Mary Myers (1849-1932)

Mary’s skill as a balloon pilot and her cool headedness in crisis situations were legendary. She managed to pass her entire career without major mishap.

Issue: 12 / 2017By Joseph Noronha

The first licensed woman aviator in the United States (US) was Harriet Quimby who achieved the feat in August 1911. However, the first US woman to pilot her own aircraft did it 31 years earlier. It was on July 4, 1880, that Mary Myers made her first solo flight in a lighter-than-air balloon at Little Falls, New York. Over the next 11 years this brave aviation pioneer set many records for balloon ascents and enthralled the public at numerous country fairs and town shows.

Together with her husband Carl, another distinguished figure in the field of balloon aviation, she made a business of selling passenger airships and high-altitude weather balloons which they manufactured at their own “balloon farm” in Frankfort, New York. The quaint name came from the half-inflated balloons that looked like giant mushrooms being grown there. The couple were also awarded several patents on aerial navigation devices and balloons.

Mary “Carlotta” Myers (née Mary Hawley) was born on August 1, 1849, in Boston. Not much is known about her early life before she met and married Carl Myers in November 1871. Carl was highly qualified – a businessman, scientist, inventor, meteorologist, balloonist and aeronautical engineer. In 1873, he took to making hydrogen gas balloons and passenger airships. Mary soon caught his passion for aeronautics and functioned as his lab technician while keeping the business books as well. The balloon fabric at the time was rather flimsy and prone to shredding and gas leakage. After investigating various materials and processes, Carl Myers succeeded in developing and patenting a light new durable non-porous balloon fabric that did not crack when folded and could last up to ten years despite many rough landings. He did it by treating cotton fabric with a specially prepared linseed oil mixture. Mary proved to be a great assistant by researching the sparse literature on meteorology and ballooning, keeping meticulous records and sewing and testing fabric segments.

It was essential to test their contraptions in flight and for this, they generally hired experienced aeronaut test pilots. However, once when a test pilot was unavailable, Carl took to the air himself to evaluate a new design. Not to be outdone, Mary soon followed. In the buildup to her first Independence Day ascent, she decided to abandon her rather plain name and assume the more exotic name of Carlotta. The press loved it and dubbed the young woman “Carlotta, the lady Aeronaut”. Her first flight was watched by a crowd of over 15,000 because never had they seen an American woman fly solo in a balloon. The spectators along the route shouted and waved handkerchiefs at her in great enthusiasm. The journey, mostly an uncontrolled drift, lasted about half an hour before she safely brought the balloon back to Earth in a field some 30 km away.

Thereafter, Mary Myers continued her ascensions, captivating the crowds with her daring balloon demonstrations and earning good money in the bargain. She was a diligent aviator, learning to control her flights by studying and measuring the air currents. Later she fitted her netting basket with a simple device that helped her guide the descent with great accuracy. She also patented the feature. She became so skilled in controlling the direction that she could predict where she was going to land even before taking off. She would even tell her carriage driver where to go to pick her up, to the amazement of the spectators. It is estimated that she took up over a hundred thousand passengers, mostly on tethered brief ascents, between 1880 and 1891. She set a world altitude record for a passenger balloon, ascending to 20,000 feet, that too without oxygen equipment. She also did some parachute jumps out of balloons and was consequently called “Carlotta, the most daring lady aeronaut in the world”.

Mary’s skill as a balloon pilot and her cool headedness in crisis situations were legendary. She managed to pass her entire career without major mishap, despite a couple of nasty experiences. The first scare came on her third ascent at Norwich, New York, in September 1880. Her balloon had ascended too quickly to an altitude of a few thousand metres where she encountered rain. This increased the balloon’s weight and made it sink rapidly back to Earth. Although she jettisoned the ballast, she could not arrest the descent. Finally the balloon got stuck in a tree 25 metres above ground. She remained suspended there nearly two hours in stormy weather till some hunters were able to fell a few adjoining trees and lower the balloon and Mary safely to the ground. On another occasion, she was on a balloon ascent with her seven-year-old daughter Bessie. The balloon began to descend quickly and uncontrollably towards a lake and the tall trees on the banks prevented Mary from heading towards the shore. Fortunately little Bessie had inherited her mother’s cool temperament and saved herself by crawling onto a half-submerged log.

Gradually, the balloon farm started taking more and more of Mary’s time, so in 1891 she retired from exhibition flying. Her husband proudly announced, “She retires from the field with a record of having made more ascensions than all other women combined throughout the world and more than any man living in America.” Apart from designing and making passenger balloon airships, they continued to build made-to-order balloons for customers such as the US Weather Bureau and the US government. Their balloons for the US Army Signal Corps were used in the Spanish–American War. Mary Myers continued flight testing the balloons and even ran a balloon flight school at the farm. She died in Atlanta, Georgia on August 1, 1932 – her 83rd birthday.