marie, known as the “Flying Grandma,” achieved over 650 U.S. and international aviation records – the most in the world. Her achievements include a record setting eighteen thousand mile journey, dubbed the “Flying Grandma’s Odyssey,” departing from Las Vegas, Nevada on January 31, 1985, and flying to various points in the Caribbean and Mexico.

Marie McMillan flying Grandma

Marie in 1985, upon her return from her “Flying Grandma’s Odyssey.” From the Marie and James B. McMillan Papers (MS-00482).

Beyond setting numerous records, Marie was active in several aviation organizations including the Civil Air Patrol, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and the Ninety-Nines, Inc., an international organization of women pilots. She also obtained her commercial pilot’s license, which she used to ferry planes to Las Vegas, Nevada for John Seymour, a former test pilot for Hughes Aircraft Company and an executive for Las Vegas Aircraft Sales. In addition, she became a flight instructor, flew several relief missions carrying medical supplies and personnel to Mexico, lectured at aerospace education workshops at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), and worked as a public information representative at McCarran Airport.

Left Image:  Marie (left) and co-pilot Rene Crow at a Powder Puff Derby endorsed by the Ninety-Nines, Inc. in 1975. Right Image:  Marie and Rene in the cockpit of their plane at the Powder Puff Derby. From the Marie and James B. McMillan Papers (MS-00482).

In 1994, Marie realized a lifelong dream by obtaining dual Bachelor of Arts degrees in anthropology and archaeology with a minor in Ethnic Studies from UNLV. A few years later, she returned to UNLV, receiving her gerontology certificate in 2004, with the goal of working with the elderly in nursing homes and assisted care facilities. Marie McMillan currently lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. 

If you would like to learn more about Marie’s fascinating life, check out this link to the collection’s finding aid, or stop by UNLV’s Special Collections and Archives located on the third floor of Lied Library, UNLV campus. Additional information is also available in the Marie McMillan oral history interview (OH-01272) and the Marie and James B. McMillan Photograph Collection (PH-00334).