Alys McKey Bryant sets an altitude record for women pilots at Seattle's Golden Potlatch on July 17, 1913.

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 9/16/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20859

On July 17, 1913, Alys ("Tiny") McKey Bryant flies to a record height of 2,900 feet above downtown Seattle. The flight is one of several exhibition flights above the city in celebration of the Golden Potlatch, an annual festival held in Seattle to promote its history and Native American culture. The achievement by McKey Bryant is one of several "firsts" for her as a woman aviator on the West Coast. Later in 1913, she becomes the first woman to fly in Canada. 

An eye toward new records

Alys McKey (1880-1954) began her flying career at the age of 32 in 1912, after answering an advertisement for exhibition flyers for the Bennett Aero Company in The Palms, California. After she was selected from a pool of about 50 female applicants, McKey became the first women pilot on the West Coast to perform as a member of the "Bennett Fliers." Over the next year, she and John Milton ("Johnny") Bryant (1887-1913) flew numerous public exhibitions of aerial displays for the company using a biplane equipped with a 60-horsepower Curtiss engine, while a third member of the flying team, Bryant's younger brother Frank M. Bryant (?-1965), flew a second Curtiss biplane equipped with an 80-horsepower Hall Scott engine.

McKey quickly made a name for herself in aviation record books. By April 18, 1913, she held an altitude record of 2,000 feet for Seattle, and soon would break her own record by flying to a height of 2,300 feet. Her exhibition flying ranged up and down the West Coast, and included California, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. 

Following an exhibition flight in Pendleton, Oregon, she married Johnny Bryant on May 24, 1913, while the pair was in Idaho. The couple kept the marriage low-key, with McKey Bryant preferring to keep flying under her maiden name. On June 13, she flew the Curtiss Model D Headless biplane (with a direct connected propeller in the rear) from Portland to Vancouver, Washington, and in the process set both a new Northwest cross-country record and a new altitude record for women of 2,800 feet.

McKey Bryant never lacked for courage or spirit where her flying was concerned. Nor was height a limiting factor. Early in her career, she publicly declared, "It takes nerve to go high up over a city" ("Times' Views ..."). The sentiment was put to the test yet again when she flew over Seattle at the third Golden Potlatch festival sponsored by the city from July 17-19, 1913.

Third time is a charm (again)

At 10 a.m. on July 17, 1913, McKey Bryant piloted her Curtiss biplane from a hangar on Harbor Island, and over the Seattle waterfront. Calling her flight one of "iron will," reporter John Evans described the ascent of the aircraft:

"Facing a stiff wind in the upper air, she fought her way gamely around and around, climbing on stiff-banked turns, when the least vagrant puff might have capsized her machine, and leveling only when danger of an overheated engine made such course necessary. As the machine swept over the water on it second turn, it was fully 1,500 feet high and still climbing ... heedless of the side drift, she continued climbing, dipping but once when the flag at the top of the Hoge Building was lowered and raised in salute" ("New Altitude Record ...").

Despite experiencing engine trouble on the flight back to Harbor Island (two of the eight engine cylinders were misfiring), McKey Bryant safely reached a new record height of 2,900 feet during the flight, breaking her own record once more.

More records in store

New success followed that same month, when she looked northward to set a different record. On July 31, 1913, McKey Bryant became the first woman pilot to fly an "aeroplane" in the Dominion of Canada, with a 16-minute flight over Minoru Park, Vancouver (Ellis, 239). On the following day, McKey Bryant established the first altitude record for women in Canada, with a height of 2,200 feet attained. Among the spectators who viewed the Bennett Flier were Edward Albert, Prince of Wales (1894-1972), and his younger brother, George VI, Duke of York (1895-1952).

Just six days later, McKey-Bryant tragically lost her husband and fellow aviator, Johnny Bryant, after he crashed during an exhibition flight over the city of Victoria, on August 6, 1913. His fatality marked another new record -- the first-ever plane crash in Canada.

McKey Bryant had a brief period of retirement following her husband's death, but returned to flying over Seattle in the fall of 1913, for the filming of aircraft in action for motion pictures. In 1915, she worked as an aircraft mechanic and joined The Benoist Airplane Company (the Benoistery) in Sandusky, Ohio. During World War I, she served as a flight instructor at the company between 1917 and 1919. McKey Bryant later wrote her war years account for posterity in Born with Wings, an unpublished manuscript written from 1933 and 1938.


Sources:

"Times' Views about Martin's 'Flights' Shared by Jurors," The Seattle Times, October 29, 1913, p. 1; John Evans, "New Altitude Record for American Women Made by Alys M'Kee," The Seattle Times, July 17, 1913, pp. 1, 10; "Events of 1913 in Seattle Reviewed," The Seattle Times, January 4, 1914, p. 30; "Alys McKey Bryant Papers," University Libraries Special Collections & University Archives website, accessed July 24, 2019 (http://specialcollections.wichita.edu/collections/ms/87-02/87-2-A.HTML); Frank H. Ellis, "Pioneer Flying in British Columbia, 1910-1914," British Columbia Historical Quarterly, Vol. III, No. 4 (October 1939): 227-262.


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