The Liberty Gazette
February 28, 2017Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: The boy was only six when his mom fell ill. He didn’t know much about her, and his father didn’t speak of her. Perhaps grief, or fear of touching that grief stopped Berkeley Brandt, Jr. from telling the boy about his mother as he grew. Berkeley Brandt III would grow up to be a thoracic surgeon, but first this son of pilots would learn to fly.
Linda: The life of Grace Huntington Brandt was a life too short. Had she not left us so young I am certain you would know her name. I’ve studied her. Grace had grace, and style, and determination. She had guts, patience when she needed it, and impatience when she need that, too.
As a child she would gaze at every passing plane, wishing for a ride. Her book, “Please, Let Me Fly”, published posthumously thanks to her son, reveals a woman who would shatter aviation records at a time when a female form on the flight deck fostered frowns. Grace found other jobs to keep her busy. A student of fine arts – writing, drama, sculpture, piano and violin – her early flying years were supported by her income as a Disney staff writer.
Mike: An interview by Hill Edwards appeared in Flying Magazine in October, 1941, wherein Grace spoke proudly of her brother, a natural flyer whom she helped get into flying school, who made his first solo flight after only eight hours of instruction. His accomplishment likely gave her competitive spirit something to beat. She soloed in seven hours.
Back then, a woman, or any non-Caucasian, would have to learn on her own, as no schools would admit them to flying or mechanic programs. But a few guys did help her. Burleigh Putnam taught her to fly. Jim Barwick, Hollywood stunt pilot and Lockheed test pilot, and Jo Prosser, flight school owner, were also teachers. Paul Mantz, another movie stunt pilot (“Sky King” television series; “The Spirit of St. Louis”, starring Jimmy Stewart) was the first to treat her as a professional pilot, with an actual paying job as a flight instructor. Of all the male students she had, not one, she said, turned away upon seeing her, or after flying with her.
But flying careers were not open to women when Grace took to the spotlight and graciously represented the weaker sex as just as able and confident as male pilots. First, she flew a small plane called a Fairchild to 18,700’ and then an even smaller plane, a Taylorcraft, to 24,311’, breaking altitude records for those classes of airplanes. Grace could have – and wanted to – continue to climb, so her lukewarm reaction to the second altitude record was understandable. There were higher records in bigger planes but no one would lend a bigger plane to a little lady. She had, as she told Edwards, “only scraped the bottom of the top.
Although Hill Edwards accurately described her as very impatient with the prevailing thought that flying jobs are for men, it was also true, she said, that “The main thing in high altitude flying – getting everything you can out of a ship – is to be very patient.”
Linda: Grace took every opportunity to champion women in aviation. “I hope I get a little recognition,” she told Flying Magazine, “ – not for myself but for all women who fly – which will result in jobs which we know we can fill.”
I almost feel as though I miss Grace. That may sound odd, but my research on her, including her son’s writings, has brought me to a place of admiration of someone I missed out on knowing.