While reading Bill Bryson’s excellent new book “One Summer” about the momentous and much celebrated summer of 1927, I stumbled across a story that seemed almost too fantastic to believe. That summer a daring young aviator by the name of Paul Redfern attempted a 4,600 mile flight from Georgia to Rio de Janeiro – a flight that would have broken Charles Lindburgh’s freshly minted long distance flight record by more than a thousand miles. He was 27 years old, the same age as Lindburgh, weighed a paltry 108 pounds and hailed from my hometown of Columbia, S.C. Intriguing enough in and of itself, but it gets better.
Redfern was the son of the dean of historically black Benedict College in Columbia and to say he was fascinated with aviation is to dabble in reckless understatement. As a teenager he was known to wear an aviator’s goggled helmet while going about his daily business – an eccentricity that must have caused great amusement as he strolled the campus of old Columbia High School. During his sophomore year there, he built a full-sized plane of his own design, modeled after the popular Curtiss Jenny planes. His industrial arts teacher recognized his potential and had the plane hoisted atop the gymnasium rafters at the University of South Carolina nearby. As a senior, he assembled and flew a small bi-plane of his own design, made from spare parts and a used WW I aircraft engine. Upon graduation, he established the first commercial airfield in Columbia on the site of present day Dreher High School. (By way of review, Redfern had built two airplanes and established the first airfield in South Carolina’s capital city by his early twenties, reminding me what a mouth breather I was at that age.)
Prior to his graduation, Redfern took a break from high school with the grudging approval of his parents in order to gain some real-life experience in the aviation industry. According to the South Carolina Aviation Administration’s web entry on Redfern, he went to work for the Army Air Corps as a production inspector at Standard Aircraft Company’s Elizabeth, New Jersey plant. Following the closing of the plant at the conclusion of WW I, Redfern extended his interlude from high school by traveling the country on a barnstorming tour, stopping at county fairs, giving rides to curious spectators and working on his piloting skills.
Possessing a mischievous sense of humor, Redfern was arrested following one of his airshows after dropping a life-sized dummy from 2,000 feet, causing wide spread fainting and considerable angst among the unsuspecting and horrified onlookers. Interestingly enough, considering his own brush with the law, he worked for a spell as a Revenue agent, (this was during the dark days of Prohibition), spotting illegal stills from his plane. Legend has it that he busted forty stills in one weekend outside of Columbia – no doubt, disrupting supply and creating a minor panic in the speakeasy’s clustered around the red light district of Park Street in today’s Vista area.
Between Lindburgh and Earhart lies oblivion
It is impossible to overstate just how famous Charles Lindburgh was in the summer of 1927. He went from near total anonymity to worldwide fame almost overnight when he became the first person to safely cross the Atlantic in his Spirit of St. Louis that May. Aviation was still in its infancy at this time and the public’s fascination with flight can best be compared to its later fascination with the astronauts of the 1960’s (or with Kim Kardashian’s rear end today). Lindburgh’s stunning achievement no doubt fired the already ambitious imagination of young Redfern and appealed to his swashbuckling tendencies.
Looking to top Lindburgh and carve out his own piece of history, Redfern, with the support of wealthy backers in Brunswick, GA, announced that he would fly his Stinson Detroiter from Brunswick to Rio de Janeiro – a flight that would take him over the Caribbean Sea and thousands of miles of mountainous jungle. It was audacious, brave and unmistakably foolhardy – classic 1920’s aviator bravado. On August 27th, 1927, carrying meager survival supplies, twenty sandwiches, two quarts of coffee and two gallons of water, Redfern took off for what would be a 60 hour flight.
According to Bryson, he was lost before he had even cleared the Caribbean (there were no navigational instruments in those days). Flying low over a Norwegian freighter, the Christian Krohg, Redfern dropped a message which promptly bounced off the deck of the ship and into the sea. Thankfully the message was gamely retrieved by one of the ship’s seaman – it read: “Point ship to nearest land, wave flag once for each 100 miles. Thanks, Redfern.” Obligingly, the ship’s captain pointed him in the right direction and a thankful Redfern departed “…with a snappy wave” toward South America.
He was later spotted by a fisherman off the coast of Venezuela, so we know he made it that far – becoming the first person to fly across the Caribbean Sea. It is believed he went down somewhere in the jungles of Dutch Guiana (now Suriname). For years, reports came back from missionaries and other visitors to the interior of Dutch Guiana about a white man living among the Indians. It was said that he had taken a wife and was living peaceably – even being treated as a divinity because he had dropped from the sky on the local tribes. More than a dozen search parties were organized and two men even died during the many quests but there were no confirmed sightings.
Ten years later, in 1937 – the same year that Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean – Redfern’s (American) wife filed a petition to declare him dead. And so, between the legends of Lindburgh and Earhart, Redfern’s story fell into deep oblivion – even in Columbia.
I asked my Dad about it – knowing he is a Columbia High graduate, history buff and accomplished pilot in his own right – and he had heard of Redfern’s exploits. But it astounded me that I had not, and it reminded me that even the most spectacular stories – the most daring exploits – are by and large lost to the unyielding passage of time. Thanks to Bill Bryson for blowing the dust off this amazing story for me.
I cannot help but grin and think about Redfern and the possibility, though slight, that he lived out his life contentedly among the natives in Dutch Guiana. In my mind, that’s how it ended for him.