Van Lear Black

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Van Lear Black
Born 18 December 1875
Died 18 August 1930
Atlantic Shore
Cause of death Fell off Yacht Sabalo
Occupation Chairman of the board of the A.S. Abell Company
Known for Early civilian world air travel
Net worth $3,000,000
Political party Democrat
Board member of Consolidation Coal Company, A.S. Abell Company, Fidelity Trust and Deposit Company, Citizen's National Bank
Spouse(s) Jessie Gary Black
Children Van Lear Black Jr., T. Buchanan Blakiston, Alexander Bullock, Gary Black, Mrs. Frederick Bindy
Parent(s) H. Crawford Black, Ida Perry
Relatives Harry Black

Van Lear Black (18 December 1875 – 18 August 1930) was an American publisher and civil aviation pioneer.

Early life[edit]

Black was born in Cumberland, Maryland as part of a wealthy family with a lineage to the American Revolution.[1] He married Jessie Gary and had four children. Gary was the daughter of James A. Gary, Postmaster General under McKinley.[2] In 1910 Black bought the estate "Folly Quarter" in Ellicott City, Maryland now known as the Shrine of St. Anthony. He restored it to its original condition and used it to entertain 500-700 political and publishing guests at a time, later selling it in 1924. Black was insured for $750,000 at the time of his death during the Great Depression. Black's wife died at the age of 73 in Baltimore. Black was considered to be the wealthiest person in Maryland at the time of his death.[3]


Black got his start in banking at the age of eighteen as a clerk with the Fidelity Trust and Deposit Company, eventually becoming president in 1926.[4] Black became involved with the Consolidation Coal Company as a director from 1906 to 1927.[5] In 1920, he employed his connected friend Franklin D. Roosevelt while he also campaigned politically.[6]

In 1915 Black became Chairman of the Board of A.S. Abell Company, publisher of The Baltimore Sun, until his death in 1930. Black worked side by side with his brother Harry bringing the newspaper to profitability.[7] Harry C. Black took over after Van Lear Black's death until 1956, and Van Lear's son, Gary Black Sr. took over until 1984.

Aviation explorer[edit]

A Fokker F.VIIb/3m at Batavia
Fokker Passengers at Singapore

Black was not inclined to fly in the aircraft owned by his newspaper, but he changed his mind about aviation over time.[8] He provided financing for Byrd's expedition flight to the North Pole in 1926. In each Byrd flight, he carried a Maryland flag provided by Black. When approached again for Byrd's Antarctic flight, Black considered the flight too risky, and instead offered to pay Byrd's widow $25,000 if he did not return. Byrd later sued Black's estate for the money for the completion of the trip after Black's death at sea.[9]

On 15 June 1927, Black chartered a KLM monoplane for a 18,707-mile (30,106 km) flight from the Netherlands to Batavia and back in 27 days, the first international charter flight. Most flight occurred in a Fokker F.VII, (registered H-NADP) a high-wing monoplane powered by a single 440 hp Gnome-Rhone Jupiter IV engine and extended range tanks good for a range of 1,250 miles (2,010 km). The aircraft was brought into KLM's hangar on the 13th, and refitted with an overhauled engine and a four-seat configuration two days before the trip.[10] The trip was told by newspapers as uneventful, yet while in Burma, wild elephants charged Black's aircraft.[11] On 29 June 1927, Black became the first paying passenger to land in Singapore after 86 hours of flight time and 14 stops.[12] The Queen of Holland presented Black with the Cross of Knighthood of the Order of Orange-Nassau on return to Holland. Black's return reception in Baltimore included 500 guests including his friends, Herbert C. Hoover, Commander Richard Evelyn Byrd, Anthony H. G. Fokker, Owen D. Young, Franklin D. Roosevelt.[13]

A 1928 flight from London to South Africa was canceled en route at Khartom due to aircraft trouble.

In 1929, Black traveled from London to the Cape of Good Hope and returned in his new Wright Whirlwind powered Fokker "Maryland Free State". The aircraft was intended to be painted with Maryland Flags and be registered to England for part of the trip, and registered in America when in the states.[14] A month later, he attempted an extended route from London to Tokyo. His Fokker aircraft crashed at DumDum airport, and then was destroyed at Calcutta, India by a cyclone, though the crew escaped injury. Black traveled back to England by train, and ordered a new "Maryland Free State".[15]

As a passenger, rather than a pilot, Black flew with ease despite crashing in Genoa and India. An American Trimotor pilot noted that when he asked why his aircraft was not flying level on a flight to Cleveland, he was pointed to a failed motor on the wing. He quietly sat down without fuss all the way to the landing.[16]

In February 1930, Black commissioned a Fokker VIIb trimotor aircraft G-AADZ "The Maryland Free State" to fly from London to Tokyo to Java. He created his own company for the flight, VLB ltd. The flight included stops in Venice, Italy, and Athens, Greece, landing in Tokyo, Japan on 7 April 1930. The aircraft was disassembled for the Pacific voyage to San Francisco, then reassembled for the final flight to Baltimore on 18 May, a 16,000-mile (26,000 km) trip.[17]

Van Lear Black was considered to have flown more miles as a passenger than anyone else of the time and had future air tours planned.[18]


The HMCS Cougar (formally the Sabalo) in the 1940s

Black purchased the USS Sabalo for use as a pleasure yacht in 1921. On August 18, 1930, while en route from the New York Yacht Club to Baltimore, Black fell to his death off the back of the Sabalo off the coast of New Jersey. He had a dangerous habit of sitting on the rail while smoking.[19] His loss prompted an all-out air-sea search by four amphibious airplanes, the Coast Guard and the Zeppelin USS Los Angeles (ZR-3) called upon by Black's personal friend, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. Only his cap was found, washed onshore at a New Jersey beach.[20][21] Black's newspaper staff worked diligently to disguise his guest, Mrs. J. Walter Lord, as an elderly cousin to avoid scandal.[22]



  1. ^ Sons of the American Revolution. A national register of the society, Sons of the American Revolution. 
  2. ^ New York Times. 26 August 1949.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  3. ^ The Telegraph Herald and Times Journal. 24 August 1930.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. ^ Benjamin Bennett. Down Africa's skyways. 
  5. ^ Danny K. Blevins. Van Lear. 
  6. ^ Alfred Brooks Rollins. Roosevelt and Howe. 
  7. ^ H. L. Mencken; Fred Hobson; Vincent Fitzpatrick. Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work: A Memoir by H. L. Mencken. 
  8. ^ Prescott Evening Courier. 28 July 1928.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  9. ^ "$25,000 sought in lawsuit by Admiral Byrd". The Meriden Daily Journal. 16 March 1931. 
  10. ^ Flight. 11 August 1927.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  11. ^ Earl Reeves. Lindbergh Flies On! a Story of a Hero and of the Pioneers and Empire. 
  12. ^ Ray K. Tyers. Singapore, then & now, Volume 2. 
  13. ^ Time. 27 October 1927.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  14. ^ Evening Tribune. 10 February 1929.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  15. ^ Schenectady Gazette. 14 June 1929.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  16. ^ Popular Science. August 1930.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  17. ^ "MARYLAND PAYS ITS TRIBUTE TO VAN-LEAR BLACK". The Baltimore Sun. 20 May 1930. 
  18. ^ The Pittsburgh Press. 21 August.  Check date values in: |date= (help); Missing or empty |title= (help)
  19. ^ "Van Lear Black Collection". Retrieved 24 May 2011. 
  20. ^ "Aircraft aids in search for Van Lear Black". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. 20 August 1930. 
  21. ^ "Search for Van Lear Black to be Abandoned". San Jose Evening News. 20 August 1930. 
  22. ^ H. L. Mencken; Fred Hobson; Vincent Fitzpatrick. Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work: A Memoir by H. L. Mencken. p. 202.