Flying far, living short
The end to Akron aviator Beryl Gwyn Hart's life remains a deep mystery
(from OHio.com, Jan 03, 2011)
Akron aviator Beryl Gwyn Hart took the world by storm in the 1930s. The vivacious redhead won international fame for attempting the first commercial trans-Atlantic airplane flight. Hart didn't achieve the glory of colleague Amelia Earhart, but she did meet a similar fate.
Both pilots are still missing.
The deep blue Atlantic was a world away from the hazy gray of Akron, where Hart grew up in the early 20th century.
She was born Beryl L. Gwyn on Feb. 15, 1900, in Fairmont, W.Va., but moved to Summit County at a young age with parents Russell and Cora Gwyn and sister Georgia. Her father was a butcher at Schwartz Brothers Meats on South Main Street near East Miller Avenue.
The family moved from home to home in South Akron. In one decade, the Gwyns lived on West Long Street, South Main Street, West Crosier Street, San Carlos Court and Lake Street.
A restless spirit seemed to permeate Beryl's life. After attending Akron Public Schools, she graduated from Hammel Business College at age 15.
The pretty, dimpled girl took a job as a waitress at Theodore F. Wagner's restaurant at 1009 S.
Main St. and soon became smitten with the 35-year-old proprietor. The feeling was mutual.
Wagner asked for permission to marry the girl, but her father balked at the 20-year difference. Lying about Beryl's age, the couple eloped in Maryland in 1915.
Life was less than ideal when they returned to Akron. The couple squabbled often. Beryl believed her husband had a roving eye for other waitresses.
After getting divorced in 1917, Beryl found work as a stenographer at the Polsky Co. and as a cigar girl at Hotel Bond.
At age 20, she married Robert Gillen, 23, of Akron, but the marriage broke up in less than a month.
She married her third husband, Albert Hart, an advertising man, in Cincinnati in 1923. The newlyweds set off on a road trip to Chicago a week after the wedding, but their automobile skidded off a highway and crashed into a ditch near Huron, Ohio.
Albert Hart was killed instantly. Beryl, 23, suffered broken legs and internal injuries.
Unlucky in love, the widow focused on work. She ran a Cleveland beauty parlor and saved enough cash to move to New York to study business.
That is where she developed an interest in aviation.
Amelia Earhart's adventures were an inspiration. In 1928, Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across North America and the first female passenger on a trans-Atlantic airplane.
Hart began to take flying lessons at the airport in Newark, N.J., from U.S. Navy Lt. William S. MacLaren, 34, a tall, rugged fellow who looked like movie star Douglas Fairbanks. An adept student, Hart recorded 350 hours of flight time and became one of only 14 U.S. women to hold a transport pilot's license.
MacLaren made news in 1930 by announcing his intention to make ''an ordinary flight'' across the Atlantic to prove the feasibility of cargo planes. The married man also made headlines by revealing that his co-pilot was a widow. One reporter described Hart as ''red-headed, pretty and agreeably feminine.''
After receiving $25,000 in financial backing, MacLaren and Hart ordered a Bellanca CH-300 twin-float seaplane with a 300-horsepower engine and pontoons. They named the black-and-white aircraft Tradewind.
MacLaren told reporters that he wasn't going to take any unnecessary risks on the flight.
''We're going to carry some freight to Europe and back by the safest, sanest route, and I believe we can make money from the start,'' he said.
He said he chose Hart to fly the plane under his navigation because he needed a pilot ''who not only would obey my orders implicitly but also would have perfect confidence in me.''
He looked over his list of students and picked out the one who was the most skilled.
''It happened to be Mrs. Hart,'' he said.
The former Akron woman was thrilled to be selected.
''Naturally, I jumped at the chance to make this trip,'' she said. ''It will be an important flight and a valuable experience. But our success is entirely up to Mr. MacLaren. He's the boss.''
The aviators planned to fly 650 miles from New York to Bermuda, where they would refuel and travel 2,042 miles to the Portuguese city of Horta in the Azores islands. Then they would fly another 1,520 miles to Paris.
They expected to spend 50 hours in the air before delivering 250 pounds of mail and food.
The pilots bid relatives farewell and took off Jan. 4, 1931, from North Beach in Queens, N.Y. For good luck, Hart carried a five-leaf clover, a rabbit's foot and an Indian penny.
Almost immediately, there was trouble. MacLaren's sextant, an instrument used for measuring distance, broke on takeoff. The Tradewind encountered heavy fog and the pilots got lost.
They flew 1,500 miles and spent 16 hours in the air, but they couldn't find the islands. MacLaren ordered Hart to double back to Norfolk, Va., where they landed before fuel ran out.
After buying a new sextant and repairing an oil leak, they prepared to try again Jan. 7.
A 1931 silent newsreel shows Hart and MacLaren wearing aviator togs and putting on their helmets and goggles. They smile, wave to the camera and take their seats in the cockpit.
The propeller rotates. The Tradewind taxis along the coast for about eight seconds before going airborne. The film ends.
The Tradewind made a perfect landing at Hamilton, Bermuda, about eight hours later. The pilots rested for two days before resuming the journey.
Weather conditions were fair in Bermuda, although experts predicted that the Tradewind might encounter squalls and rain on the way to the Azores. MacLaren decided the forecast was nothing to worry about.
After filling the seaplane's 460-gallon fuel tanks, MacLaren and Hart prepared to take off at 12:15 p.m. Jan. 10, 1931.
''White-clad Bermudans and winter visitors, including many Americans, cheered wildly as the machine skimmed the harbor waters and then mounted in the air to disappear a few minutes later in the haze to the eastward,'' one reporter noted.
The Tradewind was due over the Azores at 11:15 a.m. A crowd gathered in Horta to welcome the plane, but it didn't arrive.
Passing ships were radioed to look for the Tradewind. Islanders began to fire flares after dusk.
Reports trickled in that villagers on Sao Miguel island in the Azores believed they saw an object fall into the ocean several miles off the coast. Rescue efforts were made in rough seas. No debris was found.
It's unfathomable today, but MacLaren had failed to equip his plane with a radio or life raft. He believed that if the Tradewind had to land in the ocean, the pontoons would keep it afloat.
The five-leaf clover, rabbit's foot and Indian penny weren't enough. Hope faded fast.
The rescue effort ended after sailors searched remote islands, but saw no sign of survivors.
Hart and MacLaren were lost, but their cause was not. Commercial cargo flights became a reality by the end of the decade.
The Tradewind tragedy foretold the disappearance six years later of Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan in the Pacific Ocean. Searchers have looked for that wreckage for 73 years.
Somewhere in the deep blue Atlantic, a forgotten plane is also waiting to be discovered.