Aviation Community Mourns the Loss of Fran Bera

Fran Bera’s fascination with flight began when she took an airplane-themed carnival ride as a young girl in Michigan in the 1930s.

As a teenager she hitchhiked more than 30 miles to an airfield, where she worked odd jobs and saved for flight lessons. She earned her pilot’s license at 16, and by 24, the youngest allowable age, she became a designated examiner, allowed to certify new pilots.

Ms. Bera went on to win more than a dozen air races. She set an unbroken National Aeronautic Association record for highest altitude attained in a twin-engine Piper Aztec, pushing that plane to an altitude better suited for a jet. And, she said, she once flew a small plane from California to Siberia on a whim.

Ms. Bera also oversaw more than 3,000 check rides, or licensing examinations, for new pilots, and in the 1980s stopped counting her flight hours after she had accumulated 25,000.

Leslie Day, a friend who hangared her plane near Ms. Bera’s at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, California, outside San Diego, estimated in an interview that Ms. Bera had spent the equivalent of more than three years in the pilot’s seat.

Ms. Bera last flew her white Piper Comanche 260 (decorated with pink and magenta stripes and the phrase “Kick Ass” stenciled on the fuselage) in January 2016, when she was 91.

She stopped flying when chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, arthritis and other health problems made clambering into the cockpit – getting to it by first climbing onto her plane’s right wing – too arduous.

Ms. Bera died on February 10, 2018 at her home in San Diego after having a stroke, Ms. Day said. She was 93. Her death was not widely reported at the time.

She and Ms. Day were members together of the San Diego chapter of the Ninety Nines, an international group of female pilots whose first president was Amelia Earhart.

Ms. Bera was a consummate aviator, licensed to fly airplanes, helicopters and hot air balloons. She worked as a flight instructor, sold airplanes for Beechcraft and Piper and was a test pilot; in the 1960s, she flew an experimental helicopter with no tail rotor.

Female pilots were unusual when Ms. Bera started flying, in the 1940s, but breaking aviation boundaries came naturally for her.

“She said, ‘It wasn’t that I was a women’s libber, it’s that this is what I love to do and it’s my calling,’ ” Ms. Day said.

At first glance, Ms. Bera did not necessarily fit the conventional image of a dashing pilot: She stood under 5 feet tall and often flew wearing a dress. But she was fearless and, when racing, highly competitive.

“There’s different lines on the airspeed indicator,” Ms. Day said. “You want to be in the green line; yellow line, you’re pushing it, and red line is where you don’t want to be. And she would always joke that she would always red-line her engine.”

Ms. Bera’s penchant for speeding contributed to seven wins, most of them during the 1950s, in the All Woman Transcontinental Air Race, better known as the Powder Puff Derby; and seven wins, most of them in the 21st century, in the Palms to Pines All Women’s Air Race, in which participants flew from Santa Monica, Calif., to central Oregon.

In another race, from London to Victoria, British Columbia, in the early 1970s, Ms. Bera and her co-pilot rushed to refuel in Glasgow and get back in the air.

“It was so fast, my girlfriend accidentally popped her Mae West,” Ms. Bera told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2007, using World War II slang for an inflatable life jacket. “She flew across the Atlantic with it inflated. It was terrible.”

Ms. Bera set her altitude record in 1966, climbing to 40,154 feet – so high that she needed to use bottled oxygen in the perilously thin atmosphere.

In 1993, she flew her Piper 235 Cherokee from California to Siberia “just for the fun of it,” she told The Lakewood News of Lake Odessa, Mich., a local newspaper based near her hometown. Soon afterward she decided to upgrade to her swifter Comanche, explaining, “I’m getting older, I need to get places faster.”

She was born Frances Sebastian to Elizabeth and Fred Sebastian, Hungarian immigrant farmers, on December 7, 1924, in Mulliken, Michigan. The youngest of eight children, she developed a passion for flying as a girl; she would sneak off to study aviation and take flight lessons without mentioning any of it to her parents. They learned about her flying, she said, when she needed their written permission to fly solo at 16.

After graduating from high school in Lake Odessa, Michigan, she sought to join the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, a unit, known as the Wasps, that flew military aircraft on noncombat missions during World War II. But she was rejected because of her height.

She became an adept parachutist, however, and after the war, when the military began selling off surplus aircraft, she flew planes to buyers around the country.

She also got a job as a flight school instructor near Grand Rapids, Michigan, and, in 1947, married Gordon Bera, the school’s owner. They moved to Santa Monica in 1951. Though the marriage ended in divorce later that decade, Ms. Bera kept his surname even after remarrying twice.

Eudene McLin, her husband of nearly 50 years, died in 2016. She is survived by a stepdaughter, Jackie Bera; and a sister, Edna Baldwin.

Ms. Bera received numerous honors for her aerial feats, including a spot on the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum’s Wall of Honor, a Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the Federal Aviation Administration and an Distinguished Statesman Award from the National Aeronautic Association.

But she said that the most gratifying part of her long career was still the sensation of being airborne.

“It still fascinates me after 65 years of flying,” she said in 2007. “And I’m still learning.”