Obituaries

Fran Bera, recordbreaking pilot and flight instructor; at 93

In an undated handout photo, Fran Bera, a consummate aviator, test pilot and flight instructor. Bera set altitude records, won transcontinental air races and stopped counting her flight hours at 25,000 logged. Two years after she last flew her Piper Comanche 260, Bera died at home in San Diego on Feb. 10, 2018, at age 93. (Handout via The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY SLUGGED OBIT-BERA BY SLOTNIK FOR APRIL 12, 2018. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. --
Handout via The New York Times
Fran Bera, a consummate aviator, test pilot and flight instructor, in an undated handout photo.

NEW YORK — 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 turboprop 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.

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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.

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Leslie Day, a friend who hangared her plane near Ms. Bera’s at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, Calif., 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 Feb. 10 at her home in San Diego after having a stroke, Day said. She was 93. Her death was not widely reported at the time.

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She and Day were members of the San Diego chapter of the Ninety Nines, an international group of female pilots whose first president was Amelia Earhart. (Day remains a member.)

Ms. Bera was a consummate aviator, licensed to fly propeller and jet planes, 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.

“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,’” 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.

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“There’s different lines on the airspeed indicator,” 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 pilots flew from Santa Monica, Calif., to Oregon.

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 newspaper 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 Dec. 7, 1924, in Mulliken, Mich. 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, 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 got a job as a flight school instructor near Grand Rapids, Mich., and, in 1947, married Gordon Bera, the school’s owner. They moved to Santa Monica in 1951. Although 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 many honors for her aerial feats, including a spot on the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Wall of Honor, a Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the Federal Aviation Administration and an Elder 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.”