Clara Adams is little remembered today but she was well known as a pioneer of commercial aviation during the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s — and always as a paying passenger.
Known as a “First Flighter,” Clara Adams was aboard the maiden flights of the Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg airships, Pan Am Clipper flying boats, and other early airliners, and she became acquainted with many of the famous aviators of the day including Amelia Earhart (picture).
Mrs. Adams was married to George L. Adams, president of the American Leather Tanning company, who owned a series of tanneries in Pennsylvania. George Adams was 40 years older than his young wife and died in 1929, leaving Clara a wealthy widow with the time and money to indulge her passion for air travel.
First Time in the Air
Clara Adams made her first flight in March, 1914, in a Thomas flying boat piloted by Army Captain Walter E. Johnson: “I was a mere youngster but it was an experience that marked the beginning of years of flying. I have never handled the controls and have no desire to become a pilot.”
Clara Adams and the Zeppelins
Adams began her long association with zeppelins in 1924 with a letter of introduction to Hugo Eckener from Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, to whom she was related. (Clara Adams was born Clara Grabau, on December 3, 1884, to a German family living in Cincinnati, Ohio; her grandmother was Augusta von Hindenburg, a cousin of the German general and future president.)
Her letter of introduction to Eckener “opened the magic doors of the Zeppelin realm,” as she described it, and Eckener invited her to fly on one of the test flights of the LZ-126/ZR-III, which had been built for the Americans as war reparations and would become the United States Navy airship USS Los Angeles.
In 1928, Adams purchased the first transatlantic air ticket ever sold to a female passenger and was on the first flight of the airship Graf Zeppelin from North America to Europe in October, 1928.
The loss of the airship Hindenburg in May, 1937 apparently did not shake Adam’s enthusiasm for zeppelin travel; she later recounted that “on the day after the destruction of the Hindenburg, I wrote out my check for $100 to be held as a deposit for the first ticket for the new dirigible, LZ-130… This I did to prove that I had not lost confidence in dirigible travel.”
Across the Oceans by Flying Boat
Adams was also a pioneering passenger in the other leading aviation technology of the day, the flying boat. In 1931, she was the only paying woman passenger on the flight of Germany’s massive, twelve-engined Dornier DO-X flying boat from Rio de Janeiro to New York.
Clara Adams was also aboard many Pan Am Clippers for their inaugural flights, including the first passenger flight across the Pacific on Pan American’s “Hawaii Clipper.” The Martin M-130 left San Francisco on October 21, 1936 and flew to Manila in the Philippines, with stops at Hawaii, Midway, Wake, and Guam. And the following year Mrs. Adams was on the first flight of Pan Am’s Bermuda Clipper from New York to Bermuda in 1937.
Around the World by Air
Clara Adams made one of her most famous trips in 1939, when she set a world record for an around-the-world flight solely on scheduled passenger airlines. She left New York on June 28, 1939 aboard Pan American’s “Dixie Clipper” (a Boeing 314 flying boat which in 1943 would carry President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Casablanca Conference). Traveling on Pan American, Deutsche Lufthansa, KLM, and United Airlines, she circled the globe in 16 days and 19 hours, with stops in Horta, Lisbon, Marseille, Leipzig, Athens, Basra, Jodphur, Rangoon, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Manila, Guam, Wake Island, Midway Island, Honolulu, and San Francisco, returning to New York on July 15, 1939.
Clara Adams made another first flight in September, 1940, when she flew on Pan Am’s Boeing B-314 “American Clipper” as it made the first passenger flight from the United States to New Zealand.
Clara Adams, Eccentric?
Her flights brought her great publicity, but Clara Adams was also viewed as something of an eccentric. Time Magazine compared her to the “fire buffs” who chase fire engines in an August 3, 1931 article, and told readers that in her home town in Pennsylvania, “Mrs. Adams is considered something of a character… She owns several automobiles, yet is frequently seen walking the nine miles between Tannersville and Stroudsburg, or hailing motorists for a lift. Tall and lean, she dresses plainly, wears cotton stockings. She plays the piano with exceptional skill, is locally famed as a china-painter.”
Her Legacy to Commercial Aviation
While Adams may have been “a character” (she was infamous among Pan Am flight crews for pestering pilots for dozens of autographs), and while she did not contribute anything to the technological development of aviation, she did play an important role in the promotion of commercial aviation in its early days. Through her relentless self-promotion (she went on lecture tours describing her aerial adventures, made sure that she received as much newspaper coverage as she could generate, and autographed mountains of postcards, menus, and other memorabilia), Clara Adams brought passenger flight to the attention of the masses, and helped change the public perception of aviation from a dangerous enterprise for daredevils in leather helmets to something that could be enjoyed by a little old widow from Pennsylvania. Her round-the-world flight in 1939 was a very public demonstration of just how far aviation had come in so short a time; Charles Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic in May, 1927, and just twelve years later it was possible for a woman to buy a ticket to fly around the world on scheduled airlines.
And Clara Adams made sure the world knew it.