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"Our great grandmother flew this": Decades-long search leads family to Textron Aviation, Beechcraft Staggerwing

Tucked away in the Textron Aviation delivery center sits a Beechcraft Staggerwing Model 17. For aviation enthusiasts and historians alike, this aircraft serves as a reminder of the humble beginnings of what is now Textron Aviation. Often a conversation piece for curious visitors, the bright red radial engine aircraft holds a story rooted in family, persistence and flight. For a considerable amount of time, the airplane was a large part of Charlotte Frye's story. A chance meeting coupled with consistent curiosity from her family would lead to an emotional reunion, decades in the making.

"All I could think was, 'wow, my grandmother flew this'. It was an emotional experience."Gus Frye

Described by her family as a woman who loved aviation and adventure, Charlotte Frye was an accomplished pilot who spent most of her days promoting and encouraging aviation to women. Learning to fly in 1931, Frye used her expertise in the sky to fly in air shows and would become one of the first female airmail pilots, taking mail from Griffin, Georgia to Atlanta. Decades later, her family continues to search and learn more about her journey, with their most meaningful encounter happening in Wichita, Kansas.

"When I saw the airplane, knowing about that connection and being able to look at it and get inside of it," shared Gus Frye, Charlotte's grandson. "All I could think was, 'wow, my grandmother flew this'. It was an emotional experience."

Gus, along with two more generations of the Frye lineage, were introduced to the aircraft that lifted their loved one on her historic missions. The end to a search that started more than 20 years prior.

"It has been more than a few years for me, going back to when she was inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame," explained Charlotte's great-grandson, Jonathan. "Asking questions about the airplane and learning more about it and spending many years wondering where it went. Now finally finding it has been a moving experience."

"Sitting in her airplane, I felt like I belonged."Brenda Frye

The most important question toward finding his great grandmother's aircraft came when Jonathan and his family made a trip to Oshkosh, Wisconsin attending EAA AirVenture. A planned family vacation ultimately led to the discovery of Charlotte's aircraft.

"I wandered over to the staggerwing area the first year we were there and started asking around about the aircraft. People kept telling me they thought it was at the Beech delivery center," Jonathan recalled, smiling while retelling the story. "I went to the Textron Aviation area and asked about it and they were able to tell me exactly where it was in Wichita. I had read online and seen hints that it could be here, but I never knew how to reach out."

Jonathan's wife, Brenda, also a pilot, remembered the enthusiasm their family felt knowing where the next stop of this journey would be.

"I remember when we made the connection in Oshkosh, we were so excited to be walking away knowing we had found the airplane."

Carrying on the Frye legacy in the cockpit is something Brenda holds dearly. Being an engineer and working in STEM she hopes to carry on Charlotte's efforts that continue to motivate her.

"Sitting in her airplane, I felt like I belonged. I know women are still underrepresented in aviation, so it is cool to hear the stories about her and sit in her plane and to feel inspired." Brenda explained. "It makes you want to go spread the word about aviation. She was a big proponent of bringing more women in. She would go on trips to help women buy their own planes which is neat."

Gus agrees, noting the pride he felt in his grandmother's accomplishments and hopes more people know about her legacy.

"There was still a lot of bias against women in aviation at that time," Gus detailed. "The general feeling was women didn't have the physical or emotional skills to do something as complex as flying an airplane. I have always been so proud that she was one of those pioneers to break that stereotype."

For the Frye family, a chance at seeing Charlotte's Model 17 was another chance to pass down aviation in their lineage.

"It's interesting and exciting to see a part of aviation history. Growing up as kids we knew our great grandmother flew but we didn't know much about it. As time went on, we learned she was a big deal," shared Kathy Frye. "It's good to be together to see her plane and the logs that are still here, especially to have the little ones here as well."

Visiting the Model 17 is a checkpoint on a journey the Frye family is excited to continue. Seeing the history of her efforts and learning more about her mission has become a family pastime they all enjoy sharing. Each detail, ranging from old pictures to travel logs, reignites their interest and presents a new opportunity to tell her story.

"Charlotte once wrote that she wondered what her future grandchildren would think of her unique hobby, calling herself the 'flying grandmother'," Jonathan mentioned. "I can only imagine what her thought would be today seeing how three generations after her are about airplanes and flying. I am not sure she could imagine the inspiration she would provide. I only hope that we all continue to be inspired to share the joy of flying with others."