At 101, aviation pioneer keeps going

Honored at Martin Aviation Museum, Joe Grant looks back

  • Joe Grant, 101, left, gets a replica of the Glenn L. Martin Co.'s famous China Clipper, which he helped build. With him are, from left, his son, Ed Grant, Bob Morgan and Stan Piet, the archive director for the Martin Aviation Museum.
Joe Grant, 101, left, gets a replica of the Glenn L. Martin Co.'s… (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
November 13, 2009|By Jacques Kelly | Baltimore Sun reporter

In 1930, a young man walked into a new Middle River aircraft plant carrying a letter stating that he was a seasoned plane builder.

Joe Grant, now 101, returned to that spot Thursday and confessed:

"I don't think it took them long to realize I wasn't what I said I was," he said.

Grant might have exaggerated his credentials when he presented himself as an expert in metal plane construction, but that hardly mattered Thursday at a ceremony honoring his aviation career and the years he spent at the old Glenn L. Martin Co., where he worked constructing early commercial and military aircraft.

Grant was 21 when he was among the first hired at what became a bustling aircraft factory with 55,000 employees working around the clock at the height of World War II. The structure where he first built airplane bodies, known as the A Building, remains in operation as a thrust reverser plant for Middle River Aircraft Systems. The plant is celebrating its 80th anniversary this autumn.

But the place was quieter when he and a brother drove in from Buffalo, N.Y. They arrived in a four-cylinder Chevrolet to seek employment in the developing field of commercial aviation. Once employed, the Grants took room and board at the home of a Dutch-born wallpaper hanger who lived in Bengies.

His timing was perfect. Aviation was just coming into its own.

"We would see Mr. Martin as he walked around and observed the plant," Grant said. "We weren't allowed to speak to him."

Grant, who was born in March 1908 - a little more than four years after the Wright brothers' historic flight - said he was captivated by the idea of flying and making airplanes. After being hired at Martin, he was assigned to help build a naval plane known as the PM-1. He graduated to other Martin products, including the fabled flying boat, the China Clipper.

At Thursday's ceremonies, Grant was presented with a scale model of the China Clipper.

"He's at the top tier of the early aviators who are finally getting the recognition for their accomplishments," said Stan Piet, the aviation museum's archive director.

Grant worked at Martin from 1930 to 1937, but he wasn't content to build aircraft. With his brother Roy and a pair of seasoned World War I aviators, Howard and Roy French, he ran the Logan Flying Service that operated out of the old Logan Field in Dundalk. (Grant got his pilot's license in 1929.)

He became a weekend barnstormer - that is, he would take a plane out over the Eastern Shore or Southern Maryland. He'd swoop around enough - and fly perilously low - to attract fire and police attention, as well as a crowd. Then he'd land in a field. "The farmers were good to us, they'd feed us well," he said.

Then came a sales pitch: For $1.50 or $2, you could take a ride. For those passengers with $10 and a strong stomach, he would provide a daredevil series of loops and swoops.

"We just slopped through these things," he said. "After one of those rides, they never came back for a second."

Grant said he did well enough financially to acquire a 17-acre parcel near the Martin plant. His flying skills improved as commercial aviation added routes. He was hired as a pilot by the old Pennsylvania Central Airlines (he was paid $187 a month) and flew out of Pittsburgh. Guided by beacons, he also had the nerve to do night flying.

During World War II, he flew DC-4s for the Air Transport Command. After the war he worked with TWA and helped start Saudi Arabian Airlines. He was soon having dinners with the king of Saudi Arabia, who made him his personal pilot.

Today he lives in Stamford, Conn., and has a retail jewelry business. Years ago, he took courses at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and for decades he made a puzzle ring, a piece of jewelry that can be opened to form a series of intricate links. He learned its secret from an Armenian silversmith named Bakhar who practiced his trade in Cairo. The ring caught on with airline pilots who flew Middle East routes.

He stopped by the Martin Aviation Museum on his way to a book signing in Washington.

"I'm still at work six days a week," he said.

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