ALYS McKEY

ALYS McKEY

The newspaper ad said, 

 

“Wanted: young lady to learn to fly for exhibition purposes.” 

 Fifty young women responded to the ad placed by Fred Bennett and John Bryant of Bennett Aero Company. One of the young women was Alys McKey (or McKee). She was accepted and began working with them. She learned to fly and also trained as a mechanic. She is quoted as saying that she taught herself to fly, but there are also reports that her flight training was with Glen Curtiss.
 
Ms. McKey was born on a farm in Indiana in 1880, in Lauramie township, near Clark’s Hill. Little is known about her early life. She was in California by 1912, when the ad was placed in a Los Angeles paper. 
 
I have not been able to find anything about her first flight, or her license number. However, by Spring of 1913 she is reported to have become an expert pilot, with a reputation for being a “daring flyer!” She was a member of “The Early Birds Of Aviation,”  and she was the first woman to pilot an airplane in California, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Canada.
 
In addition to learning to fly, during 1912 she rebuilt a crashed Curtiss type airplane. She also spent time flying with John (“Johnny”) Bryant. During this time she was able to hone her exhibition flying skills. 
 
McKey’s first exhibition flight was at North Yakima, Washington of May 3, 1913. Then, on May 29, she and Johnny were secretly married. They were scheduled for more exhibition flights in Canada on July 31st. Before going into Canada, she set an altitude record for women of 2,900 ft above the ground. On July 21st, she became the first woman to pilot an airplane in Canada, at Minoru Park, Lulu Island, British Columbia.  
 
Alys and Johnny were welcomed into Canada by an excited crowd, anxious to see them both. At the time Johnny was hailed as one of the most outstanding exhibition pilots, and they had never seen a female pilot, let alone one who would perform ‘stunts’ in the air!  The Vancouver papers reported that Bryant and the “clever aviatrix“ McKey would give exhibitions of expert flying. 
 
Finally, July 31 arrived and Johnny and Alys were ready. Johnny went up first in a Curtiss Bi-plane. His flying was exciting as he made turns and glides with excellent judgment. Of course, the modern aerobatic stunts were unheard of at that time. He came in and made a perfect landing to wild cheers. Next it was time for a woman to fly. Alys proved herself daring in her sixteen minute flight. She flew up to a height of 700 feet, making several thrilling turns, with a faultless landing. 
 
On the third flight of the day, Johnny climbed to an altitude of 5,100 feet, which was the highest anyone had flown in the Northwest. However, the Canadian record at the time was 7,000 feet, set by Glen H. Martin in Montreal. Johnny shut off his engine, made a steep dive from 2,500’ to 100’ feet above the ground, then landed without restarting the engine. That was very exciting and daring flying at that time. The crowd loved it!
 
On August 1, Miss McKey (no one knew she was really Mrs. Bryant at the time) set a Canadian altitude record for women of 2,200 feet. Of course, since no other woman had flown in Canada, everything she did set a new record! 
 
More flights were scheduled in Vancouver for August 2, but the weather was less than favorable and that exhibition was cancelled. Since they were both scheduled to fly at the Water Carnival the next week, the airplane was disassembled and shipped to Victoria. 
 
Miss McKey was the first to fly, and on the morning of August 5th, she took off from the Willows and headed toward the Uplands. However, it was very gusty and turbulent. She had difficulty flying under the conditions and returned. She made an expert landing in the gusty crosswinds. In an interview, she described the flight as the worst flying conditions she had ever been in.
 
On August 6th, it was Bryant’s turn to make flying history. In the morning he flew from the Willows to Cadboro Bay and landed on the beach there. He had the wheels removed and replaced with seaplane floats, making his next flight the first seaplane flown on the waters of British Columbia.
 
Taking off into gusty conditions he tested the planes water landing ability by landing at the mouth of the bay, then took off and headed to Victoria. As he approached, there were 20,000 anxious fans scanning the skies. When they spotted the little airplane they broke into wild cheers. As he looked down and saw them, he waved to the crowd exciting them even more. Then he thrilled them as he flew over the crowd at 1,000’. Because of the turbulence, the little airplane rocked back and forth like a cradle, and the crowd cheered even more each time it righted itself!
 
After rocking and pitching above the crowd for about 10 minutes, he shut the engine off and descended at a steep angle then landed just outside the inner harbor. He taxied to the wharf behind the Grand Trunk Pacific slips, and stopped with the wingtips almost touching the dock. The wharf was crowded with people waiting to see the flyer, and he was welcomed by another cheering crowd. 
 
That evening, about 5:30, Johnny took off from the harbor for another flight over the city. After circling the harbor he flew to the business section of Victoria. After flying at about 800 feet over the city for 5 minutes, he began a steep dive. The dive continued, faster and steeper until he was 200’ over the city, then onlookers saw the right wing collapse. He crashed into the roof of the Lee Dye Building and was killed instantly. Detective Heather, Motor Constable Foster, and Constable McLellan were watching in the crowd. They started running toward the building as soon as they realized he would crash, and were able to get ahead of most of the throng. A Fire Department ladder arrived and they scrambled to the roof, along with Dr. George Hall who had responded to the call for medical assistance. However, Johnny Bryant was dead when they arrived. He was the only pre-war victim of flying in Canada. 
 
Alys had been watching the performance from the Department of Marine Building. The accident plunged her, and all of Victoria, into grief. She never flew again. Johnny Bryant was one of the best airmen of that era and had done a great deal of exhibition flying prior to coming to Canada. 
 
While this incident was the end of Miss McKey’s flying career, it was not the end of her career. She continued to work in aviation related jobs, took up deep-sea diving, and did work for some movie studios. She spent several years as factory supervisor, mechanic, and instructor at the Benoist Airplane Company in Sandusky, Ohio. Her mother is quoted as saying, “you are a Jack of all Trades, and master of none!” Alys’ reply was, “well, perhaps it is good to be able to do several things, for then one is never out of a job.”
 

The website, earlyaviators.com, records that Alys McKey Bryant wrote in a letter of thanks for the commemoration of the 25th Anniversary of the First Flight made by a woman in Canada: “during the 25 years that have slipped away, I have never lost my interest in aviation. Although WINGS have given me everything – and have taken from me – everything but my own life – my love for them has never diminished, and now my one thought – one prayer – is that WINGS may be used – NOT for destruction, but for making more friendly and understanding relations between the nations of the world.”

 Alys passed away at age 76, another very exceptional and inspirational woman whose name should be remembered by all who plow the skies! 

3 Responses to ALYS McKEY

  1. Mary McCoy says:

    Nancy, Another informative story to enjoy. Was sorry for her loss but she made the best of her life. Thanks Mary

    • Nancy says:

      Thanks, Mary, yes I find it sad that she stopped flying, but even then she continued to have a wonderful and exciting career. She withdrew from flying, but not from life.

  2. Tommy Surles says:

    Very good and well written story. Enjoyed reading it. Thanks for your continued enjoyment of research and writing about incidences of the past.

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