Since 1987 Americans have set aside March as Women’s History Month, offering the opportunity to honor aviation pioneers like Alys McKey Bryant whose accomplishments were remarkable even by modern standards. Before she died at age 76, she had been employed in a wide range of aviation-related jobs and as a deep sea diver.
At California in 1912, Bryant rebuilt a Curtiss-type aircraft and taught herself to fly. She worked for movie studios and made exhibition flights, becoming the first female aloft in Canada during 1913. She married young and was widowed young. By 1915 she worked as an aircraft mechanic and met her future employer, Tom Benoist.
“You are just a Jack of all Trades, and master of none,” her mother often said. Bryant would reply, “Well, perhaps it is good ... to be able to do several things, for then one is never out of a job.”
There is much to know about Bryant’s life, perhaps none more indicative of her talents and emotional strength than her years as factory supervisor, mechanic, and flight instructor at The Benoist Airplane Company at Sandusky, OH, between 1917 and 1919.
Tom W. Benoist (1875-1917)
In 1911, Benoist had a thriving aviation school in St. Louis with Anthony “Tony” Jannus as chief pilot and instructor. In 1912 he founded Benoist Aircraft Company and began designing aircraft utilizing engines made by the Roberts Motor Company of Sandusky. That same year he added floats to his aircraft, and Jannus made a historic over-river flight from Omaha, NE, to New Orleans, LA, launching sales for Benoist’s flying boats.
In 1914 Benoist founded the world’s first scheduled passenger airline from the shores of Tampa to St. Petersburg, FL. The wing span of his aircraft reached 65 feet with a 75-hp power plant fully enclosed in its hull.
Benoist (now without Jannus) eventually relocated into a portion of the Roberts Motor Company factory at Sandusky. In 1916 his Benoist “Type 17” design utilized sheet steel sections and was powered by a 100-hp Roberts engine. He tested and flew his flying boats at Battery Park on the bay of Lake Erie. In 1917, as the United States prepared to enter WWI, Benoist hired Bryant to build aircraft and help train students for military service as airmen.
Between 1933 and 1938, Bryant wrote “Born With Wings,” an unpublished manuscript which includes personal and little-known details of her months at Benoist Aircraft Company, nicknamed by its founder as “the Benoistery.”
According to Bryant, Benoist took students into his home, and after dinner, they entertained themselves by creating an “aviation orchestra.” On Sundays they routinely visited Bryant’s hotel and crowded into her apartment to talk about aviation. Benoist sat in a high-backed chair the boys called his “throne” and as Bryant recalled, they spoke of “... how to make this, and how we were going to build that, and of one make of motor and of another and so on ... Tom Benoist, their idol, their leader, their companion, made life interesting for those boys.”
Bryant worked long hours, soon mastering her new trade. “This was my first experience in boat building and there was so much to be learned ... I know how to do a good soldering job, how to build wings and controls, and how to make from raw material the necessary metal fittings, but the boat hulls were different from the pontoons we had built on the West Coast. My experience in woodwork held good and soon I was deeply immersed in every detail of building the hulls for flying boats.”
Bryant recalls that during the winter months when Lake Erie was frozen and flying was not possible, Benoist worked on a design of a small “pursuit type” aircraft for use in the impending war.
“I built the first of the wing sections,” she later recalled, “and several controls; the rudders, fins, and ailerons and had sewed the covers for the wings and controls, but we never finished the little plane. As soon as the weather permitted we overhauled the Benoist hangar on the bay and the boys built new runways for the flying boats and before the ice was all out of the bay they had everything ready to start flying instructions.”
In the spring of 1917 Benoist’s students resumed flight training while production continued at the factory where Bryant was needed to oversee operations and teach basic building techniques. She had found a niche not only in her work but among companions and in a town she once described as “the homiest city” she had ever lived in. Sadly, her contentment did not last long.
Bryant recalled that during June, Benoist discussed his future plans to develop an amphibian plane. “Things went along beautifully at the Benoist plant and hangars,” she recalled, “... and our boys were all making unusual progress when without an instant’s warning, we were thrown into a state of devastation. Tom Benoist was dead.”
In what Bryant described as a “queer quirk of fate,” Benoist fell to his death disembarking from a street car. Through constant financial difficulties, Benoist’s managed to train dozens of airmen, and sell about 100 of his flying boats built at the Sandusky factory. His death was a great loss to the advancement of aviation and personally to those like Bryant who knew him well.
During the confusing and depressing months following Benoist’s death, his brother Charles entered negotiations at New York the sell the Benoist Aircraft Company assets to an unnamed “promoter.” Aircraft production and flight school ceased and Bryant was assigned the dismal task of sorting out the massive piles of drawings, patent records, and office files. “I sweltered with tears and perspiration often rolling down my face until I felt I could endure no more,” she said.
Unfortunately the deal fell through, thereby closing the “Benoistery” for good. The Roberts Motor Company also soon closed its doors. Discouraged and alone, Bryant allowed herself a rare “rest,” to enjoy the water sports of Lake Erie. In May, 1919, the Sandusky Star Journal reported that Bryant was still working at the factory with future plans to return to flying full time:
“... Mrs. Bryant puts in a good eight or nine hours every day at her plant. Attired in the garb of a laborer, she tinkers with motors and does all the other kinds of work that the late Tom Benoist ... used to do ... Mrs. Bryant has the big airboat that Benoist used to fly, about ready to fly again ... During the coming summer Mrs. Bryant will carry passengers from Cedar Point [amusement park] as the late Tony Jannus used to carry them several years ago.”
Following more years of far-flung adventures, “Tiny” Alys Bryant died in 1954, now remembered and honored among women in aviation history.
Giacinta Bradley Koontz is an aviation historian and author. She was the founder and director of the Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation and Museum from 1995-2001 (the site of Charles Taylor’s grave in North Hollywood, CA). Giacinta holds a BA in anthropology with a minor in U.S. history and has given presentations on pioneer aviation since 1995. Most recently she has been awarded a partial grant from the Wolf Aviation Fund to write her second book, highlighting the life of Amelia Earhart’s mechanic, Ernest Eugene Tissot Sr.