Remembering an independent woman on Independence Day

A PATRIOT AND PIONEER — woman aviator was Bob McHatton Sr.’s grandmother, Edith Jane “Dolly” Bernson, one of the first woman pilots in New England.

A PATRIOT AND PIONEER — woman aviator was Bob McHatton Sr.’s grandmother, Edith Jane “Dolly” Bernson, one of the first woman pilots in New England.

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

If there’s one thing Bridgton Selectman Bob McHatton Sr. might wish for on this Fourth of July, it would be to step back in time to his childhood, when his grandmother was alive.

As a boy he couldn’t help but know that his grandmother, Edith Jane “Dolly” Bernson, was someone special; as one of the first woman pilots in New England, she flew with the likes of Amelia Earhart and “Jimmy” Doolittle. What’s more, she trained countless pilots for service during World War II.

She was a true patriot, an independent woman who devoted her life to promote the well-being of her country.

If only he’d gotten the chance to know her better, McHatton said, to learn more of the details of her remarkable life.

As it is, he must content himself with snippets of family history and his own memories, of spending summers with his older brother William at Fox Ridge Farm, the South Lincoln, Conn. gentleman’s farm where Dolly and her husband Bob held court in the 1950s as the oldest husband-wife air team still flying in New England.

“You had to address her as ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and ‘No, ma’am,’” McHatton said, recalling his days growing up as a kid in a federal housing project in Chelsea, Mass. Dolly gave birth to McHatton’s mother, but didn’t raise her; she was too busy with her professional life, McHatton said.

“The only thing my grandmother said to me was that she thought Amelia Earhart ran away with her mechanic” at some time before reports came in that she became lost over the Pacific Ocean during a ’round the world flight in 1937.

What little he has gleaned of his grandmother’s remarkable career comes from doing genealogical research online. There, McHatton found a 1951 article printed in the Boston Globe that detailed some of her accomplishments under the title, “Flying Is My Business.”

Dolly Bernson was born the same year as Earhart, 1897. She, too, excelled early as a racer. Dolly won the Amelia Earhart trophy race at the National Air Races at Cleveland. Later, she came in first in the “Queen’s Jubilee” race for women pilots at the St. Hubert Airport in Montreal, and also won the Miami All-American air race for women in 1936.

But unlike Earhart, whose passions turned to breaking records for long-distance flights, Dolly’s career path led her to become the first woman aviation executive in the country, and one who did much to pioneer the growth of the commercial airline industry. She was also the first woman airport manager and the first woman to sell an airplane in the East, according to the Globe article.

It was while serving as operator with her husband of two municipal airports in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, as well as Muller Field, at Revere, Mass., that Dolly “carried on an intensive course of instruction, and many of her students gained fame in the service air arms during World War II,” the Globe article states.

“Her ability as a saleswoman for aircraft was recognized in 1932, when she was awarded the Jackson Trophy for the greatest number of aircraft sales made during that year. She received her private license in 1929 and also holds a C.A.A. commercial certificate,” the article states.

McHatton’s grandmother was one of the first governors of the famous “99 Club,” composed of women pilots throughout the nation, and still active today. She even received an airmail pilot's commission from the U.S. Postmaster-General.

With his stepgrandfather, Bob — who was also a colorful character and an avid boxer who won many titles — McHatton’s grandmother was active in the fields of aerial broadcasting, student instruction, aerial photography and aircraft sales.

“In a way, they even were innovators of a commercial airline through the establishment of a passenger service between Beverly and Boston, under the aegis of the North Shore Airways,” the Globe article states. The couple also promoted air shows throughout eastern Massachusetts.

McHatton remembers being awed, during his summer visits, by his grandparents’ presence. “He drove an MG and wore a bandanna around his head. She drove a yellow Lincoln Continental,” he said. Their lifestyle seemed grand for a boy from a city housing project.

“It was like going from one life into another,” said McHatton, who moved to yet another life, in Bridgton, in 1968. They moved in circles he could only dream about, and while Dolly didn’t do much early on to provide for his mother, she did create a trust fund for his family before her death at age 76.

“A year before her death she married the butler,” said McHatton. “She was a rebel right up to the end.”

 

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