She received flight instruction in 1929 at Clover Field, Santa Monica, CA. She participated in the 1931 National Air Races from California to Cleveland, OH, the conclusion of which brought her to the Davis-Monthan Airfield.
There is a couple of Mary Charles dossiers among the archives
at the National Air and Space Museum. In a diary kept by Mary, we learn that her mother was Narcissa Ann Wesson Henry. One contains scrap books that carefully organize her letters and news articles referring to her race experiences. Below is a letter from her to her older sister, Ora. It describes the circumstances around her first solo flight. It is undated, but it is probably from late 1929-30. She held pilot certificate #17050.
pages of letter
Another of her NASM files contains among other things, a detailed 1935 document describing and providing an organizational template for an official Women's National Air Corps. The sub-theme of the Corps was "Peace by Preparedness." The folder contains the following logo that was designed for the Corps.
Image of WNAC wings.
To my knowledge, her full plan for the Corps was never activated. However, the Women's Air Reserve (WAR), another attempt to organize female pilots in a military manner, published their regulations. (PDF). The WAR had a system of demerits that did not appear in the WNAC document. The list follows.
The wording and sections of the WAR document borrow heavily from the texts she developed for the WNAC. Notice the similarity in the wings badge design on the last page of the document. More broadly, a few years later, the WAC and WASP of WWII assumed the organizational characteristics that were outlined by Charles.
In 1934, WAR pilots planned and executed a coast-to-coast flight, with sponsorship by the Gilmore Oil Company, to advance aviation. Below, sponsor Gilmore featured the flight on its September, 1934 newsletter.
Gilmore Newsletter, September, 1934 (Source: NASM)
The flight was further documented in newspapers, below. Their eastbound itineray is cited.
Undated & Unsourced News Article, Ca. 1934 (Source: NASM)
Undated News Description of Charles' Crash, Ca. 1934 (Source: NASM)
Gilmore Oil had the airplanes uniformly painted (cream & red), and placed the Gilmore lion logo on the fuselages. Charles didn't complete the flight as detailed in the unsourced news article at right. She barely made it across Arizona before she and her copilot crashed. They wiped off the landing gear and both were shaken up, but not injured.
This same folder contains her Federation Aeronautique International licenses for 1931 and 1932. Her date of birth on the licenses specifies March 17th. No year was given, probably in deference to the custom of women of the era not wanting their exact age known.
About six months after she received her pilot license, she received this letter from the Department of Commerce (DOC) calling her for an infraction of regulations. That letter, dated February 12, 1931, is below. It was signed by Tucson visitor Gilbert Budwig, who was Director of Air Regulation for the DOC.
DOC Letter to Mary Charles, February 12, 1931 (Source: NASM)
On February 18th she wrote her sister with a request to place some significant data in her bible. She identifies the date of her first solo flight, July 27, 1930), and alludes to the letter from the DOC. She wanted that letter to be placed in her bible for some reason.
Mary Charles Letter, February 18, 1931 (Source: NASM)
She also alludes to a conflict with Jim Granger regarding her potential acquisition of an "agency," probably an aircraft sales agency. Jim Granger operated Granger, Inc. at Clover Field and was the agent/distributor for Black Hawk and Swallow aircraft. It is not clear which agency caused Granger to be, "... dumbfounded, hurt, and the rest."
She was a sister of many female aviators who signed the Register. Below, she is shown with (L-R) Clema Granger, Mary, Gladys O'Donnell, Patty Willis (not a Register signer), Pancho Barnes and Mildred Morgan. They stand in front of Ruth Elder's airplane. Compare this photograph with the one on Pancho Barnes' page. The photos were clearly taken on the same day.
Mary Charles With Other Female Pilots (Source: Web)
Charles was a captain in the Women's Air Reserve (the WAR logo is on the berets of the women in the photo above), and
as such participated in a three-plane cross-country voyage
with two other women (see below).
Here is her airplane shown
at Whittier, CA with possibly its third owner, Roy C. Patten
(image, left, courtesy of present owner).
Not only is the airplane still registered with the FAA (see below),
but it had only a few owners. What is the chance of one owner
keeping an airplane for almost 50 years? This is one example.
Mary's E-4000 Travel Air, NC684K, was manufactured September 2, 1929,
with a 165 HP Wright J-6 installed. The photo shows the airplane
at Whittier when it was new. The owner died, and his estate
sold the airplane on January 22, 1931 to John Nagel, who passed
it to its current owners in September 1978. Between 1929 and
1978, NC684K had one shining moment, and then went dark.
The cosmic osmosis of the 1931 National Air Races drew flyers
from around the country between August 29 and September 7.
Below are memorabilia from the Race from Charles' scrapbook.
Memorabilia, 1931 National Air Race (Source: NASM)
The race is over now, and exhausted pilots with grainy eyelids
are returning to base. Homeward bound, Mary Charles landed
solo at the Davis-Monthan Airfield with NC684K on Saturday, September
12th at 10:30 in the morning.
Another letter to her sister among her NASM biographical materials exactly places her in Tucson on that day. It is unusual to find a letter that so exactly describes the context of a landing at Tucson. That letter, dated September 21st, is below. Mention of Tucson is near the bottom of this page. I'm not sure of the significance, if any, of the letterhead.
Mary Charles Letter, September 21, 1931 (Source: NASM)
Below, page 2 of her letter. Her flight between Tucson and the west coast was interrupted by mechanical problems and weather. Notice the common pins in the left margin of the page above. These were used to fasten the letter pages together, and the second page was pasted to the scrapbook page. Thus the gentle fold at the left margin of the top page I had to do to photograph the page.
Mary Charles Letter, September 21, 1931 (Source: NASM)
Notably, we learn the familiar name "Babe" was used by Charles with her family. Note, too, mention of Register pilot Jim Granger, who paralleled Charles' itinerary through Tucson after the NAR (he signed the Register two lines ahead of Charles). She was greeted at Santa Monica by Register pilot Burdette Fuller.If anyone can provide insight for other entities mentioned in this letter, please let me KNOW.
Records in the International Ninety-Nines Museum in Oklahoma
City state that Mary accrued 110 flying hours as of 1932. Thus, she was a novice pilot during the 1931 race. She did not place
among the top five in the women’s division (she was
last because of engine problems), but in Cleveland took third
in the dead stick landing contest and won $40.
Mary remained active in flying at least through 1934 when,
during the summer she participated in a 3-plane, first women’s
transcontinental formation flight from Union Air Terminal,
Los Angeles to Roosevelt Field, NY. Pancho Barnes and Bobbi
Trout flew the other planes. Unfortunately, Mary had to
turn back with engine problems.
When I spoke with Bobbi Trout, she said that before WWII
Mary’s husband sold pipe organs to theaters in the Los
Angeles area. He died and left Mary impoverished. She worked
for the military during WWII near Fresno, CA. A 77-page mimeographed report in her NASM folder states that she was the coordinator of civilian training during at least November-December, 1942 at the 55th Sub-Depot, Army Air Base, Lemoore, CA.
Soon after the
war, she became reclusive in Santa Monica, declining to visit
even with old friends, like Bobbi, who called on her.
Home today for NC684K, snug and disassembled, is in the loft
eaves of its owner's barn in Moorpark, CA. It exists as a
fuselage, landing gear and right horizontal stabilizer (no
wings), in the planning stages for restoration.
At right, its current owner stands beside the robust fuselage
of Mary Charles’ Travel Air in Moorpark, CA, September
I know very little about Mary Charles the person. She was married (referred to as "Mrs." in several documents), but she doesn't mention her husband. I would
appreciate an email if you know anything about her. I especially
need better photos.
UPLOADED: May, 2005 REVISED: 03/23/10
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