Saturday, November 22, 2014

Ambition vs. Storm: The Disappearance of Mrs. Grayson and The Dawn

"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned." (spoken by Zara in Act III, Scene VIII,  The Mourning Bride (1697) by William Congreve. The same could be said for a winter's Atlantic storm. So when the two meet, it's not likely much good will come of it.

The year 1927 was a difficult one for aviation, and especially for women in aviation. From the moment Lindbergh landed in Paris, the race was on to see who would become the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air. Princess Anne of Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg (who flew predominantly under her maiden name of Lady Anne Savile) and her pilot, WWI ace Leslie Hamilton disappeared in the middle of the Atlantic in their Fokker F.VIIa St. Raphael on August 31, 1927. Just a couple of weeks earlier, 22-year old Mildred Doran, a passenger on the Buhl Air Sedan Miss Doran, had disappeared while trying to cross the Pacific in the Dole Derby.

The Dawn on Old Orchard Beach, Maine, with a large crowd looking on. It has likely landed and just turned around to shut down (if it were about to take off, it is likely that there would be some members of the ground crew near the plane). The date is probably October 10, 1927. The pier had been a lot longer, but was heavily damaged in a storm in 1909. When it was rebuilt, the casino was moved in closer to the beach, to where it is shown here.

The tragedies continued. On September 7, a Fokker F.VIIa named Old Glory, sponsored by William Randolf Hearst, attempted the first flight from America to Rome, Italy; after departing from Old Orchard Beach, Maine, the crew was never seen again. The same day, a Stinson Detroiter named Sir John Carling in the first attempt at a London, Ontairo to London, England flight, took off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, and also disappeared. The Royal Windsor, also a Stinson, was the plane to make the first attempt to fly from Windsor, Ontario to Windsor, England, and made it as far as Harbour Grace on September 7; enroute, it, too, stopped at Old Orchard Beach. The disappearance of Old Glory and Sir John Carling led pilots Phil Wood and Duke Schiller to wisely re-think things and give up the attempt.

It was thus against this backdrop that Mrs. Frances Grayson, a niece of President Woodrow Wilson, announced that she fully intended to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. A newspaper writer and real estate speculator in New York City, Grayson become somewhat obsessed with the idea after Lindbergh's feat. She convinced her friend Aage Ancker (whose father was Pittsburgh steel magnate Charles Sang) to put up the money so that she could buy a custom-modified S-36 amphibian, NX-1282, from Igor Sikorsky, the thought being that such a plane would give the team an extra measure of safety - if they had mechanical difficulties, they could always just land on the water. Grayson hoped to make the attempt early in October. The caveat to this flight was that, despite all the publicity she sought trumpeting this as being proof that women could do whatever men could, it would still by a man (Wilmer "Wild Bill" Stultz) flying the plane, and a man (Brice Goldsborough) navigating it; Grayson was only flying as a passenger (though she made it clear to the media that she was the flight's "commander").

Grayson had competition, though. Young actress-wannabe Ruth Elder, at 23, also announced an attempt to cross the Atlantic. An unlicensed student pilot, who promoted herself in the media as "Lady Lindy", she'd be making the attempt with pilot Capt. George Haldeman, and would be leaving in her Stinson Detroiter American Girl from Old Orchard Beach. She had even told one reporter, "I wish I were a man! No woman can cross the Atlantic alone! We are not strong enough!"

Both women were staging at Curtiss Field on Long Island. Both ladies repeatedly announced their imminent departures, followed by delays. On October 8, the US Weather Bureau announced that they were discontinuing Atlantic weather reporting for the season, and strongly suggested that the flying season was over for the year. Undeterred, Grayson and crew departed Long Island for Old Orchard Beach on a cold afternoon of Monday, October 10. The location was an ideal jumping-off spot for trans-Atlantic attempts, because when the tide was out, the beach sported a wide, five-mile long swath of hard-packed sand. Grayson told the newspapermen that she and crew would lay over in Maine for a few days getting things ready for the big flight, and waiting for the weather to clear.

Grayson was thus stunned to hear the news the next morning, October 11, that Elder and Haldeman had left Roosevelt Field for Paris, despite the bad weather! When the American Girl failed to show up in Paris, though, everyone feared the worst, though in the presumed tragedy, Grayson saw opportunity to still realize her goal. Word came on October 14, though, that Elder and Haldeman were safe. They had to ditch in the ocean due to a broken oil line, about 320 miles northeast of the Azores, but fortunately were able to do it right next to the Dutch ship Barendrecht, and came away unscathed.

On October 17, Grayson told the assembled reporters, "Nothing can stop me now. Destiny is with me!" She and the crew of The Dawn took off from Old Orchard Beach at 9:33am, and turned east. They only made it to the Cape Elizabeth Lightship, though, and were battling heavy headwinds and were barely able to remain aloft, when Stultz decided to turn back and ordered Goldsborough to dump most of their fuel; they made it back to the beach without further incident.

Grayson decided to try again on the 23rd, six days after her first failure. This time they made it 500 miles east before the weather started closing in and Stultz again turned back to Old Orchard Beach. Grayson was beside herself with fury over the decision, and pushed hard for a third attempt. Stultz would have none of it, though, and quit, flying The Dawn back to Roosevelt Field.

About this time, Hearst Newspapers columnist Arthur Brisban wrote that he hoped "hereafter American girls will stay on the ground or at least do their flying over land," an extremely disingenuous comment seeing as how Old Glory was owned by his boss, had editor Philip Payne on board as a passenger, and was crewed by men...and fared worse than Elder had!

Mrs. Grayson was undaunted by her experienced (and wise) pilot's decision, and decided to try again in December. No Atlantic storms would keep her land-bound! She hired Lt. Oskar Omdal, who'd served in the Norwegian Navy and had once flown with Roald Amundsen, to fly her. Goldsborough declined to follow Stultz out the door, and remained faithful to Grayson. They were joined by Wright engineer Frank Koehler, who would fly with them for the first leg of the journey. At 5:07 pm, December 23, the crew left Roosevelt Field behind and, hoping to make London on Christmas day, and then fly on to Copenhagen, where Aage Ancker waited for them. Their first stop would be Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. They never arrived.

The first leg of The Dawn's journey started at Roosevelt Field, lower left, and was supposed to end at Habour Grace, upper right.

The last time the plane was seen was at 7:10 pm by a French cable station at Orleans, Cape Cod. Off Nauset Beach, Cape Cod, the crew of the schooner Rose Anne Belliveau thought they heard the sound of airplane engines through the roar of a fierce gale, and also thought they heard the sound of a large splash, followed by the fading of the engine noise. The schooner crew spotted nothing, though.

Had Omdal, finding the storm too intense, spotted the schooner and attempted an open water landing? There are some clues that this is what had happened. First, a Canadian radio station on Sable Island picked up several fragmented transmissions which included The Dawn's prefix at about 9:45 pm. The first was a request for a navigational bearing. The second transmission was "Something wrong here." The last was, "Plane down." The radio operators on Sable Island estimated that, based on radio signal strength, the transmitter was about 80 nautical miles from the island (for reference, the closest point on Nova Scotia is about 90 miles from Sable Island). A radio operator north of Harbour Grace also received a broken transmission which included, "Where are we? Can you locate us?"

Despite a large search and rescue effort, no trace was found. (In a tragic twist, after their departure, Goldsborough's wife received an envelope from him inscribed "Do not open until Christmas". Inside was a bank draft for $500, which she donated to the search effort.)

Just over a year later, a boy found a bottle washed up on the beach at Salem Harbor, Mass. Inside was a yellowed note that read, "1928. We are freezing. Gas leaked and we are drifting off Grand Banks. Grayson." If genuine (and there's no reason to think it wasn't), it suggests that The Dawn landed intact and remained afloat for some time.

Mrs. Grayson's last public words, as she climbed into The Dawn for the fateful flight were, "All my life Christmas has been the same. The same friends, the same gifts that didn't mean anything. Telling people things you didn't mean. But this will be different." It certainly was, just not exactly how she expected it to be.

After returning to Old Orchard Beach after her second attempt in October, Grayson had penned a letter, sealed it in an envelope, and later handed it to a New York Times reporter with instructions that it only be opened someday if something "went wrong". In it she wrote, "Who am I? Sometimes I wonder. Am I a little nobody? Or am I a great dynamic force - powerful - in that I have a God-given birthright , and have all the power there is if only I will understand and us it? It is a great, living, breathing power of understanding my heritage ... Sometimes I am torn ... Can it be that I am wrong? Wrong after these many months of hard preparations, these many months of listening to that still small voice ... The sun is ever shining. ... It is now time for me to show my strength. I am who or what I really am, a little nobody or a living, forceful power to carry out part of His great plan: I will win. I must not quit too soon. Success is just ahead and the clouds between must disappear."

Grayson once wrote, "I will prove that woman can compete with man in his own undertakings" (this despite the fact that she was still relying on two men to get the job done). In a sense, she had succeeded: she had proven that a woman can do exactly what a man can do: they both die just as dead when they ignore the realities of Atlantic winter storms.

In an ironic footnote to the story, a woman finally did make it by air across the Atlantic, some six months later, landing on June 19, 1928 at Burry Point, Wales. She was a passenger - tasked with keeping the logbook current - in a plane flown by none other than Wild Bill Stultz, who chose to make his historic crossing in better weather. That passenger was Amelia Earhart.

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