Thirty years ago Saturday a small piston-engined plane took...

By DENHOLM BARNETSON  |  Jan. 30, 1981
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LONDON -- Thirty years ago Saturday a small piston-engined plane took off from Idlewild Airport in New York. Hunched in the cockpit was the late air pioneer Capt. Charles Blair.

Seven hours and 48 minutes later, despite a near-fatal gray-out from a loose-fitting oxygen mask, he touched his World War II-vintage P-51 Mustang down at London's Heathrow Airport to set a record that still stands for a piston-engined trans-Atlantic flight.

A memorial to this achievement was unveiled Friday at Heathrow airport by his widow, film star Maureen O'Hara.

The memorial was a one-quarter scale model of the plane, 'Excalibur III,' Blair used for his flight and was subscribed to by Pan American World Airways for whom he had worked until his retirment in 1969.

In a career lasting 46 years Blair established himself as a pioneer aviator.

He bought 'Excalibur III' intending to break the solo round-the-world record, but on the outbreak of the Korean War he found he was unable to fly over China and decided to aim instead for the trans-Atlantic record.

Four months later he was after another record: the first solo flight across the Arctic Ocean.

Navigating by the sun, Blair set off from Norway on a May afternoon in 1951.

Five hours later he 'pointed the sextant at the sun. The little green pea of the sun wobbles once again in the center of the bubble. Suddenly I'm heading due south,' he later wrote.

After 10 hours and 20 minutes flying, Blair completed his trans-Arctic flight and landed at Fairbanks, Alaska. From there, he flew to Idlewild Airport to a hero's welcome.

His plane was later retired to a place of honor at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, while Blair himself was received by President Harry S. Truman, who presented him with the Harmon International Trophy.

'The spirit of the pioneer urged him to pass beyond known limits,' said British Airports Authority Chairman Norman Payne at Friday's ceremony.

'The millions of passengers traveling across the Atlantic Ocean have a permanent debt of gratitude to aviation pioneers such as Charles Blair,' he said.

Also attending the ceremony was Blair's son Christopher, for whom his father had dropped a note to Santa Claus as he flew over the North Pole.

Blair was married to Miss O'Hara, star of such films as 'The Quiet Man,' made in her native Ireland, and who is now president of her late husband's amphibious airlines in the Caribbean.

Blair died in a flying accident in the Virgin Islands in September 1978, at the age of 79.

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