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Record-setter aviator Fran Bera remembered

California pilot accumulated over 25,000 flight hours in 70-year career

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.

Groundbreaking female pilot Frances ‘Fran’ Bera, who set a world altitude record and taught and examined pilots for more than seven decades, died Feb. 10 in San Diego, California, at age 94. Photo courtesy of Leslie Day.

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.

The Smithsonian noted that Bera passed her DPE test at age 23 but had to wait until the minimum age of 24 to receive her certificate. The institution recognized her as the “first woman to fly a helicopter with no tail rotor,” and it’s believed that she was one of only a handful of female flight examiners in the early 1960s.

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.”

David Tulis

David Tulis

Senior Photographer
Senior Photographer David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a private pilot with single-engine land and sea ratings and a tailwheel endorsement. He is also a certificated remote pilot and co-host of the award-wining AOPA Hangar Talk podcast. David enjoys vintage aircraft ad photography.
Topics: People, Awards and Records

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