Paul Redfern was there before Dreher High School
Much has been written about the history and renovations at Dreher High School. The ultimate demise of the old building, with its many memories, has caused Columbians to wax nostalgic. But there is one historical footnote that has been missed, yet it involves a significant event that had a major impact on our city in the decade between the great wars.
Columbia's first commercial pilot
On May 20, 1927, Charles Lindbergh set a world record, non- stop, solo flight of 3,600 miles from New York City to Paris, France. Not to be outdone by this feat, a young Columbia pilot set out to beat the Lone Eagle's record with a 4,600 mile, non- stop, solo flight from Brunswick, Georgia, to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
Only three months after Lindbergh conquered the Atlantic, Paul Renaldo Redfern moved his brand new Stinson- Detroiter monoplane to Sea Island, Georgia, where, on August 25, 1927, he was to become a legend. With the cheers of 3,000 well- wishers ringing in his ears, he gunned his engine, roared down the long, hard- packed sandy beach and vanished beyond the horizon...forever.
For decades, the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Columbia's first commercial pilot was the subject of world headlines. More than a dozen search expeditions, following fantastic leads and unconfirmed sightings, came up without a trace of the pioneer aviator. Yet, in his disappearance, or death, Paul Redfern had obtained his real objective. He had become a hero.
Paul Redfern's boyhood
Born in 1902, Redfern always had his head in the clouds, family members said. The adventurous son of Dr. Frederick C. Redfern, dean of economics and history at Columbia's Benedict College, Paul was known as a quiet, shy boy, deeply interested in aviation and an avid reader of any book or magazine that featured stories about flying.
Indeed, the young Redfern must have been a curiosity to his friends at the old Columbia High School as he was always tinkering with junked army engines from Camp Jackson and was easily identified by the aviator's cap he often wore.
By 16, the young Redfern had built his own airplane from cardboard and spare parts and had flown it from an airstrip he constructed in a cow pasture adjacent to the present Dreher High School. It was on that same airstrip in 1923 that Redfern Aviation Company was born.
Redfern, the businessman
As president and chief pilot, Redfern entered the venture with B.C. Schoen as his business manager. Letterheads gave the address as Offices and Flying Field in Shandon, Opposite Heathwood School. Services listed included Commercial Aviation Aerial Photography, Aerial Advertising, Aerial Training, and Passenger Carrying.
Redfern's first passenger
Redfern's first paying passenger was Mrs. Maudlette Stubbard, who, for the $2 fee given her on a dare, earned the distinction of becoming Columbia's first woman to fly in "one of those newfangled flying machines. We didn't know what danger was," Mrs. Stubbard recalled in a 1982 interview for The State, as the two teenagers flew "with our hair just a blowin' about as high as a tall tree" over three blocks of Shandon, "just going around and around."
Having been too young for WWI, Redfern began flying in "Jennies," the training planes used by photo pilots during the war. Following his venture in Columbia, he would move on to Ohio and Savannah where he performed as a stunt flyer at county fairs, as an aerial advertising artist, and a government agent locating illegal whiskey stills from the air.
But soon the thrills of barnstorming and midnight raids wore off, and Redfern set his sights on establishing a name for himself as an aviator.
Brunswick to Brazil
"He just seemed to be born to the skies," said his sister Ruth Redfern Jennings Sanders of Sumter more than half a century after his fateful flight. At the time, though, the seaports of Savannah and Brunswick were engaged in a rivalry for business, and a promotion to boost the Brunswick area seemed tailor- made for the record- setting flight. With backing from Brunswick businessmen, Redfern lost no time in selecting the best available aircraft for the flight, the Stinson- Detroiter- the same model used by Lindbergh but modified to hold additional fuel.
Christened "Port of Brunswick," Redfern's monoplane was emblazoned across the fuselage "Brunswick to Brazil." Following a host of testing trials along the eight- mile beach at Glynn Isle, known today as Sea Island, the plane was loaded with all the equipment that could possibly be of help in case of an emergency. Since no practical airplane transmitting equipment had been perfected, there was no radio on board. Redfern's flight plan, therefore, was to include the releasing of flares over Macapa, on the northernmost estuary of the Amazon River, his first checkpoint.
Columbia prepares for return
From Brunswick to Rio to Columbia, word of Redfern's successful takeoff excited the world. In preparation for his arrival, yet two days away, Rio was in a festive mood; the streets were lined with colorful banners welcoming the "Lindbergh of South America" and government officials and the silent movie star of Wings, Clara Bow, were planning to attend the ceremonies.
In Columbia, Dr. RedfTehren Swtaatse the invited guest of newspaper as reports of sightings of the aircraft raced across newswires. The Columbia Chamber of Commerce was preparing a gala homecoming for her native son upon his return from Brazil, and Columbians were abuzz with excitement.
But Redfern knew the dangers that could interrupt his flight and, prior to his takeoff that Thursday afternoon, he had told a group of reporters, "Don't lose hope if you don't hear from me for two or three months. If I should be forced down in the Amazon Valley, I believe I can survive and will be able one day to walk out of that jungle."
Within six hours after Redfern left the Georgia coast, he was spotted over the Bahamas. And the next day, he had buzzed a Norwegian steamship crossing near Trinidad that directed the flyer toward the nearest land, Venezuela. A later sighting had him over a small, inland village. But then, there was nothing.
By late Friday evening it was determined that the plane's fuel supply was depleted, and the plane must be down, somewhere. The scheduled flare had not been dropped, and the worst was feared.
Throughout that Friday night, calls of concern
flooded the offices of The
State. But the Saturday morning headlines confirmed the resolve of the pilot's father who was quoted as saying, "My faith has not wavered one bit."
But by Sunday, Rio's festival atmosphere had faded as distraught Brazilians searched the empty skies for a trace of the missing plane. The first of more than a dozen search parties to be dispatched was being readied.
For the next 10 years there would be numerous, unconfirmed sightings of plane and pilot, culminating in the most cruel hoax that rTehcee Civoeldu bmabnina eRre hcoeradd lines in on February 20, 1936: "Redfern Found Alive in West Guiana" and "Lost Flyer is Captive of Savages. Living as a Cripple."
Maybe Paul Redfern would "walk out of that jungle." His family began planning again for his homecoming. But it was not to be. Until this day, there has never been found a trace of
Paul Redfern of The Port
Brunswick. [Later investigations by Thomas Savage and
Ron Shelton (Vintage Airplane
, Volume 30, No. 7, July 2002) seem to have located the plane deep in the jungles of Venezuela].
Mystery never solved
"The story stays alive because of the mystery," Redfern's sister, Ruth Sanders, said in a 1989 interview. But the mystery has been recognized as legend at both the Sea Island Yacht Club in Brunswick and at Dreher High School in Columbia where plaques have been erected in memory of Redfern and his famed flight.
Maybe someday, someone will find a clue that will solve the mystery. But for now, the story of Paul Redfern can serve to remind us of simpler, more innocent times when, for ordinary men and women, there were worlds left for us to explore. And our heroes were those who, despite the odds, spread their wings, for they were destined to fly.
Note: This article first appeared in the Spring, 1989
issue of Journal, S.C. Federation
of Older Americans. The story was compiled from the writings and interviews with the late Columbia historian Russell Maxey, a high school classmate of Paul Redfern. Photographs are from the personal collection of Maxey, some of which
appear in his books, Historic
Columbia, Yesterday and
Today in PhotographsAirports of Columbia,,a Hndistory
in Photographs and
Editor's note: The Paul
Redfern plaque was removed
from Dreher before the
destruction of the old school.
It is safe with school personnel.