Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart self-portraitFour ocean liners arrived in Honolulu Harbor on December 27, 1934, bringing 400 passengers to the Islands.  One was the Lurline carrying 246 people aboard, including another famous flyer who would create one more aviation mark for the world though the use of Hawaii.  Now married, famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart Putnam came with her New York publisher husband, George Palmer Putnam.  With them were friends  Albert Paul Mantz, another well-known pilot, and his wife (also a qualified pilot). Sitting on the Lurline’s deck was a vivid red monoplane, a Lockheed Vega belonging to the intrepid lady pilot.

Reporters and cameramen followed Amelia Earhart (as she preferred to be called, for professional purposes) about the ship before debarking. Speculation was rampant that a Hawaii to Mainland flight was next on her list of spectacular aerial ventures, hence the reason for being in Hawaii with an airplane.  Miss Earhart declined to comment on that probability, insisting that the plane would be used for vacation travel between the islands during the vacation. Leaving shipside, the group proceeded to Waikiki Beach and moved in with friends by the name of Holmes in the “Queen’s Surf.”

Newspapers in Hawaii published a picture of Miss Earhart and Captain Ulm taken before the Australian’s departure on his ill-fated flight to Hawaii, in which she bade him good journey.  His tragic loss obviously failed to daunt “Lady Lindbergh” from a possible flight to California, likely whether or not she admitted it.

The plane was like the one she crossed the Atlantic with in 1932 (it carried the same engine), and as flown around the world recently by Wiley Post.  A six passenger airplane, its cabin was modified to carry extra fuel tanks, leaving room only for one person.  Instead of the normal fuel capacity of 210 gallons, it carried 520. The lone engine was a supercharged Wasp S1D1 NR9657, consuming between 25-30 gallons an hour, and providing a cruising speed of about 140-160 miles per hour.  For communications, installed was a two-way radio like those used by transcontinental commercial planes.  The monoplane was lifted to a large pontoon and towed to the fleet air base at Ford Island.  The next day, Paul Mantz flew it to Wheeler Field.  The Army pilot renewed acquaintance with friends stationed there and the huge airplane was put into a hangar for safe-keeping.  In the meantime, the aviatrix and friends tried an outrigger canoe on the Pacific for over water travel.  One of today’s senior civil service employees at Hickam, William L. Jackman (then a private first class at Wheeler), recalls, “The whole project was tightly controlled, security-wise. Most of us couldn’t even get to look at the airplane.”

Photo of Earhart's single engine plainThat same day, December 29th, headlines in local papers announced that 100 ships and 50,000 men would arrive in Hawaii for war games in April or May, with Pearl Harbor as the center of activities, further attesting to the Island Group’s increasing importance to America.

According to a trade magazine, Miss Earhart was about to make a Hawaii-to-Mainland solo flight as a publicity stunt to focus attention on the Territory of Hawaii.  In immediate reaction, both the aviatrix and her husband issued denials, explaining that they were on vacation and the plane would be used for local travel or for whatever purpose they chose; however if such a flight were to be made advance publicity would deter the effort, as inadvertent take-off delays were frequent those days.  To announce such a flight attempt, then not accomplish it, would mislead the public, they stated.  This was the first real indication from the visiting group that the record breaking flight might be undertaken.  The Army kept silent.

Publicity on accusations and denials continued. One writer questioned airplane suitability (single engine, land type), extent of the Army’s role at Wheeler Field in a private venture, relationship of the flight to the impending commercial service between the mainland and Hawaii, the government’s expense at sea rescue if forced down, and advisability and contribution of the flight at all, following on the heels of Ulm’s recent tragedy over the route.  Miss Earhart said little more. She announced an engagement to speak at the University of Hawaii’s Farrington Hall on the subject of “Flying for Fun.”

The Commerce Department stated no attempt would be made to stop but to help the flight.  J. Carroll Cone, Assistant Director of the Aeronautics Bureau, added that Miss Earhart asked for no assistance.  The word was spread that local “authorities” were planning to interfere with the flight, to which Miss Earhart reacted by indicating she was not interested in a controversy.

Aviation experts and radio men came to her defense refuting the allegation while she, Paul Mantz and party proceeded to the hangar at Wheeler Field to groom the airplane for whatever flying activity was intended.

Local experts covered each point of contention, entirely supporting Miss Earhart’s position.  About the use of a single engine land plane, it was the same type used by Kingsford-Smith, whose flight was without protest.  The larger fuel capacity was significant, as was the ability to take off more easily.  The question of Miss Earhart having to navigate by dead reckoning was not considered a matter of concern. She flew solo across the Atlantic by this means, plus three crossings of the continent non-stop (at least one at night) with accuracy.  The possibility of life-saving coverage at sea was considered a matter of public concern over a human life.  As for the statement that such a flight would prove nothing, a great deal was expected to be achieved, including data assimilation on weather and other atmospheric conditions, information for the making of facilities charts (as was done with seafarers’ reports for nautical charts), as well as other aviation benefits to be gained from her experience.

The air was noticeably tense for the next few days, unlike the gay excitement and speculation which existed before the controversy.  On January 2, 1935, Paul Mantz flew Miss Earhart’s airplane in a test of its modified radio set.  Flying at 14,000 foot altitude in Honolulu he was able to maintain two-way radio voice communication with land stations as far west on the mainland as Kingsman, Arizona.  This was a new trans-Pacific record and an item of great relief for the lady pilot who would come to rely considerably on the set’s operation during her flight to Oakland.

Three days later Amelia Earhart and party, as guests of Stanley C. Kennedy of Inter-Island Airways got aboard a company amphibian plane for a sight-seeing tour of Maui and Hawaii.  Under the command of Captain Charles I. Elliott, original company pilot, a slow and easy flight provided an excellent view of Oahu’s neighbor islands.  Miss Earhart was delighted, and wished the company well in its operation. Cynics wondered why she hadn’t used her own airplane as promised. When the story came into publication the following day, very little was to be heard from the quiet aviatrix for a number of days afterward.

The January 11, 1935 issue of the Honolulu Advertiser carried the next news of her whereabouts, announcing in large bold print that Amelia Earhart took off from Wheeler Field unheralded on a solo flight to Oakland, California.  Take-off time was set at 4:40 p.m.  Only slightly over 100 people looked on.  It was just one year prior that Commander M. Ginnis led his flight of six seaplanes from the West Coast to Hawaii.  Now a woman was doing it in reverse, flying in one airplane, with one engine, and no other person aboard.

It was about noon on January 11th when Miss Earhart and her husband were delivered to the home of Lieutenant George Sparhawk. Everything was unhurried at Wheeler Field.  Bringing along the course plotted before she departed for Hawaii by Commander Clarence Williams, US Naval Reserve, of Los Angeles, who had also plotted the course of her other famous flights except the Atlantic crossing, she reported to Wheeler’s aerologist, Lieutenant E. W. Stephens to discuss the weather.  Conditions didn’t suit her for takeoff but there was hope for improvement in a few hours.  To people in the vicinity, she explained that if the weather improved she was going to make a test flight.  Hint of a long trip didn’t exist. She had with her no luggage or other indicators; clad in a dark brown flying suit of her own design, made of Grenfell cloth, the amazing flyer further dispelled any suspicions of flying over 2,000 miles non-stop by taking a nap “until the weather lifts.”

Lieutenant Stuart Wright’s aircraft mechanics checked the plane’s mechanical condition then wheeled the red monoplane out of the hangar onto the apron for fuel servicing, Paul Mantz stood by. It was after 1 p.m. when it started to rain.  Mantz ordered the plane back into the hangar to complete servicing. When the full capacity of 520 gallons was assured, Wheeler’s commander, Major Ernest Clark, checked the plane’s condition. Miss Earhart still slept peacefully.  Major General Halstead Dorey, Acting Commander for the Hawaiian Department, also inspected it then announced with a smile that the airplane was ready for flight.  Mantz directed its removal from the hangar.

At about 4:22 p.m., the flyer and her party arrived on the flight line. She signed her flight clearance then stepped toward the waiting plane which sat in puddles of water, reflecting its vivid red.  Donning a life jacket, Amelia Earhart climbed into the cockpit.  Mantz made a final check of instruments then moved out of the way.

With her was a package of letters, some unique covers, several envelopes she had carried while crossing the Atlantic.  For food, she had sandwiches, boiled eggs, tomato juice, hot cocoa, chocolate and water.  Engine already idling, Miss Earhart began a check of her panel, instruments and movable surfaces. Then she gave the signal and the wheel chocks were whisked away. Methodically, she moved out of position onto the wet grass beyond the apron and gunned the engine.  The rain had its effect, as mud and grass clogged the tailskid.  Mantz motioned to the lady pilot to level off, and quickly head into the wind to avoid the tailskid getting snagged.  The helmet-less flyer signaled her thanks and taxied into position without further difficulty.

With little hesitation, Miss Earhart pushed the throttle forward and began the long take-off roll. Cumbersome under a 6,500 lb. load, the heaviest she had flown to date for take-off, the plane responded by lifting her from the muddy runway in less total space than Kingsford-Smith had used not quite a month prior.  The crimson monoplane raised steadily into somber skies above the record-filled Army airfield, then arched decisively toward Diamond Head and open skies beyond.

Hours droned by but not without action.  Miss Earhart kept busy giving half-hourly reports over her radio transmitter. Those with short wave radio sets in Hawaii heard her broadcasts direct, thrilling to the clear feminine voice stating, “This is KHABQ, everything is OK.”  Honolulu’s radio station KGU passed messages to its listeners.  The air was electric in the Hawaiian Islands as plane, equipment and aviatrix combined talents to produce a successful and unprecedented journey over treacherous ocean waters.  The listening world through modern communications was kept aware of developments. Amelia Earhart’s dead reckoning abilities were proven once again, as she stayed quite on the course plotted by her trusted Los Angeles  friend. She flew at 8,000 feet most of the way, well above fog banks and thousands of puffy clouds.  Passing over three steamers on the same route was heartening verification of her accuracy.  Her biggest difficulty was the hard and steady stream of air rushing into Miss Earhart’s face through a ventilator which had blown open inadvertently at the trip’s beginning.  The Wasp engine purred faithfully with the heartbeat of a magnificent lion as it brought the lady flyer safely across a second ocean, acting as her only “breathing” in-flight companion.

The crowd at Oakland, CA during Earhart's arrivalThe scene at Oakland Airport was a contrast to the Wheeler point of departure, as 5,000 people lined the field to offer a tumultuous reception for the first human to fly solo and non-stop over one ocean and 2,000 miles over another.  The West Coast appeared to the pilot twice in error, each time turning out to be cloud shadows on the water’s surface. The third time, however, was land.  Her flying time lagging somewhat because of throttling back to save fuel at one point, had cut her airspeed from 160 to 140 mph.  Then she sighted the landing field and the hundreds of honking cars.  The time was 12:50 p.m., January 12, 1935.  Some 2,090 nautical miles from “Wheeler Field, 18 hours and 15 minutes later, the scarlet colored Lockheed-Vega gloriously settled into a perfect landing in the California airport which shared so many record breaking honors with its sister air link, Wheeler Field.

A brilliant success, the flight was accomplished by a flyer whose only motivation was the love of flying, and a desire to contribute trail-blazing marks to the world.  Of course, she was interested in recognition.  No huge prize per se awaited her.  She would be listed prominently among the women in history who contributed outstandingly to the world, thereby confusing the accepted picture of apron and saucepan-in-hand womanhood. She did her share to create for the “weaker sex” a new picture of strength, caring and importance, while retaining charm, dignity and femininity.

She was indeed a hero to the world.  Men and women in every land looked upon her with awe and admiration.  Her articulate intelligence permeated all readers, watchers and listeners as well. The flight drew attention to Hawaii, showing its importance and contribution to a non-isolated world.  But Miss Earhart had other, greater goals in mind which were to be manifested in 1937. The year 1935 was to see more of Earhart.  On 19-20 April she flew from Burbank, California, to Mexico City with one stop, in 13 hours and 32 minutes.  She then made the first non-stop flight from there to Newark, New Jersey, in 14 hours and 19 minutes.

Having already flown solo across the Atlantic Ocean then from Hawaii to California, Amelia Earhart’s fervent desire to fly around the world came closer to reality when Purdue University, for whom she worked as consultant on Aeronautics and Careers for Women, decided to back her venture.  The university from Lafayette, Indiana, helped the aviatrix raise close to $100,000 for the purchase of a twin-engine Lockheed Electra aircraft. The lofty achievement had already been made by Wiley Post but she could be the first woman to set the world mark. Once the plane was purchased, Miss Earhart finalized plans for the flight and wasted no time putting them into operation. For her crew she chose Harry Manning, Fred Noonan (of Musick’s original Clipper crew, by then a veteran of 12 flights across the Pacific); coming along for the ride was ever-helpful Paul Mantz.  The plane was modified to make room for extra fuel tanks in the cabin.

Hawaii, still astir with her 1935 triumph from Wheeler Field, decided to honor the aviatrix with a commemorative plaque on Diamond Head.  Documents of that flight were placed in a copper box and inserted into the plaque’s base on March 6.  It was dedicated on March 14, 1937 in an impressive ceremony, while the world awaited her oft-delayed globe-circling take-off.

At 4:10 p.m., March 17, the same day that Musick left Alameda for Honolulu (whom she hoped to beat on take-off), 947 gallons of gasoline were placed on board the Lockheed Electra to feed its two Wasp engines which, with 1,100 horsepower, had the job of lifting 14,000 pounds from Oakland to Honolulu.  Ignoring the short asphalt surfaced runway, at 4:30 p.m., the amazing aviatrix hurtled down Oakland Airport’s dirt runway, mud splattering onto the sleek plane.  A short run of 1,897 feet was all the craft needed to lift off then rise powerfully into the sky.  This took 25 seconds.  In 15 hours and 47 minutes, Miss Earhart and party landed at Wheeler Field, a new speed record made for the route, with more than four hours of fuel remaining (600 additional miles of flying).  The time was 5:40 in the morning. The tousled-headed flyer emerged from the silver cabin tired but smiling, pleased that the first leg of her long journey was successfully executed.   It had been an uneventful flight, with no damaged to the airplane except for dry propeller bearings due to insufficient lubrication.

Pictures and stories of the popular lady dominated Honolulu newspapers, heralding the start of another aviation mark which drew the world’s attention once again to the Hawaiian Islands’ increasingly important role to world communication.  Miss Earhart decided against Wheeler Field’s runway for take-off because of its rough surface.  The blue and white airplane was moved to Ford Island which boasted a 3,000 foot concrete runway and preparations for take-off were hastened for the next leg of the trip.  Miss Earhart promised the press “no sneak take-off” from Hawaii.

Photo of Earhart's plane crash during take offAt 5:53 a.m. on March 20, 1937, she began the take-off roll.  The twin-engine plane gained momentum.  Sud-denly, at the 1,000 foot mark the right tire blew.  The strain broke completely the right landing gear sending the Electra severely to one side.  Forced into a hard dip, the right wing was badly damaged.  One gas tank was punctured, allowing fuel to spew onto the terrain.  The right engine case was cracked badly and the rear end of the fuselage torn and dented.

Cool-headed as ever, Miss Earhart and her flying companions climbed unceremoniously out of the aircraft  They were unhurt, thanks to the pilot’s expert handling of her controls.  Ten seconds more and the plane would have been airborne, lamented the female air-hero!  Within six hours after the crackup, Miss Earhart was aboard the Malolo heading for San Francisco.  “I’ll be back,” she declared determinedly.    There was no question in anyone’s mind that another attempt would be made at the globe-circling flight, and soon.

On May 21, she was ready to try again but decided to circle the equator.  This changed her take-off position.  On June 2, she left Miami, Florida, with Fred Noonan as navigator, flying to Central America then to Brazil, reaching next across the South Atlantic in the time of 14 hours.  From Natal she proceeded to Senegal in French West Africa then soared to Dakar, Gao, Khartum and Massawa (a Red Sea port). Having methodically sliced through the continents of North American and Africa, her sights were set on Asia.  Relentlessly pursuing her course under the expert guidance of her  navigator, Noonan, the aviatrix crossed Arabia, India, Burma, Siam, Java, Australia and New Guinea.

On July 1, she made her way from Lae, New Guinea, across the blue Pacific Ocean for Howland Island.  A radio report was received on July 2 from her plane that she was over the ocean with no land in sight, with about one-half hour’s fuel left on board. Deadly, sickening silence followed. Ships and planes of three nations were sent across the Pacific on a prayerful search mission.  The world was stunned by the tragedy. There was to be no more word from the comely, heroic aviatrix.

Excerpted from the book Above the Pacific by Lieutenant Colonel William Joseph Horvat, 1966.

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