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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Maude Tait - Aviatrix - Springfield, Massachusetts

Maude Tait, who was born in Chicopee, Massachusetts, in 1901, once beat Amelia Earhart in an airspeed race. She was one of the most successful and prominent pilots in a time when the word aviatrix called to mind a dashing figure in slacks climbing into an open cockpit of a wooden biplane, wearing a leather flying helmet, goggles, a long white silk scarf, and a smile as big as the sky. She was courageous, she was intelligent, and she was professional. An aviatrix had to be all these things to be successful.

Her father, James Tait, grew up on his parents’ farm on Chicopee Street. He and his three brothers eventually became very successful when they took over the farm in adulthood and established a dairy distribution business and also became a manufacturer of ice cream. They owned property in Springfield, and also in Agawam. They owned dairy farms and milk processing plants, and their sales territory spread out across New England and New York. Some of their milk and ice cream products were used on the White Star and Cunard steamship lines.

By the 1920s they employed over 500 people. However, in an interesting and perhaps, inexplicable to us, turn of events, the Tait brothers sold their business in 1928 in order to launch themselves into a new industry: the young and vibrant and promising aviation field. A farm in Springfield between Liberty Street and St. James Avenue became their launch pad for an adventurous new endeavor. They established the Springfield Airport with the intention of making Springfield an important aviation center, a hub in New England flight and manufacture of this new mode of transport.

Air travel was not yet common; indeed, only the very brave would risk their lives strapping on a parachute and hopping into one of the wooden crates. But visionaries, like the Tait brothers, foresaw a day when air travel would be a popular mode of transportation, perhaps even surpassing trains. Travel by automobile was not yet even considered a rival, because most roads in the U.S. were still poorly kept or even unpaved. A car trip across the country in those days before interstate highways or even paved roads, was at best inconvenient and at worst, dangerous.

The Tait brothers found another band of brothers to join in their new enterprise: the five Granville brothers. Originally from New Hampshire, the brothers Zantford, Robert, Mark, Tom, and Ed, were largely self-taught mechanics who, with the lauded Yankee ingenuity of the time, fashioned themselves into aircraft mechanics, designers, and even pilots; they wanted to set up a plant to produce their famous design of Gee Bee racing planes. “Gee Bee” or GB stood for the initials of Granville Brothers. Zantford, the oldest, was the leader of the group. But there was another notable member of their band, and she was the daughter of James Tait: Maude.

Maude attended Springfield’s McDuffie School for Girls among other seminaries, and began a career as a schoolteacher in a one-room schoolhouse in the town of Hamden, and also in East Longmeadow. She taught school until 1928 when her father and the Granville brothers set up shop on the old farm that was now the Springfield Airport. She had taken flying lessons in 1927 from Roscoe Brinton of the Curtiss Flying Service. Brinton would team up with another associate of the Granville Brothers, Lowell Bayles, to form a new flying service in Springfield. By 1928, when the Taits’ and the Granville brothers’ new enterprise “got off the ground,” she had achieved her pilot’s license as well as gaining a commercial pilot’s license. She was the first female to become a licensed pilot in Massachusetts and Connecticut to fly solo. In 1929 she set an unofficial altitude record for women at a height of 16,500 feet. An era of stunts and personalities, she flew an airplane over a football field and dropped the football from her cockpit for the kickoff at the Silvertown professional football season opener.

Two years later she would break Amelia Earhart’s speed record at 214.9 mph in her Gee Bee Sportster.

Maude Tait with Gee Bee Model Z

The Granville Brothers planes were built for speed and they used designs that were far ahead of any other plane of their time. Indeed, planes flown by the military in their fledgling air services were slower than the Granville Brothers planes. The distinctive snub-nosed Gee Bee some called a flying engine, and indeed was far advance of the skills of most pilots of the day.

The pinnacle of this happy band of pilots, designers, mechanics, and their Tait investment backers, and the adventurous Tait daughter, was the 1931 Cleveland Air Races.

Bob Hall was their chief designer; he and Lowell Bayles, and Zantford Granville, and Maude Tait, swept the championships in the week-long flying events. In those golden days around Labor Day 1931, Springfield was the capital city of aviation and the sky was the limit. Maude Tait for her part, won the Aerol Trophy race for women. She set a new record in the Gee Bee Model Y Sportster—and beat Amelia Earhart’s record by 10 mph. She missed hitting the men’s existing record only by 1 mph.

That was the high point. Unfortunately, the worst years of the Great Depression now set upon the country, and for those with dreams of starting a new business or expanding industry, it was extremely difficult to set plans in motion, or even to meet payroll. The Granville brothers engaged in these airspeed races not only for the prestige and the publicity to interest buyers for their planes and backers for their manufacture, but they needed the prize money just to keep things going.

It wasn’t enough. By 1934, the Granville Brothers closed shop and the Springfield Airport though it continued for still many more years, would eventually be replaced by a shopping plaza in 1959. Aircraft industry went elsewhere, and the plot of land, with its air strips of dirt and grass, was never big enough to accommodate the larger planes of the future, especially as it was hemmed in by residential neighborhoods on all sides.

A Gee Bee model returns for display at the Springfield Plaza, 1982, photo by J. T. Lynch

A Gee Bee model returns for display at the Springfield Plaza, 1982, photo by J. T. Lynch

Maude Tait married attorney James Moriarty in 1932. She had plans to participate in the 1932 National Air Races but mechanical difficulties sidelined her plane. That was the end of her competitive flying career. She would occasionally be seen flying her Gee Bee over the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts through the decade of the 1940s, but otherwise lived a quiet and private life. She died in Springfield in 1982, at 81 years of age.

We might wonder why the dream and the excitement of flying was so quickly extinguished, but the Great Depression had its chokehold on most people, and very few were able to continue their dreams in that desperate era. There was another reason, however, and it was even sadder, and more tragic, for two of her pals in that tight-knit Springfield Airport gang died in their Gee Bee planes. Only a few months after the glorious 1931 Cleveland Air Races, their friend and partner Lowell Bayles flew one of the Gee Bee planes to Detroit, Michigan, in an attempt to establish a world speed record. It was December, and he flew the Model Z Super Sportster. Lowell Bayles was clocked at 314 mph, breaking a record; but on the return run, he crashed.

A few years later, in 1934 Zantford Granville also met his death in one of their Gee Bee planes. We might well imagine that the venture collapsed because the money was gone, but we can well imagine, too, that the heart and soul of the enterprise was gone as well with the deaths of Bayles and Zantford Granville.

On that glorious day in 1931 when the Springfield Airport gang flew home after their streak of victories at the Cleveland Air Races, the scene occurred which still lives in the memories of the lucky remaining few who were there. For five days, the feats they achieved at the Cleveland Air Races were splashed all over the headlines of the Springfield newspapers. When it was time for them to come home, a crowd of over 100,000 mobbed the Springfield Airport to watch their heroes fly home. They flew home to a dirt and grass field, with that old ramshackle hangar that had used to be a dance hall, flying the fastest planes in the world.

They came in, one by one, first it was Lowell Bayles flying the plane christened the City of Springfield. An announcer called their names over a loudspeaker and the crowd cheered. Next it was Maude Tait in the red and white Senior Sportster, followed by Bob Hall, and finally, Zantford Granville. When Maude landed, cheers erupted, and people in cars parked on the edge of the field sounded their horns. Maude’s parents ran up to her taxiing plane and everybody rushed it, and she was handed a bouquet of flowers. There was a band and they were taken in a parade down Liberty Street down to City Hall. That evening there was a banquet at the Hotel Kimball. It was the high point of Springfield aviation in a time when people needed something to cheer about.

And one of the boys was an aviatrix named Maude Tait.

A replica of one of the Gee Bee planes is on display at the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History.

For a dramatization of the events, please see my one-act play written on commission for Springfield students, Soaring in the City of Springfield, courtesy of In the Spotlight, Inc., here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was a great read -- thank you -- go aviatrices!

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