Bessie Owen, ca. 1937
(Source: Owen, 1941)
Raise your hand if you have heard of Bessie Owen.... I
Bessie Owen was the 38th of only 42 female
pilots to sign the Davis-Monthan Airfield Register. Owen’s
pilot license is cited as number 30,013, not nearly as low
as some of the denizens of the Davis-Monthan Register, including
Clarence Young (#2), or sister pilots Phoebe
Omlie (#199), Mildred
Morgan (#326) or Joan
Shankle (#417). She was a member of the The Ninety-Nines. There is some indication that she also earned a Transport License. Across several articles in 99s publications, she is cited as having eyesight problems.
Based in Santa Barbara, CA, she arrived at Tucson from Yuma,
AZ at 9:45AM on April 23, 1935. Her airplane was a Waco model UIC, S/N 3778, built on June 24, 1933 and registered
NC13423. She must have been in a hurry, as she departed
eastbound to El Paso, TX fifteen minutes later. She
noted in the Remarks column of the Register “Swell
Although she landed once, her airplane visited the Davis-Monthan Airfield twice. The
first time was on September 3, 1933 flown by H.C. Lippiatt. Lippiatt
was a Waco dealer on the west coast. Soon after this
visit, Lippiatt sold it to Earl C. Stewart of Santa Barbara,
CA on October 4, 1933. Owen became the second owner
when Stewart sold it to her with 615 accumulated flight hours
on February 18, 1935.
Later in the 1930s Bessie Owen flew this very Waco around
the world. It came from the factory with a Continental
R-670 engine of 210 horsepower. It was a four-place
airplane. When new it had a wooden propeller, 7.50
x 10.0 wheels and tires, a tail wheel, extra fuel tanks and
leather upholstery. She flew it that way on her global
Less than a year after her Tucson landing, Owen requested
authorization for a flight to the Far East, traveling with
mechanic Fred B. Novinger (which voyage, one genealogical source says, "set tongues wagging"). She leveraged her trip to
the Far East into a circumnavigation of the globe, with the
Atlantic and Pacific crossed by ship. She wrote a book, right sidebar, documenting
her adventures entitled “Aerial
in 1941. Image, above, left, of Owen
taken in Hong Kong and can be found in her book.
Her book is a great read, paralleling in flavor, along a similar route, the earlier book by Richard Halliburton, "The Flying Carpet," published in 1932. Richard Halliburton was an adventurer and raconteur. He was a distant cousin to the (Register signers) Halliburton brothers of the early Oklahoma oil industry, as well as today’s logistics and supply company. He and Register pilot Moye Stephens flew NR882N, a Stearman C3B (not a Register airplane). The Stearman, purchased and prepared especially for their adventure, had a scarlet fuselage with a gold stripe, black cowlings and gold wings and tail.
But I digress. At the outset of her voyage, Owen's airplane was shipped to
Belgium in January 1936. On July 24, 1936 Owen advised
the U.S. Civil Aviation Administration (CAA) that she had
been touring Europe and Northern Africa with it. She
went on across Persia, India and China. Oddly, she does not mention mechanic
Novinger in her book, nor are there any images of him. See the letter below dated February 6, 1937, for a possible explanation.
Further, there is some uncertainty about who her mechanic was, and when/where he was taken on to accompany her. One site visitor provides evidence that she apparently flew her Waco around Europe on her own before recruiting a mechanic in Switzerland, named Henri Magnenat, for the onward flight to the far east. The Magnenat connection is described in the book by Eather cited in the left sidebar.
Regardless of who the mechanic was, they landed in Hong Kong in 1937, and heard of a potential buyer in the Phillipines. They flew there, sold the Waco, and returned to the U.S. by PanAm Clipper service as described in the 1937 letter, below.
Below, Bessie Owen (2nd from left) flanked by the Chief of Police and the Greek Catholic Pope at Pernik before her departure to Sofia. This image faces page 102 of her book. Her Waco is in the background. A hungry dog stands in the foreground. Can anyone IDENTIFY her mechanic in this photograph?
Bessie Owen in Bulgaria, ca. 1936
(Source: Owen, 1941)
Her voyage with Novinger continued to the Philippine Islands where she sold her airplane. Please direct your browser to the link for NC13423 for details on the sale. She returned to the U.S. via Pan American Clipper.
Bessie Owen and Tony LeVier With Beech NC16447, Date Unknown (Source NASM)
Later in the 1930s Owen purchased a Beech Staggerwing, NC 16449 (not a Register airplane). At left, Owen confers with Tony LeVier. The exact date is unknown, but it is probably during the late 1930s (one of the Miami air events?) when she was known to have flown the Beech Staggerwing she is sitting on. The image is from the NASM.
She took this airplane to Mexico and Central America, and information from the NASM describes an accident she had with the Beech in Nicaragua early in 1939. The two-page letter, below, from Owen to a Mr. Reining of the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Authority. The letter provides insight into the logistics of repairing a U.S.-registered aircraft in Central America during the late 1930s. Note her mention of "Taca." TACA (Transportes Aéreos del Continente Americano) was an early Central American airline founded by Lowell Yerex, who owned at least one Register airplane, the Stinson NC10815.
Her insight into the transport pilots of the region is also instructional.
Letter to Mr. Reining, Records Division, CAA, page one: "... I came in with my wheels up..."
Bessie Owen's Letter to the CAA, February 8, 1939 (Source: NASM)
Letter, page two: "... this is the damndest place to be stuck..."
Bessie Owen's Letter to the CAA, February 8, 1939 (Source: NASM)
As far as we know, despite the conditions, her airplane was repaired and operational again.
Owen was active in the Ninety-Nines, serving as Chair of
the Los Angeles Chapter in 1940, and National Vice President
in 1941. As WWII spooled up, she was reporte to be staffing an Air Warning Observation Station for the FOurth Fighter Command somewhere, "on a hill."
Bessie Owen, March 1943 (Source: 99s Museum)
During 1943-44, she taught navigation at Santa Barbara State College. Late in 1944, the 99’s received a letter from her stating that she is living in Mexico, no longer had an interest in aviation and that she was resigning from the organization. Apparently, her eyesight problem finally caught up with her.
Finally, some interesting family history. Owen's family was originally located in Texas going back to the mid-1800s. Bessie's father, Hermann Kohlberg, was born June 8, 1855 and lived, and was probably born, in El Paso, TX (d. July 21, 1916 in San Francisco). He married Doris Meyer whose family was established in San Francisco, CA since goldrush days. Bessie's birth name was Kohlberg.
According to a site visitor and relative, Bessie Kohlberg was born on December 3, 1895 in San Francisco. She married Leopold Oppenheimer on October 21, 1917. The marriage ended in divorce, possibly in the early 1930s. She changed her last name to Owen and performed her flying and writing activities under that name. She died on February 22, 1967 in Mexico. Below, from the same source, an early photograph dated June 12, 1913.
Bessie (Kohlberg) Owen, Far Left, Seated, and Her Extended Family, June 12, 1913, London (Source: Family)
Taken at 59 Abbey Road, London, UK, this seeming Victorian photograph shows Bessie seated at far left. Her mother is seated at far right.
Update of 07/14/10 The letter below is an artifact that comes along once in a while just by chance. It is of great interest, because it dates Owen's presence in the Philippine Islands during her round-the-world flight. It was here that she sold her Waco, as documented above. This letter is shared with us by site visitor Bo Ecker, who discovered it while browsing an antique shop in California.
This letter was written by an unknown woman named Florence and addressed to another unknown woman, Sarah. The return address is identified as the Dewey Arms Apartments (see below). It cites Bessie Owen at the bottom of the first page, just above. The individual named "Parker" is elsewise unidentified. The letter gives us insight into Owen's mechanic, regardless of his name, that flew with her. It is little wonder that she hardly mentions him in her book. Note she is described as a "lioness" by Florence.
As well as being relevant to pilot Owen, this letter is a private window into what travel and communication was like in the late 1930s. It also hints at the social order of what might be called in earlier times, "colonials," or perhaps "missionaries" in this case. The "Union Church," founded in Manila in 1914, mentioned on the following page of the letter, is still an active establishment there.
The relatively new Pan American Clipper service was the fastest way at the time to get people and mail to the south Pacific. Now we know how Bessie Owen returned to the United States. Her flight on the Clipper was an 8,000 mile, five leg trip costing $950 one-way. It was a seven-day voyage. Page 3 follows.
As might be expected in a letter that served to send so much information all at once over a long ocean voyage, Florence added handwritten marginal notes just before she mailed it. As well as the notes at the edges of the pages above, Florence added this sentence on the back of her third page. The Vice President she refers to is unknown. Roosevelt's VP at the time of Florence's letter was John Nance Garner, who was long-time married to Mariette Rheiner.
Regarding the return address at the top of Florence's letter, the Dewey Arms Apartments were the subject of one of Harry Truman's presidential Proclamations on July 3, 1946. This particular proclamation had to do with the establishment of U.S. Consular offices in the newly independent Philippines. Truman's Proclamation, number 2694, "DESIGNATING PROPERTIES SUITABLE FOR DIPLOMATIC AND CONSULAR ESTABLISHMENTS OF THE UNITED STATES IN THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS," reads in part as follows.
|"8. All that plot of land, including the improvements thereon, designated as Lot No. 9 of Block No. 501 of Cadastral survey of the City of Manila, situated in the Districts of Ermita and Malate, bounded on the northeast by Lot No. 6 of Block No. 501, on the southeast by Lots 5 and 10 of Block 501, on the southwest by Cavite Boulevard, and on the northwest by Lot No. 8 of Block No. 501; containing a total area of 289 square meters and 40 square decimeters, more or less. Title registered in the name of the Government of the United States of America on May 22, 1946, by transfer Certificate of Title 79310, recorded by Register of Deeds for the City of Manila in Book T272, Page 60. This property is known as the Dewey Arms Apartments."
If anyone has any further insights into this letter, please let me KNOW. Does anyone know Florence, or Sarah, or Parker?
Update of 06/17/11 A site visitor states, "My parents were stationed in Manila in the late 1940s (diplomatic corps) and the Dewey Arms were a popular apartment building for embassy and military personnel in those days. ... Within the letter Bessie writes that many ask of her if she has ever been to Baguio. Baguio was and is an extremely popular destination for both Philippinos and visitors to the PI. (My parents, married in Manila in 1949, honeymooned in the US ambassador's resident in Baguio--the mountain retreat.)"
And further, "My father was the assistant air attache for the Philippines in 1949 and my mother was a cryptographer for the state department when they met and married in Manila in 1949. They were then transferred to Saigon when it was transitioning from French Indochina to 'Vietnam.' Upon formal recognition of Vietnam we established a diplomatic mission there and my father was the assistant air attache for Vietnam and became the second air force officer ever assigned to Vietnam--May 1950. Within the diplomatic circles, they had many parties and functions with the local elite, to include the president of both the PI and emperor of Vietnam. (My dad actually had gone tiger hunting with the emperor in Vietnam!)" See the Willey Collection for another example of tiger hunting.
THIS PAGE UPLOADED: 07/19/07 REVISED: 02/26/08, 03/13/08, 02/22/10, 07/14/10, 09/12/11