Before people entered addresses into Google Maps, travelers mapped their route based on the sun, moon, and other celestial bodies. When radios failed and bad weather hit, Mary Tornich Janislawski’s methods of celestial navigation helped save lives, especially during World War II.
The daughter of Italian and Yugoslav immigrants was born in San Francisco on June 9, 1908, two years after the great earthquake in that city. As a child, she wore an aviator’s helmet sewn from scraps of felt. In her twenties, Mary worked in a candy factory to put herself through the University of California, Berkley, and was one of three students to graduate with honors in astronomy. Eventually, Janislawski pioneered the field of navigation in the same way as Amelia Earhart broken the boundaries of flight.
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From precocious student to award-winning teacher
Like Katherine Johnson, the brilliant NASA mathematician celebrated in the movie “Hidden Figures,” Janislawski could outshine any male classmate. In the mid-1930s, she was discovered by Captain Philip Van Horn Weems, “the great old man of navigation” who taught Charles Lindbergh to sail and Admiral Richard Byrd to fly. Weems patented dozens of navigational instruments like the Second-Setting watch and took Janislawski under his wing as a protege when navigation was dominated by men.
Janislawski taught Weems nautical and aerial navigation methods as an adjunct professor at UC Berkley, Stanford, and the Polytechnic College of Engineering, Oakland in the late 1930s. She became the first female associate of the Weems System of Navigation, Inc. worldwide and was declared “the most outstanding female teacher of aerial navigation” in 1940 by the New York Times.
Among Janislawski’s most famous navigation students was Fred Noonan, who disappeared in the South Pacific with Amelia Earhart in 1937 when they tried to circumnavigate the world in a Lockheed Model 10 Elektra. Others who relied on the methods of Weems and Janislawski included American General Jimmy Doolittle, leader of the World War II bombing raid on Tokyo, and polar explorers Admiral Richard Byrd and Lincoln Ellsworth.
Those who knew Mary remembered her as a conduit of ancient techniques to the modern world.
According to Gaylord Green, one of the pioneers in the development and operation of global positioning systems, Mary Janislawski was a founding member of the Institute of Navigation as navigation evolved from a professional art to a science of the modern world.
“Understanding both the art and science of navigation, Mary has helped shape meeting agendas to bring navigation to a modern capability. Recognizing the importance of the American effort, the British established a Royal Institute of Navigation modeled on the American institute,” says Green.
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Janislawski trains cadets during World War II
Mary was teaching at Stanford University when Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941 and the United States officially entered World War II. Although the peace-loving instructor hated war, she earned her stripes as a civilian “super-super teacher”, wrote journalist Ruth Schmidt who thrust Mary into the national spotlight.
Using protractors and sextants, Janislawski made navigation fun, and only a handful of students failed their CAA exams. Janislawski’s daughter, Mi Mi Janislawksi, says students never forgot her mother’s accessible teaching style, or the squeaky rubber airplane she kept on her desk to catch the class’s attention .
During the war, Janislawski taught some 4,000 cadets how to plot their positions at King City Airport in Mesa Del Ray, California. Decades later, 82-year-old alumnus Joseph H. Casey wrote, “If we were one Band of brothersMary was truly a Sister ours.”
Janislawski worked at Naval Air Station Alameda training women in the U.S. Navy’s Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES) program in flight simulators for celestial navigation, and groomed Navy airmen for missions from aircraft carriers and bases in the Pacific under radio silence. In the 1950s, Transocean Airlines and Pan American World Airways hired Janislawski to map Pacific routes.
Creation of lunar maps for Apollo astronauts
In the last phase of his career, Janislawski contributed to the dawning space age by creating lunar grid maps to help Apollo astronauts navigate the moon’s surface. In 1970, at the Institute of Navigation’s National Space Meeting at the Ames Research Center, she applied her celestial navigation methods to provide NASA with a roadmap for navigating any planetary body, from Mars to planets yet to be discovered. In 1972, Janislawski was the first woman to receive the Institute of Navigation’s Superior Achievement Award for helping generations of sailors, pilots and astronauts return home.
When Janislawski died on June 16, 1998 at the age of 90, she was posthumously honored as the first female member of the Institute of Navigation. The San Francisco Maritime Research Center at the Maritime National Historical Park honors Janislawski by displaying his family’s brass sextants and compasses mounted in antique wooden cases.
In a letter of condolence dated August 1, 1999 to his daughter, former student “Ernie” Ford, US Air Force Command pilot recognized for having flown more command missions than any pilot in the US Army Air Force in World War II and awarded six Flying Crosses, sums up his instructor’s impact on navigation.
“Your mother not only trained pilots to fly in the skies above and back, BUT she developed a new and totally different way to navigate space and return safely. It made travel possible interplanetary,” Ford wrote.
“As your ‘Mom’ always said, keep ’em flying.”