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Fast Facts: Mary Janislawski, navigational instructor and for sea, air, and the stars

On Oct. 12, 1956, Mary Tornich Janislawski completed the Optimum Navigation Course set forth by Headquarters, 1502nd Air Transport Wing Heavy (Mats) of the Department of the Air Force. Janislawski was a prolific navigator who spent her life training mariners, pilots, and astronauts on how to use celestial bodies for navigation. She was considered a bridge between traditional and tested methods with newer navigation methods.

Janislawski was born in San Francisco on June 9, 1908, to Italian and Yugoslavian immigrants. According to, she was drawn to flight from an early age and spent her early childhood wearing an aviator helmet she sewed for herself from scraps of felt. By her 20s, she was working in a candy factory to put herself through the University of California, Berkley, where she earned degrees in mathematics and astronomy.

After graduation, she worked with Bay Area mariners before she was hired by Captain Philip Van Horn Weems, acclaimed designer of the Weems sextant. He had started a certification program for air navigation and hired Janislawski as the West Coast liaison and manager, according to the National Park Service website.

Other notable pilots from this program include Charles Lindbergh, the first pilot to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean in the Spirit of St. Louis.

In 1940 the New York Times declared Janislawski, the “most outstanding woman teacher of aerial navigation.”

In December 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Janislawski was teaching at Stanford University before she left her post to teach WWII pilots how to plot their positions correctly.

She started at King City airport in Mesa Del Ray. She then moved on to Alameda Naval Air Station to train in the US Navy’s Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service program for celestial navigation.

She prepared Navy fliers for carriers and bases in the Pacific missions under radio silences, according to SOFREP, a military culture, foreign policy, and defense news website.

In the 1950s, she was commissioned by Transocean Airlines and Pan American World Airways to map specific Pacific routes.

In the 1970s, she set her sights on stars and met with the Navigation at Ames Research Center to apply her navigation methods to NASA to navigate to any planetary body. Her contributions led to the creation of the grid system of navigation for the Apollo Moon Missions.

In 1972 she became the first woman to be awarded the Superior Achievement Award from the Institute of Navigation for her methods.

She had a 40-year career that took her from sea to the air and finally to the stars. She helped to transition traditional nautical navigation to aeronautical navigation. She trained hundreds of pilots, most famously Fred Noonan, who was Amelia Earhart’s navigator who disappeared with her in 1937 when she attempted to circumnavigate the globe.

Janislawski passed away on June 16, 1998, at the age of 90. She became the first female Fellow of the Institute of Navigation posthumously. The Maritime Research Center of San Francisco at Maritime National Historical Park features her family’s brass sextants and compasses in honor of her.

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