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Over Greenwich Skies

Fearless pioneer aviators in the golden years of flight

“You’ve got to go up in my new airplane,” Tom Watson told her. “It was a little biplane with a wingspan of sixteen feet — just for stunting,” Molly Cook remembers of that conversation some years ago. “We went up from Westchester, and he went into loops and spins. I would tease him and say, ‘You didn’t come quite out on the point,’ and I’d hear him swear at me, and then he’d go into it again. That was just to fink him out. We had a wonderful day together.”

Tom Watson Jr. and Molly Cummings Minot Cook were Greenwich pioneer aviators who shared a common passion for more than half a century. If IBM had not been waiting, flying would have been Tom Watson’s chosen profession. For Molly, it was the ultimate sport: “Flying was like riding or fishing. If we wanted to go on a picnic somewhere, we would fly there. It was so easy. There were no rules and regulations like there are today.”

While their friends took to polo, fox hunting, sailing or promenading in their new Packards and Chrysler coupes, Greenwich aviators in the golden days of flight in the 1930s embraced a new frontier of freedom and adventure in the air. On Sundays everyone would share the enthusiasm: Families from miles around would climb into sedans and head to nearby Armonk Airport to gasp and wonder at the barnstormers performing aerobatics.

“Flying really frightened my mother,” says Molly’s childhood friend, Migi Noble Serrell, whose father Robert Noble, like his Greenwich neighbors, had his own plane. “We children weren’t allowed to go to Armonk Airport. It was a spooky thing to do,” she says. “It was so new. My father was flying for fun — challenges and fun. He used to say, ‘God, I wonder what I’d be doing if I wasn’t up in the air like this.’ ”

Greenwich had other eager pilots enjoying the fledgling sport. In 1932 Doris “Do” White was the first amateur female pilot of an autogiro, the precursor to a helicopter. “My mother had a feisty gleam in her eye,” says her daughter Vicky Clarke Linville. “Every time she got in a plane she was just thrilled. She flew under the Brooklyn Bridge. She did it more than once.” In fact, she flew under all three bridges spanning Manhattan’s East River — for the sheer thrill of it.

The national craze for flying was ignited by Charles Lindbergh’s triumphant overseas flight in 1927. Across the country, applications for pilot licenses jumped from 1,800 to 5,500, with some of them in Greenwich. There was John J. “Jack” White of Rock Ridge and the pediatrician Dr. John Miller, as well as Theodore Law, Spencer Leech and John Maher of Maher Bros. Masonry on Steamboat Road, who had a hangar and seaplane ramp. And there were the women: Marian Cummings and her daughter Molly, Do White, Dorothy Oakley and Harriet de Forest, half-sister of Rhoda Jenkins. Amelia Earhart had blazed the trail for women in the late 1920s and was now often spotted in her convertible on her way to Armonk.

“No one had their back up about discrimination,” says Molly. “The men were trying to be helpful. We just flew because we wanted to.”

Fortunately, for this crowd of adventurers, money was no barrier, for it took cash then as it does now, as well as courage to fly in those early planes.

Archival footage of Molly’s training flight over the Manhattan skyline is an exciting slice of aviation history. “There were no restrictions in flying over New York City,” she says in a documentary about her mother Marion Cummings. Produced by Francisca Bogdon of Creative Video Corporation, the film was awarded the 2007 New York Festival Bronze Medal Award.

“When we learned to fly,” Molly says, “we’d take the figure eight and take two buildings in New York. And we would be flying over only a couple thousand feet! My mother lived in a fascinating time,” she continues, “when airplanes were a new toy to play with at the local airport. There was barnstorming and parachute jumping. We’d climb into our fabric-covered open cockpit planes and do loops and spins that would amuse and shock the crowd.

“Armonk Airport was way out for Greenwich people in those days,” she explains. Since John Street (where her family lived) and Riversville were dirt roads, air travel offered a smoother ride than bumping across Greenwich’s unpaved byways.

Today, looking incredibly young at ninety, Molly Cook is still very active, with as many talents as a cat has lives (photography and painting in the Isabel O’Neil genre are her current favorite pastimes). She has outlived two husbands and has resided in the same house in Greenwich since 1942. In her library, which overlooks a boxwood-lined garden and woods beyond, there is a photograph of her at nineteen in a white aviator helmet from her competitive college flying days.

Molly was only twelve years old when she promised that she would not reveal her mother’s clandestine effort to learn to fly at age thirty-eight, at North Beach airfield, the future La Guardia, while her father Wilbur Cummings was at work in New York. By the time her mother was flying under the newly built George Washington Bridge, “because it was so tempting,” her father had guessed his wife’s secret and presented her with her first plane, a Stinson.

Cummings quickly saw how his aviatrix wife could ferry him about on his business trips and coaxed her into getting a commercial license. The two were soon flying off to Central and South America, with Cummings serving as navigator. By 1934, Marian Cummings was one of two Connecticut women to hold a transport license. Their children Molly and Billy also took to the air, enrolling in lessons out of Armonk Airport, a single dirt runway running north and south, carved out of a potato field in 1925 by Clifford Payton. For five dollars a ride in his plane, the enterprising aviator would take up thrill seekers and wealthy clients, including fifteen-year-old Molly. Two years later, she was rolling her own loops and spins.

The Cummingses became known as the “Flying Family of Greenwich.” “We were an innovative family,” remembers Molly. “We did different things. Daddy played beautiful golf at Round Hill and was very busy as a senior partner of Sullivan and Cromwell. And he was very tolerant of flying. He never discouraged us from the sport. He was very proud of us.”

While the Cummingses were out having fun, Noble was using his autogiro purely as an expediency, ferrying his family each summer two at a time to their cabin on the St. Lawrence River. “My father’s thinking was, ‘If I’ve got to go somewhere fast, I want to get in that plane,’ ” explains his daughter Migi. “Not as experimental, not as viewing of the earth, but to get from A to B. But the autogiro was a mystery to me. How the heck that thing could go forward when it goes up!” she says, laughing.

For Molly Cummings, flying was only about sport. By the time she arrived at Vassar in 1936 as a freshman with her license and her own Luscombe plane, competitive flying had come to a number of Ivy League campuses. Brother Billy was already flying for the Harvard Flying Club. In Molly’s first competition at the New England Intercollegiate Meet in New Haven, she was the only college female pilot competing against the best twenty male college flyers. Along with spot landing — touching down within a circle — there was spot bombing.

“We would come in over it, about 500 feet, and drop a paper bag full of flour,” Molly remembers. “Or you took a roll of toilet paper and went up about 3,000 feet; then you’d bring your plane up into a semistall and you’d throw the full roll out and hang onto the end. The whole thing would stream down and make a white line of toilet paper toward the ground. Then the second you came out of the stall, you timed how long it took to cut through that toilet paper twice, coming through it once and then going back through it. That’s what really made aviation fun.”

Her second-place win in spot landing was featured in Life magazine — and got her in hot water with her dean at Vassar. “I was told I had no right to represent the college, as flying wasn’t in the curriculum!”

Molly’s competitive, fearless spirit attracted college pilot Tom Watson, who had his first plane — a Fairchild 24 — in his junior year at Brown University in 1935. Though living with his family in New Jersey, he was flying in and out of Armonk Airport. “He was older, and I was just a squirt,” says Molly, and then adds, “He was so good looking.” Molly was often first on his list to take up in his new planes.

Another teenager, Do White, took to the air a year after her father had brought the first Pitcairn autogiro to Greenwich, the first of a parade of flying machines. As president of the Tube Reducing Corp. in New York, White had a vested interest in things aviation: His company had patented lightweight copper tubing for plane engines. He, often with his daughter Do, enjoyed flying to Florida or Syracuse for the horse races or to California to go to a wedding. When bad weather set in, they would fly over the Taconic Parkway, using it to guide them home. As a debutante, Do flew her seaplane to parties on Long Island dressed to the nines. “She told us,” says her daughter Vicky, “that on one occasion, she spotted an ice cream vendor on the beach. She landed in front of a lot of swimmers and came onto the beach to get an ice cream cone. She got a couple of swimmers to push her off and took off eating her ice cream!”

Do White Clarke’s friends had not heard of the pioneering aviator she was until her memorial service, when Vicky and her sister Debbie Clarke Mederow both shared their knowledge of their mother’s early flying prowess. Her friends knew Do as a member of the Hortulus Garden Club who grew prizewinning daffodils.

In 1935, White took his Waco biplane on a business trip to Europe. He put his plane on the deck of a boat, went across the Atlantic and landed in Bremerhaven. As soon as the plane was unloaded and fueled up, White flew off from the dock on his timesaving trip across Germany, France and Switzerland. He later reported that his flight over the Alps had been “a tremendous disappointment” compared to flying over the Rockies.

While Jack White was flying freely across Europe on the eve of a world war, Wilbur Cummings was endowing his alma mater Kenyon College with America’s first college aeronautic school and airport. Molly’s and Billy’s planes were used to train student pilots who were among the first pilots recruited for the war. Tragically, Naval Lt. Billy Cummings became a casualty of the war at age twenty-seven. While taking off from a Curtiss-Wright airfield in Ohio to deliver a new aircraft to the British, his plane crashed. His plane never gained altitude.

With the war came Westchester Airport, security checkpoints and control towers — and the end to spontaneous flying. Molly stopped flying in 1984. “It was no longer a sport,” she says. “You had to get permission to land, to wait your turn.” Cook has the distinction of being the member with the longest standing in the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Tom Watson flew until the end of his life, and on two separate occasions took up his two old friends, Molly Cook and Migi Serrell. “My last trip with Tom was in his autogiro, going down the Hudson River, around the Statue of Liberty, over Rockefeller Center,” Migi says. She felt she was looking at a whole new land. “It’s when you’re up there looking down that things begin to make sense.”

Not too many years ago Molly Cook went aloft with Watson and other friends in his helicopter at leaf-peeping time in Vermont. “We were going around, and we said we’re hungry. And he was looking down the highway, and he saw a gas station and a restaurant. He landed in back because there was a big parking space, and some woman said to him, ‘You can’t stay there!’ And he said, ‘Why not? I’m parking my vehicle!’ ”