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CLARA ADAMS—PERSISTENT FIRST FLIGHTER

IN 1914, CLARA Adams née Grabau first flew in an airplane, a Thomas flying boat on Lake Eustis, Florida. In 1917, she followed this with a Wright Flyer piloted by Lt. Marjorie Stinson of the U.S. Army Aviation Corps.

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A Thomas flying boat, c. 1914. Image from celticowboy.com.

Clara evidently enjoyed these experiences—big time. For the next three decades, she delighted in being among the first people, and often the first woman, on inaugural flights of one kind and another. For good reason, Clara called herself “a persistent first flighter.”

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Clara Adams née Grabau, 1884 – 1971, American aviation enthusiast extraordinaire. This and other images from airship.net. The website has a good  collection of comments.

Clara was born in December 3, 1884, in Cincinnati, Ohio, of German-American parentage. She studied piano at the Conservatory of Music in Leipzig, Germany, where her father Walter was a professor. Later in life, she was known to entertain friends by performing solos while seated with her back to the piano (à la Mozart’s famed antics).

Clara married George Lincoln Adams, a wealthy leather tanning executive, some sources saying 40 years her senior. However, Adams was born December 5, 1853, thus making the age difference 31 years. Clara was (at least) his second wife, what we might call a trophy wife today.

Her paternal grandmother was a von Hindenburg, a familial relationship that garnered Clara a letter of introduction from General Paul von Hindenburg, destined to be president of Germany 1925 – 1934. This letter and other family ties led to Clara meeting Dr. Hugo Eckener, manager of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin works in Friedrichshafen.

This visit to the works in 1924 got Clara a ride in the Zeppelin dirigible ZR III, later named the USS Los Angeles after its being transferred as war reparation. The visit also led to Clara being the first woman to buy a ticket on a transatlantic flight, that of the Graf Zeppelin on its return to Germany after this dirigible’s inaugural trip across the Atlantic in 1928.

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Clara and the airship Graf Zeppelin, 1928.

Her Graf Zeppelin ticket cost $3000 (figure $41,000 in today’s dollar) and came with advice that folks dressed for dinner aboard, but better wear woolens, not silks. As another earlier air traveler, Lady Hay Drummond-Hay, noted, “…leather coats, woolies and furs will be our evening dress. The hot soup and steaming stew more welcome than cold caviar and chicken salad.”

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Elegant dining, if not comfortably heated, aboard the Graf Zeppelin. Image from Plane Talking.

In 1929, husband George, 75, passed away. Clara, 44, became a wealthy widow, and one with continued enthusiasm for aviation. In July of that year, she met Amelia Earhart and recognized a kindred spirit.

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Clara with Amelia Earhart. This and the following image from The Maiden of Maiden Flights.

In 1931, Clara took Pan American Airways to Rio. There, she joined the Dornier Do-X on its tour of several continents and flew in this giant flying boat back to New York.

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The Dornier Do-X, 1931.

Her adventures continued. In 1936, when the dirigible Hindenburg made its inaugural voyage from Europe to the U.S., Clara was one of the 11 women aboard. (This was a year before the craft’s Lakehurst, New Jersey, disaster.)

That same year, Clara took a United Airlines flight from New York to San Francisco, there to board a Pan Am Clipper for its inaugural commercial service from the U.S. to Manila, Philippines.

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Ludwig Weinzheimer and Clara in Honolulu, 1936, en route to Manila. Image from coverspecialist.com, which contains Clara’s own account of her adventures. See also the comment from Weinzheimer’s granddaughter at airship.com.

In 1937, commercial service was established between New York and Bermuda. Clara was aboard its first flight.

In 1939, she traveled from New York completely around the world on commercial airlines, Pan Am, Deutsche Lufthansa, KLM and United. The first legs were in Pan Am’s Dixie Clipper, the same Boeing 314 flying boat taking Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the Casablanca Conference in 1943. Clara’s easterly itinerary involved 16 stops, over a total of 16 days and 19 hours.

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Itinerary of Clara’s around-the-world trip on commercial airlines, 1939.

In July, 1940, Transcontinental & Western Air (later TWA) inaugurated its New York/Los Angeles service using the Boeing 307 Stratoliner; Clara was aboard.

Another Clara “firster” came later in the year, when she flew on a Boeing 314 inaugurating Pan Am’s U.S./New Zealand service. This trip originated in San Francisco, with stopovers in Hawaii, Kanton Island and New Caledonia (two South Pacific island outposts specifically developed by Pan Am).

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A familiar pose.

In between all these flights, Clara maintained a busy schedule on the lecture circuit in the U.S., Germany and New Zealand. World War II brought her world adventures to an end. However, in 1966, Clara was one of five original firsters participating in the 30th anniversary of Pan Am’s San Francisco/Manila flight.

Clara died in 1971, age 86. Her ashes were scattered at sea—appropriately from the air. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

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This entry was posted on May 18, 2015 by in Vintage Aero and tagged , .
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