Friday, April 8, 2016

G is for Frances Wilson Grayson - Pioneer Women in Aviation: A-Z Challenge

Frances Wilson Grayson 1892-1927
In the beginning, Frances Wilson Grayson’s only claim to fame was as the niece of President Woodrow Wilson. Frances grew up in Arkansas, and Indiana, where she completed high school. Enrolling in the Chicago Musical College, Frances followed in her brother’s footsteps, who apparently had a terrific singing voice. 

However, when he died suddenly, Frances lost her enthusiasm for music and dropped out. She switched to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania to study recitation and dramatic arts, married at 22, and divorced nine years later. The couple had no children.

At a crossroad in life it would seem, Frances started writing for a New York City newspaper and sold real estate (successfully). As a now fervent feminist, she was likely searching for something to wrap her heart around, trying on different hats. New York City being the instigator of ideas that this city often was, Frances explored a new interest, AVIATION, and a grand idea that excited her. Charles Lindbergh had recently completed his famous flight across the North Atlantic Ocean in May 1927, so why, she wondered, couldn’t a woman achieve the same feat? Indeed, other women had already considered the possibility. Although not a pilot herself, Frances made it her goal  to be the first woman to fly across the North Atlantic.

Money was not an issue initially (she had done well in real estate). She bought a twin-engine Sikorsky S-36 amphibian plane and christened it “The Dawn.” An amphibian seaplane must have seemed a wise choice. If the plane lost power, one could reason, it would float at least. Funding for the flight came from a wealthy Danish-American woman, Mrs. Aage Ancker, in the amount of $50,000. The planned route would be to fly from New York to Copenhagen.

Frances and her S-36 amphibian, "The Dawn"

Next in order, Frances hired Wilmer Stutz as the pilot and Brice Goldborough as the navigator. They came well recommended. With that, the planned departure was set for mid-October. Frances held a dinner beforehand and invited interested newsmen. "I will prove that women can compete with men in his own undertakings,” she told them.

Meanwhile, she was advised not to go. It was suicide to fly so late in the season but all the weather charts in the world and urging not to couldn't dissuade her. Her heart was set against waiting. They took off in October as scheduled, but immediately had to abort . In the first attempt, the plane was too heavy with fuel. The nose of the plane dipped and they stayed in the air only a few minutes. On the second attempt, there was engine trouble and the weather looked awful, forcing their return. Stutz, fearing the worst, quit.


Frances with crew next to "The Dawn"

Upset but still determined to go, Frances hired his replacement, a Norwegian pilot named Oskar Omdahl, who had flown over the Arctic three times. He claimed that applying glycerin on the wings and struts would prevent icing, a stated concern. But as a precaution, a decision was made to fly to Newfoundland first and from there cross the Atlantic. Fred Koehler, an engine expert, offered to go that leg of the trip with them and recheck the engine in Newfoundland before the three made the crossing.

Brice Goldsborough the navigator was nervous about going according to his wife. She sensed he didn't want to go, but for some reason kept his fears to himself. Frances reportedly carried a small gun in her pocket. She told a reporter in private she had heard the stories of sailors dying in a trapped submarine and didn’t want to suffer. Despite the warnings and forebodings, the crew left for Newfoundland as planned on Christmas Eve, 1927. They never reached their destination. Wireless operators reported garbled messages for two days.

Messages that sounded like:
“Something wrong.
Where are we? 
Can you locate us?”

Then, nothing at all.

By now 18 pilots and crewmen had died and five injured attempting to fly across the North Atlantic. Most had died inspired to win the Oreig Prize, a cash prize of $25,000 to the first pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris. So far only Charles Lindbergh in his Spirit of St Louis had completed the journey. But in 1928, Amelia Earhart became the first women to cross the Atlantic, flying with the same pilot that Frances had hired and lost when he quit, Wilmer Stutz.



Sources:
 Transatlantic Flight: A Picture History, 1873-1939, Joshua Stoff, 1999. 
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Wilson_Grayson




22 comments:

  1. Wonderful post Sharon and again so interesting.
    Yvonne.

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    1. She wasn't a pilot so I hesitated to use her in this series, but then I realized she symbolized the passion of women in that era. They wanted to compete with men and be recognized. They wanted to break the mold!

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  2. Hi, came to your blog by a to z list today! Happy blogging!'Best Wishes,
    Annette

    My A2Z @ Annette's Place | Follow Me On Twitter

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! Have fun in the a-z!

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  3. Oooh, that's an interesting prequel to Amelia's story!

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    The Multicolored Diary
    MopDog

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    1. Kind of gave me shivers when I learned the connection!

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  4. What a story this was. There seems to be theme of strong-willed and determined women in early aviation.

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  5. I admire her "why not?" attitude. That's the very thing great leaders are made of!

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    1. She really wanted to make a record for herself and other women. Too bad she didn't heed the warnings!

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  6. Fascinating theme! I'm enjoying all the history of these strong women.

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  7. There is a lot of tragedy in these stories but yet determination to try to accomplish what they set out to want to do!

    betty

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    1. Yes you have to admire there single mindedness.

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  8. Another one that disappeared!?!?! What's up with that, I wonder. Any of these women would make a great subject for an historical fiction (or nonfiction for that matter) book!

    LuAnn (approx #369 on the list) @ Back Porchervations.
    (and one of co-host AJ Lauer's #wHooligans)

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    1. Absolutely. Lots of great material for a book here :)

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  9. Thanks Sharon - maybe she was too foolhardy and hubris got the better of her in not heeding the warnings (I'm thinking of Icarus all of a sudden). Nevertheless she was courageous in her attempt to break the mould. I'm so enjoying your series thank you!

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  10. She tried so hard and let passion get the best of her. It seems that passion and and common sense make a good pair!

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  11. Not even having made it to Newfoundland, one wonders if perhaps some warnings should have been heeded? All of these women had tons of determination.

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    1. I very much agree! I have a stubborn streak too, so in some ways understand. She tried to fight the naysayers but simply made a mistake :(

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  12. This just confirms to listen to your gut instinct.

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  13. It certainly does. Did not pay to be so stubborn!

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