When she speaks to classrooms, United States Marine Corps Captain Corrie Mays asks students to raise their hands and look at the ends of their fingertips.
That distance of roughly 18 inches, she tells them, is how close the F/A-18D Hornets of the U.S. Naval Flight Demonstration Squadron, aka the Blue Angels, can be to one another during flight.
“From wingtip to canopy,” is how Mays explains it.
And Mays, a Marstons Mills native and member of Barnstable High School’s Class of 1998, ought to know, because she is one.
“I’ve loved every minute of it,” says Mays of both her decision to become a Marine and her experience with the country’s elite flight exhibition team. “Zero regrets. It was everything I’d hoped for and so much more.”
Mays does not fly in the Blue Angels’ demonstration shows but flies in the team’s practice training. For the Blue Angels, Naval Aviators 1 through 6 fly in the shows. Naval Aviator 7 is the show’s narrator while Naval Aviator 8 – Mays – serves as squad naval flight officer and events coordinator. Painting with a broad brush, that means she handles the logistics of the team’s almost constant traveling and, during shows, helms the various radio frequencies while communicating with the narrator via an earpiece. It’s all about syncing the complicated movements for a great show but, most important, it’s about safety.
“Every officer is a safety officer,” says Mays who, like her colleagues, flies in a fighter jet that boasts a top speed of Mach 1.8, or 1,190 miles per hour.
The Blue Angels in total, says Mays, number 130-strong. However, of the 16 officers, the naval aviators, only eight get numbers, or what’s known as “a seat at the table.” Mays is only the second woman to hold a numbered position.
‘I never turned back’
Mays’ path to the flight path was a circuitous one, to say the least.
After high school, she attended the University of Georgia with thoughts of becoming a business major. She was in college during the 9/11 terrorist attacks against America.
“I strongly considered (at that time) what I could do to serve,” she recalls. “I asked, ‘What can I do to be part of the solution?’”
The answer was to stay in school and earn a degree in environmental ecology and management, in part because she knew her dad, Chuck King (a non-military pilot), had worked hard to give her that opportunity.
That degree led to a great job with an environmental firm that, try as she might, wasn’t as fulfilling as she wanted it to be. Then, one day, while working at Otis Air Force Base, she watched USAF F-15s practicing their landings. “That’s all they were doing,” she says.
Apparently, it was enough. “I woke up the next day and, before my feet hit the floor, decided I was going to be a Marine Corps officer,” she says. “It was the most sure feeling I’ve ever had in my life, and I never turned back.”
Her parents, Chuck and Kelley, asked her to do just that – or, at least, veer off a little. They encouraged her to consider other service branches. Mays listened politely, made a cursory check of what the other branches offered, and joined the Marines, beginning Officer Candidate School in October of 2006.
“I did not join the Marine Corps to fly,” she insists. “I joined to become a Marine Corps officer, and then I chose flying from the options I was given. What I wanted was to become a Marine.”
Mays earned her Naval Flight Officer wings in 2009 and serves as a weapons systems officer, or “Wizzo.” In layman’s terms, she said, she’s “a backseater” on the F/A-18D Hornets.
Before the Blue Angels, Mays served two deployments, one in the Pacific and the second in the Middle East. She is currently stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego.
Making a difference
Mays is calm, straightforward, and polite. The only time she bristles slightly is when a reporter clumsily asks if young girls see her as a role model.
“Not just young girls but all types of people,” she says. “Young girls, young boys, young men and women, their parents – I get lots of comments from older veterans who are struck by just how far we’ve come.”
Mays says she was never told that she couldn’t do something because she’s a woman – “honestly, not once” – and that it wasn’t until her time in the Blue Angels that she understood the tremendous opportunity she’d been given.
“Every day, as part of the Blue Angels, we’re able to really make a difference,” says Mays, adding that visiting schools and the local communities is a big part of the flight squadron’s mission. “We want to inspire a culture of excellence and service to our country.”
Mays is quick to point out that service doesn’t just mean in the military. “We just want people to find something that they love and that’s a challenge. That’s what service means.”
A minute later, she puts her message even more simply: “It doesn’t matter who you are. You can do anything.”
And, with that, Mays – who remains on active duty until spring – is ready for a something new: moving back to Marstons Mills with her husband, Gabriel, and running The Plum Porch in Marstons Mills, which she co-owns with her sister, Samantha Leonard.
“This has always been my home,” she says.
And, while going from faster than the speed of sound to running a family store may seem surprising to most, it’s just the next big challenge for Mays.
Oh, and the Marine captain and Blue Angel has one more surprise up her sleeve.
“Actually, ” she admits at one point, “I’m afraid of heights.”
Five facts about USMC Capt. Corrie Mays
1. She’s a proud Bulldog. “I loved the University of Georgia,” she says, “the quintessential college town.”
2. She knows she’s lucky. “I got to fly, I got to fly fighter jets, and I got stationed in San Diego,” she says.
3. She loved Barnstable High School. Math was her favorite subject.
4. She loves to fly. “Aviation is a passion,” says Mays.
5. Serving as a USMC ‘Wizzo’ was definitely Plan B, or maybe even Plan Z. “My childhood was filled with dance classes,” she says. “Growing up, I thought I was going to be a ballerina.”