American aviator Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly in an aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean. The pilot of this historic flight was Wilmer Stultz, a record holder in his own right. Amelia was simply a passenger on this flight however, she was at the helm and at the beginning of what would become a remarkable career and life in aviation.
The 17th and 18th of June mark a very important chapter in the history of aviation.
It will be 90 years since the first woman crossed the Atlantic Ocean by air. That woman was Amelia Mary Earhart. Although Amelia was a pilot with around 500 hours clocked, she did not serve as one of the pilots on the flight.
Wilmer Stultz died a little over a year later after he crashed at Roosevelt Field in Mineola, New York. The fate of the aircraft flown on this auspicious flight is unknown. It did end up in South America and some sources indicate that it was removed from service and salvaged for parts sometime after June 1932. Other sources indicate that it was destroyed by accident or fire in September 1934.
The fate of Amelia Earhart has consumed historians, conspiracy theorists, and the public for generations. Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan, flying a Lockheed Model 10-E Electra disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean near Howland Island on July 2, 1937 during an attempt to make a circumnavigational flight of the globe.
Amelia Earhart’s mysterious disappearance and ultimate demise are certainly intriguing. Her life, however, was fascinating and her accomplishments as an aviator, extraordinary. Amelia Earhart was the daughter of Samuel “Edwin” Stanton Earhart and Amelia “Amy” Earhart (nee Otis). She was born in Kansas on July 24, 1897.
According to Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon’s 1997 biography Amelia: The Centennial Biography of an Aviation Pioneer, her upbringing was unconventional since Amy did not believe in moulding her children into nice little girls.
As a child, Earhart spent long hours playing with her younger sister, climbing trees, hunting rats with a rifle and “belly-slamming” a sled downhill. Although the love of the outdoors and “rough-and-tumble” play was, and still is, common to many youngsters, some biographers have made the somewhat sexist characterisation that the young Amelia was a bit of a tomboy.
At the age of ten Amelia saw her first aircraft at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. She later described the biplane as “a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting”. Her fascination with aviation was not to develop for a few years yet. Amelia graduated from high school in 1916. Throughout her childhood, she had continued to aspire to a future career; she kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about successful women in predominantly male-oriented fields, including film direction and production, law, advertising, management and mechanical engineering.
Life Changed Forever
During Christmas vacation in 1917, Amelia visited her sister in Canada. World War I had been raging and after seeing and being deeply affected by the countless wounded returning from the battlefields of Europe, Amelia received training as a nurse’s aide from the Red Cross and began work with the Voluntary Aid Detachment at Spadina Military Hospital.
It was at about this time; Amelia and a friend visited an air show held in Toronto. One of the highlights of the day was a flying exhibition put on by a World War I flying ace. Just prior to her disappearance, Amelia remarked “I did not understand it at the time, but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.”
On December 28, 1920, Amelia and her father visited an airfield where Frank Hawks (who later gained fame as an air racer) gave her a ride that would forever change Amelia Earhart’s life. After numerous jobs, Amelia had managed to save $1,000 for flying lessons and on January 3, 1921, at Kinner Field near Long Beach Amelia had her first flying lesson.
Her teacher was Anita “Neta” Snook, a pioneer female aviator who used a military surplus Curtiss JN-4 Canuck for training. Amelia arrived with her father and a singular request:
“I want to fly. Will you teach me?”
Amelia’s commitment to flying required her to accept the frequent hard work and rudimentary conditions that accompanied early aviation training. She chose the characteristic aviator’s leather jacket and cropped her hair short in the style of other female flyers. Six months later, she purchased a second-hand bright yellow Kinner Airster biplane which she nicknamed The Canary. On October 22, 1922, she flew The Canary to an altitude of 4267 metres, setting a world record for female pilots and, on May 15, 1923, Amelia Earhart became the 16th woman in the United States to be issued a pilot’s license by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).
After Charles Lindbergh’s successful solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, Amy Guest, the wealthy heiress of American industrialist Henry Phipps Jr, expressed an interest in being the first woman to fly (or be flown) across the Atlantic Ocean. After deciding that the trip was too perilous for her to undertake, she offered to sponsor the project, suggesting that they find “another girl with the right image”.
While at work one afternoon in April 1928, Amelia received a phone call asking her:
“Would you like to fly the Atlantic?”
The project coordinators interviewed Earhart and asked her to accompany pilot Wilmer Stultz and co-pilot/mechanic Louis Gordon on the flight, nominally as a passenger, but with the added duty of keeping the flight log. The team departed from Trepassey Harbor, Newfoundland, in a Fokker F.VIIb/3m, The Friendship on June 17, 1928, landing near Burry Port, South Wales, exactly 20 hours and 40 minutes later. There is a commemorative blue plaque at the site. Since most of the flight was on instruments and Earhart had no training for this type of flying, she did not pilot the aircraft. When interviewed after landing, she said, “Stultz did all the flying – had to. I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes.” She added, “… maybe someday I’ll try it alone.”
When the Stultz, Gordon and Earhart flight crew returned to the United States, they were greeted with a ticker-tape parade along the Canyon of Heroes in Manhattan, followed by a reception with President Coolidge at the White House.
Trading on her physical resemblance to Lindbergh, whom the press had dubbed “Lucky Lindy”, some newspapers and magazines began referring to Earhart as “Lady Lindy”. The United Press was a little more generous in the sobriquet given to her, Amelia Earhart was the “Reigning Queen of the Air”.
Immediately upon her return to the United States, she undertook an exhausting lecture tour over 1928 and 1929.
A Lone Bird
Although Earhart had gained fame for her transatlantic flight, she endeavoured to set an “untarnished” record of her own. In August 1928, Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the North American continent and back. Her piloting skills and professionalism gradually grew, as acknowledged by experienced professional pilots who flew with her.
Celebrity endorsements helped Earhart finance her flying. Accepting a position as associate editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, she turned this forum into an opportunity to campaign for greater public acceptance of aviation, especially focusing on the role of women entering the field.
In 1929, she was among the first aviators to promote commercial air travel through the development of a passenger airline service; along with Charles Lindbergh, she represented Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT, later TWA) and invested time and money in setting up the first regional shuttle service between New York and Washington, D.C., the Ludington Airline. She was a Vice President of National Airways, which conducted the flying operations of the Boston-Maine Airways and several other airlines in the northeast. By 1940, it had become Northeast Airlines.
By 1930, Amelia had become an official of the National Aeronautic Association where she actively promoted the establishment of separate women’s records and was instrumental in the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) accepting a similar international standard. In 1931, she set a world altitude record of 5613 metres, flying a Pitcairn PCA-2 autogyro, a precursor to the helicopter. Joseph J. Corn in his 1983 book, The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, 1900–1950 makes the point that, while to a reader today it might seem that Earhart was engaged in flying “stunts”, she was, with other female flyers, crucial to making the public “air minded” and convincing them that “aviation was no longer just for daredevils and supermen.”
On the morning of May 20, 1932, a 34-year-old Amelia set off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, for that “untarnished” record of her own. With a copy of the Telegraph-Journal, intended to confirm the date of the flight, she set off to become the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo. She intended to fly to Paris in a single engine Lockheed Vega 5B to emulate Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight five years earlier.
After a flight lasting 14 hours, 56 minutes, during which she contended with strong northerly winds, icy conditions and numerous mechanical problems, Earhart landed in a field near Culmore, Northern Ireland. As the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic, Earhart received the Distinguished Flying Cross from the US Congress, the Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honour from the French Government and the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society from President Herbert Hoover. As Amelia’s fame and notoriety grew, she developed friendships with many people in high offices, most notably First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt shared many of Earhart’s interests and passions, especially women’s causes. After flying with Earhart, Roosevelt obtained a student permit but did not pursue further flying lessons. The two remained close friends until Amelia’s disappearance.
On January 11, 1935, Earhart became the first aviator to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii to Oakland, California. This transoceanic flight had been attempted by many others, notably by the unfortunate participants in the 1927 Dole Air Race from California to Hawaii. Of the eighteen planes entered, only two successfully made to Hawaii.
Unlike the catastrophic Dole Race, Amelia’s flight had been mainly routine, with no mechanical or engineering failures, navigational issues or inclement weather.
According to Goldstein and Dillon, in the final hours of the 3862 kilometres, she even relaxed and listened to a broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera from New York.
Between 1930 and 1935, Amelia Earhart had set seven women’s speed and distance aviation records in a variety of aircraft including the Kinner Airster, Lockheed Vega, and Pitcairn Autogyro. By 1935, recognising the limitations of her “lovely red Vega” in long, transoceanic flights, Amelia contemplated, in her own words, a new “prize … one flight which I most wanted to attempt – a circumnavigation of the globe as near its waistline as could be”. For this new venture, she would need a new aircraft, her last bird, the famous Lockheed Electra 10E.
In 1935, Amelia Earhart joined Purdue University as a visiting faculty member to counsel women on careers and as a technical advisor to its Department of Aeronautics and early in 1936, Earhart started planning a round-the-world flight. Although others had flown around the world, her flight would be the longest at 46671 kilometres because it followed a roughly equatorial route. With financing from Purdue University, in July 1936, a Lockheed Electra 10E was built to her specifications, which included extensive modifications to the fuselage to incorporate additional fuel tanks.
Amelia chose Harry Manning as her navigator; he had been the captain of the President Roosevelt, the ship that had brought Earhart back from Europe in 1928. Manning was not only a navigator, but he was also a highly skilled radio operator who knew Morse code.
Through contacts in the Los Angeles aviation community, Fred Noonan was chosen as a second navigator because there were significant additional factors that had to be dealt with while using celestial navigation for aircraft. Fred had vast experience in both marine and flight navigation. He had recently left Pan Am, where he established most of the company’s China Clipper seaplane routes across the Pacific. Fred Noonan had also been responsible for training Pan Am’s navigators for the route between San Francisco and Manila. The original plans were for Fred to navigate from Hawaii to Howland Island, a particularly difficult portion of the flight; then Captain Manning would continue with Amelia to Australia and she would proceed on her own for the remainder of the project.
The Sky Is The Limit
On March 17, 1937, Earhart and her crew flew the first leg from Oakland, California to Honolulu, Hawaii. Due to mechanical problems, the aircraft needed servicing in Hawaii. The flight resumed three days later from Luke Field with Earhart, Noonan and Manning on board. During the take-off run the forward landing gear collapsed, both propellers hit the ground and the Electra skidded on its belly a short distance before coming to a halt.
With the aircraft severely damaged, the circumnavigation was cancelled, and the broken plane was shipped back to the Lockheed Burbank facility for repairs. While the Electra was being repaired, Amelia and her team secured additional funds and prepared for a second attempt; this time flying west to east.
The flight’s opposite direction was partly the result of changes in global wind and weather patterns along the planned route since the earlier attempt and this time, Fred Noonan was Earhart’s only crew member. The pair departed Miami on June 1, 1937 and after numerous stops in South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and Australia, they arrived in Lae, New Guinea, on June 29, 1937. At this stage about 35406 kilometres of the journey had been completed. The remaining 11, 265 kilometres would be over the Pacific Ocean.
On July 2, 1937, Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae Airfield in the heavily loaded Electra. Their intended destination was Howland Island; a flat sliver of land barely 2 kilometres long, about 500 metres wide, a mere 3 metres above sea level and 4113 kilometres from Lae.
At around 15:00 Lae time, Earhart reported her altitude as 10000 feet, a little over 3000 metres and reported that they would reduce altitude due to thick clouds. Around 17:00, Earhart reported her altitude as 7000 feet, around 2130 metres and airspeed at 150 knots, just shy of 280 kilometres per hour. Earhart and Noonan’s last known position report was somewhere near the Nukumanu Islands, about 1,300 km into the flight.
It is at this point that Amelia flew into that place in history that has consumed historians, conspiracy theorists, and the public for generations.
Amelia, the extraordinary daughter of Edwin and Amy Earhart came to prominence as a pioneer of aviation ninety years ago, even if it was as “baggage, like a sack of potatoes”. From that flight across the Atlantic and her subsequent ground-breaking career in aviation, her place and importance in the history of aviation is cemented. The information surrounding her disappearance however would seem far from concrete.
Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence
Monday June 18 at 5:30pm AEST
HISTORY’s two-hour special Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, unveils original U.S. documents containing new information about the fate of this American legend, including a never-before-seen photograph presumed to be Earhart and Noonan after their crash, and how the U.S. government may have covered it up.
Former FBI Executive Assistant Director, Shawn Henry, investigates new, shocking evidence supporting that Earhart survived her final flight, crash-landed in the Marshall Islands, and was captured by the Japanese military and ultimately died in custody on Saipan.
Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence begins with Henry disclosing a photograph found by Former US Treasury Agent, Les Kinney, deeply hidden and mislabelled in the U.S. National Archives depicting Earhart, Noonan and their ill-fated plane at a dock in the Marshall Islands. Henry leads a team of investigators in evaluating and testing the photograph with extensive recognition and proportional comparison technology.
This compelling documentary presents evidence verified by some of the most reputable professionals in the world. The evidence includes aircraft parts found on an uninhabited island of the Marshall Islands by Earhart Investigator, Dick Spink, consistent with Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E and an original interview with the last living eyewitness who claims to have seen Earhart and Noonan after the fateful crash.
By: R. J. Hawksworth
Image: Photo of Amelia Earhart in 1935. Earhart played herself in a radio dramatisation of her Honolulu to Oakland flight. The program aired in three segments on NBC Radio, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.