Amelia Earhart’s career as a world-famous flier spanned only a few years. She achieved instant acclaim as the first woman to fly the Atlantic in 1928; she disappeared while on the last leg of a round-the-world flight in 1937. Yet her fame has endured in a remarkable fashion over the past sixty years, assuring her a permanent place in history. Books, magazine articles, films, televised biographies, symposia, memorials, schools and other public buildings named in her honor &endash; all testify to the lasting impression that she made as one who truly embodied the spirit of adventure and the desire to advance human knowledge.
In recent years, the attempt to find a definitive solution to the mystery of her disappearance has tended to overshadow her actual achievements and to obscure the meaning of her life, which is quite independent of the circumstances of her death….
I reiterate my belief. . . that those who have propounded often sensational theories about Amelia‚Äôs disappearance have consistently failed to produce convincing, substantial evidence that would incline us to reject the more plausible view that Amelia‚Äôs aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed in the Pacific when it failed to make its landing at Howland Island. . . . As children growing up in Kansas, we were inseparable, sharing many tomboyish activities, riding horses together, loving animals, participating in imaginative games. Throughout our lives we confided in each other, experiencing each other‚Äôs triumphs and tragedies. We understood each other, each one was there for the other at crucial times such as Amelia‚Äôs first solo flight or my wedding. Amelia‚Äôs childhood and young adulthood provide many clues to understanding the person she became. She was determined to make a lasting contribution to the science of aviation. The homemade roller coaster has become the symbol of her early love of adventure which later found its realization in her flying. The influence of her family and her education remained strong throughout her life.
Amelia Earhart’s Columbia University classmate wrote:
“. . .Even more than ninety years after her birth, many have heard of Amelia as a woman flier who broke many records. However, [in 2002] when flying in planes is an accepted method of travel, together with automobiles and trains, why should this woman be considered any more important than any of many women pilots who helped develop the aviation industry?. . .. .
I found Amelia unspoiled by all her fame and exploits. She was still a caring person, caring about what was happening to people in need all over the world in sickness and in health. She was interested in what was happening to the United States and how President Roosevelt was handling the problems in this country. Her sense of humor was unspoiled.She gave me her orchid corsage saying, ‚ÄòI will have another one tomorrow when I speak in Massachusetts.’ The following day I went with her in her car to Massachusetts and returned to New Haven by bus, not realizing that it was the last time I would see her in person. She was a thoughtful person, a private person, unspoiled by her triumphs and always trying further ways to improve aviation.”
I think I have just one more long flight in my system,” Amelia told a group of New York reporters in February, 1937. “After that? My lovely home in North Hollywood–California sunshine–books–friends–leisurely travel–many things.”
Amelia planned her around-the-world flight carefully with the assistance of her long time technical advisor, Paul Mantz. They consulted with C.L. “Kelly” Johnson of Lockheed, the manufacturer of her new Model 10 Electra. In the beginning there was a real concern for Amelia’s carrying up to 1,151 gallons of fuel. Gasoline weighed six pounds per gallon and the weight of the fuel was balanced in many fuel tanks located throughout the fuselage and wings. To prevent accidental spinning, the fuel feed to the engines had to be carefully adjusted to maintain longitudinal balance. Amelia applied to the FAA for aircraft registration and her Electra was assigned NR-16020.
Arrangements were made to equip the plane with some of the best radio equipment available: a radio direction finder (RDF) that Amelia used to find an airfield; a voice radio system to the outside world; and a telegraph key for continuous wave/Morse code (CW) messages. A telegraph key used with a trailing antenna could transmit much farther than voice radio. Amelia received her Aircraft Radio Station License with call letters KHAQQ.
Verbal communication between the cockpit and the rear of the plane became a critical aspect of the flight because of engine noise. Amelia had voice communication to the outside world from the cockpit but no voice communication with her navigator in the back of the plane. Messages were exchanged with notes passed back and forth on a bamboo pole. Fred Noonan had continuous wave/Morse code (CW) in the back of the plane but his communication with Amelia was by bamboo pole.
The world flight began on St. Patrick’s Day, 1937. Late in the afternoon, Amelia took off from a muddy Oakland, California field and headed for Honolulu. In addition to her technical advisor, she had on board two experienced navigators, Captain Harry Manning and Fred Noonan, an expert in celestial navigation.
Captain Manning was an experienced ship’s captain and navigator who was slow with Morse code. Throughout the flight, he worked the telegraph key. In her log Amelia wrote, At daylight the generator went out. Harry has held the key down so long it grew tired….” Throughout the night Amelia experienced icing problems and propeller difficulties. The plane landed successfully at Wheeler Field after a 15 hour, 43 minute flight. They had established an east-west record.
While at Honolulu, the plane was prepared for the long flight. The next stop was Howland Island, a tiny speck of land in the Pacific Ocean, a mile and a half long, a half mile wide and only eighteen feet above the water. This was the most critical leg of the entire flight and there was no room for error.
On the morning of March 20th, the heavily fuel loaded Electra, took off. Half way down the runway, a tire blew out and Amelia lost control of the plane, causing it to ground loop. She instantly cut off the ignition and prevented the plane from catching fire. The Electra was badly damaged and had to be shipped back to the California factory for repair. Amelia, naturally confident, stated that she would try again.
The second around-the-world flight began two months later, on May 21st, and again from Oakland. This time, because of weather conditions, Amelia reversed her route from west to east. She called this flight across the country a “trial flight,” as it would give her a chance to test the plane. If anything went wrong, she could return to Burbank. When the cross country trip was successful, her husband, George Putnam (GP) made an announcement from Miami that her around-the-world flight had begun again.
Captain Manning’s leave of absence from his ship was over and was unable to join Amelia for the second flight. With the departure of Manning, Amelia’s project lost a valuable capability. Fred Noonan now took full navigator responsibility. Amelia had every confidence in Fred’s navigational skill, and Fred, for his part, was ready to make the long voyage with her.
The operation of the 500 KC emergency band required the use of a 250-foot trailing antenna, which had a streamlined weight on the end. The antenna could be reeled into and out of the bottom of the Electra by a switch in the cockpit.
When deployed, the antenna increased the drag on the aircraft and had to be reeled in prior to landing. Amelia did not like the trailing antenna and had it removed in Miami. The effect of this modification reduced the range of the 500 KC radio transmissions.
On June 1,1937, Amelia and Fred Noonan climbed aboard the Electra at the Municipal Airport at Miami, Florida. Amelia waved to her husband, George Putnam (GP) and his tall son, David. They taxied out to the end of the runway, Amelia turned, and gunned the engines. The Electra was in the air, and Amelia and Fred were off to circle the globe.
Amelia’s dispatches, sent back to GP to be relayed to the newspaper syndicate, were full of a spirit of adventure, pleasure and reward. She kept careful records of the Electra’s performance and of the pilots‚Äôreactions to climatic changes, altitude, fatigue, and diet. A chore which never failed to amuse Fred, but which Amelia performed conscientiously, was the collecting of micro-organisms in the upper air by means of a sky hook, a metal rod about the size and length of a broomstick, with a metal cylinder at the end. This was fastened outside the slightly-opened window. The time of day, altitude, and location were recorded when the cylinder was pulled in, sealed, and tucked away in the rear of the fuselage. She collected these samples for Fred C. Meier of the Department of Agriculture.
During the next month, the Electra followed the equator in a series of flights half way around the world between Miami and New Guinea. She crossed the Atlantic, Africa, and the Indian Ocean before landing in Lae, New Guinea, above the northern tip of Australia.
In Last Flight, which GP published in 1937, Amelia commented that during their crossing of the South Atlantic, she and Fred passed a west-bound Air France mail plane, but unfortunately she could “not talk” to it. Amelia believed that the mail plane’s radio equipment was telegraphic, that is, Morse code, while her radio equipment was “exclusively voice telephone.”