Clara Adams was born on December 3, 1884 in Cincinnati Ohio. Her parents were Walter and Ida Grabau and her paternal grandmother was Augusta von Hindenburg, a distant relative of German President, Paul von Hindenburg. Her mother, Ida, lived next door to Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in Baden-Baden, Germany.

Clara received training at the Conservatory of Music in Leipzig, Germany, where her father was a professor of music. While studying there, Clara became an accomplished piano player. She also learned to speak several languages and had some artistic talent as well.

Clara married George Lincoln Adams of Boston, Massachusetts, a man forty years her senior. They built a home in Tannersville, Pennsylvania where her husband owned and operated a chain of tanneries in that state. Partly because of the age difference, their marriage was a short one. George passed away in 1929 making Clara a wealthy widow.

Clara Adam’s main claim to fame is that she holds many firsts for women in aviation, not as a pilot, but as a paying passenger. Her first flight came in March 1914 at Lake Eustis, Florida where she went up in a Thomas Flying Boat piloted by Walter E. Johnson. This flight sparked an interest in aviation that lasted the rest of her life.

Clara was introduced to Lighter-Than-Air transportation through a letter of introduction by General Paul von Hindenburg to Dr. Hugo Eckener. She was given a ride on the ZR III during one of her test flights. The Zeppelin Company built the ZR-III for the United States Navy as war reparations for WWI. When the ZR-III was delivered to the Navy, the ship was christened the USS Los Angeles.

One of Clara’s most memorable journeys took place in 1928 when the Graf Zeppelin made its first trip from Europe to the United States and back. Clara was the first woman to buy a ticket to fly across the Atlantic, paying the price of $3,000.00. She was the only woman on the trip with the flight lasting seventy-one hours.

In 1931 she again became the first woman to purchase a ticket to fly on, what was then the largest aircraft ever built, the Dornier DO-X flying boat. The DO-X had left Germany for a multi-continent trip. Clara joined the DO-X’s journey in Rio de Jenario where the DO-X was to continue on to New York.

Clara was among the passengers that made the maiden flight of the Hindenburg in 1936, a sixty-one hour flight from Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey. In the same year she made the maiden voyage on board of the Hindenburg, Clara made another historic flight, the inaugural flight of Pan American’s China Clipper; flying from California across the Pacific. All together in 1936 Clara flew 27,000 miles.

During her many years of flying, Clara Adams flew in free balloons, gliders, Zeppelins, and various passenger aircraft. Along the way she met many famous flyers such as Amelia Earhart, Hugo Eckener, Edwin Musik, and the Stinson sisters to name a few. Her hobby was being a “historic first flighter,” as she is sometimes called. She was never associated with any commercial concern or publications and was always a private passenger.

According to her passport, Clara Adams listed her occupation as “lecturer and writer,” no doubt a vocation that grew from her many flying firsts. On her travels, she always kept the collector in mind. She purchased and signed many first day covers, programs, schedules, menus, and other airline memorabilia.

Her flying came to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of WWII and although she may have continued flying, she made no more inaugural flights. It would not be until 1966 when she again made news. She flew with five of the original passengers and officers to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the first passenger flight across the Pacific.

Clara Adams died 10 February 1971 with her passing relatively unnoticed. However, she did plan her last plane ride. She had her body cremated and her ashes scattered over the ocean from an airplane.

Although not a pilot, Clara helped to contribute to the advancement of commercial aviation. Today, flying is taken for granted, but at a time when commercial aviation was in its infancy, she and other brave souls like her who believed in the future of mass passenger service braved the dangers and flew over great distances in aircraft whose airworthiness was questionable.

Recent Submissions

  • Guide to the Clara Adams Addition Papers 

    Oelkrug, Paul A. (2015-11-19)
    Clara Adam’s main claim to fame is that she holds many firsts for women in aviation, not as a pilot, but as a paying passenger. Her first flight came in March 1914 at Lake Eustis, Florida where she went up in a Thomas ...