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February 2018 Hero of the Month: Frances S. Bera, Aviation Legend

If you have ever flown an airplane in San Diego or spent time at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, you probably have either met or heard of aviation legend Fran Bera. Fran passed away this month at the age of 94. She was a trail blazer and role model for many women who followed her into the aviation profession. The following obituary appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune and is worthy of your time:

Frances S. Bera
from The San Diego Union Tribune, March 18, 2018

Born Frances Sebastian on December 7, 1924 in Mulliken, Michigan, she was the youngest of 8 children born to Hungarian immigrant farmers. Learning to fly at age 15 at the airport in Ionia, Michigan, Fran soloed an aircraft at age 16 and obtained her private pilot certificate that same year, 1940. She graduated from Lake Odessa High School, Lake Odessa, Michigan.

Fran went on to earn her commercial, flight instructor, helicopter, hot air balloon, single/multi-engine aircraft, and seaplane ratings. In addition, she became a free-fall parachutist and ferried surplus military aircraft after World War II. At age 24, Fran became the youngest person, and the only female at the time, to become an FAA Designated Examiner, eventually administering over 3,000 check rides to those applying to become pilots and those pilots who wanted to obtain advanced ratings (commercial, instrument, and multi-engine).

Fran moved to Long Beach, California in the 1950s, and continued working in the aviation business as a flight instructor and a FAA Designated Examiner. In the 1960s, she was an experimental test pilot of Lift Systems, Inc., the developer of a new design in rotor craft a helicopter with no tail rotor. She was the first woman in history to fly a helicopter with no tail rotor. From 1960 to 1985, she was one of few women in the world to sell new aircraft for Beechcraft and Piper manufacturers. She applied to the First Lady Astronaut Trainees program, one of only 25 women to undergo the rigorous testing for the space program that was unfortunately scrapped in 1962.

In June 1966, Fran broke the world altitude record at 40,154 feet, in a normally aspirated twin engine Piper Aztec, and this record still holds today. A recognized expert in aviation, she was appointed to serve on the Women’s Advisory Committee on Aviation (WACOA) organized by the F.A.A. and served on “The Aviation Task Force for California” under former California Governor Ronald Reagan (1969).

Her greatest avocation, however, was flying in air races. Fran set an unequaled record as a seven-time 1st place winner, and five-time 2nd place winner of the All Woman Transcontinental Air Race, also known as the “Powder Puff Derby.” She placed in the International Women’s Air Race, the Reno National Air Races, and many other races including the Great Race from London, England to Victoria, B.C., Canada.

From the 1990s to 2008, Fran set another record by achieving seven 1st place wins, four 2nd place finishes, and one 3rd place finish in the Palms to Pines All Women’s Air Races.

Active in aviation throughout her life, she continued to push limits by earning her Airline Transport Pilot certificate and a type rating in a Cessna Citation Jet (CE-500) at age 70, continued to train pilots into her 80s, and flew aircraft into her 90s. She accumulated well over 25,000 hours of flying in her lifetime.

The recipient of multiple aviation honors, Fran was awarded the “Who’s Who in Aviation” (1973), a Wall of Honor listing at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum (2004), the Livingston Award by the Whirly Girls for contributions to the helicopter industry (2005), the “Elder Statesman of Aviation” by the National Aeronautic Association (presented by former Senator Bob Dole in 2006), and the FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award (2007). She was inducted into the Women in Aviation Pioneers Hall of Fame in recognition of contributions to the advancement of aviation (2006), and the International Aerospace Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air and Space Museum (2007).

Fran died in San Diego, California, on February 10, 2018, where she lived the past 50 years.

Rest in peace, Fran. — Jim

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