Pilot Frances “Fran” Bera, who accumulated more than 25,000 flight hours, ferried surplus military aircraft after World War II, set a world altitude record, and taught and examined pilots for more than seven decades, died Feb. 10 in San Diego at age 94.
According to recognition posted on the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Wall of Honor, Bera’s aviation feats included a tryout for the astronaut program, flying as a chief pilot for aircraft manufacturer Beechcraft, numerous air races, and more than 3,000 checkrides as an FAA designated pilot examiner.
She was 41 in 1966 and had already accumulated 13,000 flight hours when Bera flew into the history books. She broke the world altitude record at 40,154 feet in a normally aspirated Piper Aztec twin outfitted with 250-horsepower engines, surpassing a mark previously set in 1960 by Jerrie Cobb, another pioneering female pilot.
During her professional aviation career, Bera tested a variety of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft and held numerous certificates and ratings, including an airline transport pilot certificate, which she earned much later in her career. Bera received a type rating in a Cessna Citation jet when she was 70 because “she needed a little challenge,” the institution said.
A 1999 article in 99 News Magazine, a publication for the 99s organization, highlighted her career and reported that Bera initially skipped school to take flight lessons. “When it came time to solo in early 1941, her instructor informed her she needed her parents' written permission, since she was only 16. She had been taking lessons without their knowledge and was a little worried about having to explain this. No one in the family had ever been in a plane. Her persuasive nature convinced them and they sighed and said 'Good luck, and do it well.'"
An obituary published March 17 in The Los Angeles Times reported that the pioneering female aviator was a seven-time Powder Puff Derby first-place winner and a five-time runner-up in the all-woman transcontinental air race. She also made a name for herself in the fast-paced, male-dominated Reno National Air Races in Nevada.
In a 2013 AOPA Pilot magazine article that acknowledged Bera’s aviation accomplishments, columnist and retired airline pilot Barry Schiff wrote that he was a nervous flight student when Bera administered his checkride in 1955. Schiff recognized the aviator was “one of the most successful woman racing pilots of all time.” For that article, Schiff wrote that Bera, who was 89 at the time, told him that she was “going to wear out, not rust out.”