Legacy of Columbia’s lost aviator lives on

08/25/2012 12:00 AM

08/24/2012 11:12 PM

In 1927, just three months after Charles Lindbergh made his historic solo fight across the Atlantic Ocean, a pioneering aviator from Columbia made a dramatic attempt to trump “Lucky Lindy” by flying 1,000 miles farther.

Paul Redfern, a USC graduate and barnstormer who established the city’s first commercial air strip in 1923 at what is now Dreher High School, was determined to set a new record by flying 4,600 miles from Brunswick, Ga., to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

He never made it.

It is believed he crashed in the Venezuelan jungles. But neither his body nor aircraft was ever found.

“If he would have completed his journey he might have eclipsed Charles Lindbergh in being the most famous aviator of the day,” said Fritz Hamer, a curator at USC’s South Caroliniana Library. “They were planning a big celebration when he landed in Rio, and this country would have been transfixed when he returned.”

Today is the 85th anniversary of that ill-fated flight. And the Paul Rinaldo Redfern Aviation Society and the Historic Columbia Foundation is holding a day of events to commemorate Columbia’s first world-class pilot.

The symposium will include guest speakers and presenters, among them distinguished historians and Redfern descendants. The $20 admission includes lunch, a missing man fly-over, two historic marker dedications and Redfern sites bus tour. Tickets also can be purchased to individual events.

The celebration will be at Dreher High, on the grounds where Redfern, a Columbia High graduate, got his start.

In the 1920s, aviation was still in its infancy, even though airplanes had played a support role in World War I. Because of the war, planes could be had for anywhere from $600 to $1,000.

Barnstormers — pilots who traveled from town to town giving demonstrations and offering rides for money — prided themselves on setting records, gaining fame in the process and more sponsors and endorsements.

Hamer compared the fame aviators achieved to that of astronauts who first landed on the moon in the 1960s.

On Aug. 25, 1927, Redfern’s Stinson-Detroiter monoplane lifted off the hard-packed beach near the Georgia town that sponsored the flight.

Two days later, a huge crowd, including that country’s president and American movie star Clara Bow, waited expectantly for Redfern in Rio.

But the 25-year-old never made it. It’s believed he died when his Port of Brunswick monoplane crashed in the Venezuelan jungles

“Redfern was among the first aviators to test the ability of an airplane and human endurance,” said the society’s Warner Montgomery, publisher of The Star newspaper who is penning a book, Still Missing: The Mystery of Paul Redfern. “Many of them died and probably he did, too.”

Although Redfern never reached his destination, he was spotted briefly over the Caribbean Sea. But evidence compiled by researchers at the S.C. State Museum suggests he made it across the Caribbean and crashed in the Angel Falls area of Venezuela. So he is touted by Columbians as the first man to fly solo across the Caribbean.

“He would have flown not only over an ocean (like Lindbergh), but over thousands of miles of jungle as well,” Hamer said.

Redfern’s attempt to break the world record for a solo, long-distance flight made world headlines, spawned more than a dozen search expeditions to South America and inspired a movie starring Clark Gable.

But the flight faded from popular memory, even in Columbia.

Ten years ago, Columbians Tom Savage and Ron Shelton formed the society to keep his memory alive.

Most of Redfern’s closest relatives have died. But a nephew, Paul Redfern Jennings of Sumter, was born about three months after Redfern’s disappearance and will attend Saturday’s events.

“Redfern was a lost hero and a Columbia native, so it’s important to recognize that history, not only for Columbia but for the entire state,” the foundation’s Ashley Turner said.

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