Will the disappearance of legendary pilot Amelia Earhart ever be solved?
Through the years, clues have surfaced into the mystery of her disappearance.
Earhart took off from a Miami-area airport on June 1, 1937, on her fatal flight. Here is a look at the events through the archives of the Miami Herald.
Published The around-the-world flight attempt that took Amelia Earhart through Miami in 1937 was not her first. Earlier she had flown west from California but blew a tire on takeoff in Honolulu. The pilot had filed newspaper dispatches about her journey. Here are excerpts from The Herald of March 26, 1937.
This morning I completed my fourth voyage between Hawaii and the mainland — two by air and two by boat. This last return, by the steamer Malolo, was not my intention when I took off a week ago.
However, the best laid plans of mice and pilots go awry and very awry mine have gone. The accident which ended the present flight was a high price to pay.
But already in retrospect it seems as if the knowledge gained on the way were almost worth the cost. I mean in such things as better arrangements of navigation facilities and radio; exact reactions of the plane under heavy load conditions at various altitudes and its superb performance in taking off, and above all, a continuity of faith in the equipment on the part of the pilot.
Has the accident shaken your confidence? That question has been asked me several times today.
The answer is very clear in my mind. Nothing has happened to change my attitude toward the original project. Instead, I feel better about the ship itself than I ever have and I am more eager than ever to fly it again. In pioneer flying one has to take the rough with the smooth. The accident was just “one of those things.” It might have been so much worse that I’m really very thankful. . . . Not until the crippled plane is brought back to the Lockheed plant here at Burbank will I know the true extent of her injuries or the time required to cure them.
And, alas! the costs.
Unfortunately the latter must play a very important part in any plans for the future. If all goes well, I hope the plane may be reconditioned in from 30 to 60 days. Then, if I feel as I now do, the flight will start all over again. . . . A silver lining to the present cloud is the fact that now for a time I shall not have to write any more accounts for the Miami Herald.
Hard as my reporting may have been on readers, I doubt if they can know what a chore reporting or trying to report can be to one whose other jobs include trying to herd an airplane around the Equator. A little later, when the flight is resumed, I hope to do a better job, reporter-wise as well as pilot-wise.
Published Oct. 31, 2014
A photograph that lay forgotten in Miami Herald archives for three-quarters of a century might have moved investigators a huge step forward in solving one of aviation’s most enduring mysteries — the disappearance of pioneering female aviator Amelia Earhart, who disappeared without a trace as she neared the end of a round-the-world flight in 1937.
Using computer enhancement of the photo, snapped moments before Earhart’s plane took off from Miami on her fateful trip, investigators say they have matched a chunk of airplane wreckage found on the Pacific Island of Nikumaroro to a repaired panel on the fuselage of her aircraft.
“As far as we’re concerned, we’ve got a piece of Amelia Earhart’s plane,” said Ric Gillespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has been searching for the aircraft since 1988. If Gillespie is correct, it would be strong support for his theory that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, weren’t lost at sea but died of starvation and injuries suffered during a crash-landing on a reef just off the shore of the uninhabited Nikumaroro.
That theory is controversial, to put it mildly, in the large community of Earhart-investigation enthusiasts, and some of them were quick to denounce Gillespie’s findings as a phony fundraising ploy.
“It’s absolutely not true,” said Richard LaPook, a former airline pilot and lawyer specializing in aircraft-crash cases who works with the Stratus Project, another group chasing Earhart’s ghost. “He covers up some serious, serious problems with his artifact, and he’s been doing it for 20 years. ... This is just one more example of Gillespie stirring the pot to get some more contributions.”
Earhart was one of the most famous women in the world when she set off on her flight around the world from Oakland, California. She left Miami - where she had landed a week earlier for her last stop in the continental United States — on June 1. On July 2, she lost radio contact and disappeared while trying to land on tiny Howland Island, her scheduled refueling stop 1,700 miles west of Hawaii. She was never seen again, despite a long search by the U.S. Navy and, in later years, privately funded expeditions.
This latest chapter of the search began six months ago, when Gillespie contacted the Herald in search of a photo of her plane, snapped moments before her dawn takeoff in 1937. The photo showed what appeared to be a previously undocumented repair to Earhart’s Lockheed Electra airplane.
A window Earhart had installed at the rear of the plane to aid in celestial navigation — a common practice over trackless areas like oceans, jungles and deserts before the invention of radar and GPS — had disappeared in the photo, replaced by a light-colored aluminum patch.
Earhart’s landing in Miami had been rough, requiring some repairs, apparently including the window. Gillespie thought the repair might be the key to identifying the piece of aluminum wreckage he discovered on Nikumaroro (which, at the time of Earhart’s flight, was known as Gardner Island) in 1999.
The scrap, about 18 inches by 23, is definitely from the outer skin of an airplane; it’s made from a type of aluminum called 24ST Alclad, which was used in the manufacture of nearly all aircraft in the 1930s. But the rivet patterns — four parallel rows, with a fifth row of larger rivets below — didn’t match those of the Lockheed Electra.
The patch that replaced Earhart’s window, however, was done not at a Lockheed factory but at a Pan American World Airways repair shop at Miami’s old airport. Perhaps, Gillespie thought, a computer-enhanced look at a cleaner version of the Herald photo would match up with his wreckage.
“That’s exactly what happened,” Gillespie told the Herald on Thursday. “We weren’t able to enhance it to the point where we could see individual rivets. But we could definitely see the rows, and they were exactly what’s on our artifact — four rows, plus the larger fifth. It’s a very unusual pattern, unique. It’s like a fingerprint, and just as a fingerprint can link a suspect to a crime scene, this links the artifact to Earhart’s plane.”
Other bits of evidence — some bolstering Gillespie’s theory, some merely clarifying part of the Earhart mystery — have emerged in the past six months:
▪ Another old Herald photo, apparently previously unpublished, narrows down the date of the replacement of the window in Earhart’s plane. The picture, in which Earhart poses beside her plane with her step-daughter-in-law, Nilla Putnam, was taken May 29, and the window is clearly visible. That means the window was patched 48 hours or less before her departure.
▪ Gillespie’s staffers, for the first time, were able to inspect the interior of a Lockheed Electra’s fuselage walls. Only a handful of the planes still exist, and they usually have a lavatory installed right at the spot where Earhart put in her window. The lavatory fixtures — a toilet, sink and water tank — make it impossible to get inside the walls. But TIGHAR found a Lockheed Electra being restored near Wichita, Kansas, in which the owner was taking the lavatory out to create a luggage storage area. “All we had to do was remove some carpeting and some sound-proofing material, and we were able to see the interior,” Gillespie said. “You can see how our artifact would line up perfectly with internal supports if it were installed as a patch.”
▪ A new sonar image shows what Gillespie calls “an anomaly” about 600 feet underwater on the ocean floor at the foot of a cliff on Nikumaroro, at roughly the spot Earhart’s plane would have come to rest if a storm washed it off the island’s reef. “The experts who’ve looked at it are all over the place,” Gillespie said. “Some say it’s probably an odd formation of coral. Others say it’s definitely man-made. Whatever it is, it is definitely about the size of the fuselage of Earhart’s plane.”
The most important evidence, however, is the linkage of Gillespie’s scrap to Earhart’s plane through study of the photo. And it’s on that point that LaPook and other critics insist most adamantly he’s wrong. They say telltale evidence on Gillespie’s scrap of wreckage proves it wasn’t manufactured until several years after Earhart crashed.
The scrap bears a visible stamp of an A and a letter D - probably part of the label 24ST Alclad, the type of aluminum it’s made from. But, LaPook says, Alcoa Inc., the company that manufactured the aluminum, didn’t start stamping it with the 24ST Alclad designation until 1941. Before that, it used the abbreviation ALC.
“There are hundreds of photos of aluminum pieces stamped ALC,” LaPook said. “It’s just beyond doubt.”
Gillespie shrugs off the objection.
“We don’t know that for sure,” he said. “We don’t know what every single Alcoa factory did or when they started doing or when they stopped.”
On one point he’s in agreement: TIGHAR is definitely raising money - the group wants $387,000 to take an underwater vessel to Nikumaroro to get a closer look at that anomaly.
Published June 29, 2014
The photo is, mostly, unremarkable. It shows an airplane looming darkly on a runway at Miami Municipal Airport in the spectral shadows just before dawn — probably a test as the photographer waited for the money shot moments later, when the aircraft would lift off with famed aviator Amelia Earhart at its controls, unknowingly headed to a mysterious appointment with fate.
Yet the picture — shot by a now-forgotten Miami Herald photographer just before Earhart departed the United States on her doomed flight around the world on June 1, 1937 — contains an odd detail visible on none of the other thousands of photos of her plane. There on the fuselage, about two-thirds of the way from the plane’s nose to its tail, is a rectangular patch that shines a peculiar silver on the aircraft’s dusky skin.
Could it be a clue — the clue — to what happened when Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, vanished somewhere over the trackless Pacific Ocean three months later?
Longtime Earhart investigator Ric Gillespie thinks so.
He believes that the silvery patch reveals an unrecorded repair performed on Earhart’s plane during her stopover in Miami. And he hopes that modern computer enhancements of that part of the photo will link it to a piece of possible airplane wreckage discovered a quarter century ago on a tiny Pacific island in the area where Earhart disappeared.
“If we can match a rivet pattern from the repair in the photograph to a rivet pattern on the wreckage, I think it would be beyond dispute that Noonan and Earhart weren’t lost at sea, but made it to the island,” said Gillespie, the executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).
That would bring an indisputable forensic conclusion to one of the greatest and most contentious mysteries in aviation history. It would also mean, possibly, that the tale of Amelia Earhart had an even more tragic end than we have thought all these years — that she died not in a single terrifying instant as her plane crashed into the sea, but in a long torturous spiral of starvation, thirst and disease. The Flight Earhart was one of the world’s most famous and admired women when she and Noonan set off from Oakland, California, to fly around the globe.
She was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic and the first person to fly solo from Honolulu to Oakland.
She competed successfully with men in the popular airplane races of the day. And she was a feminist before the word was invented, advocating tirelessly for women to be allowed to pursue careers in aviation or anything else they wanted.
Her first try at flying around the world (heading west rather than east) ended abruptly after the first leg when she crashed on takeoff in Hawaii. Her second attempt, this time east-bound, also had problems right from the start.
She landed at the wrong airport in Miami, in what was then known as the 36th Street Airport (now part of Miami International) rather than the bigger Miami Municipal Airport just south of Opa-locka (now a park named for Earhart).
Her landing on May 24, 1937, was rough and she stayed in Miami for a week while the plane underwent repairs. One of them, it appears, was the removal of a specially installed window in the rear of the airplane that navigator Noonan used to take sightings on the sun and stars, the method by which pilots found their way over unmapped oceans, jungles and desert in the days before radar and GPS.
The window is clearly visible in photos of Earhart’s plane taken in California at the start of her trip, and even in some Herald photos shot after her arrival in Miami. But in the photo shot just before her June 1, 1937, takeoff for Puerto Rico, the window is gone, replaced by that odd silvery plate.
“I think the window must have been broken or compromised by the hard landing in Miami,” Gillespie said. “It wasn’t standard equipment and they found out it would take a while to replace it, so they just took it out and patched the fuselage instead.”
From Puerto Rico, Earhart continued through South America, Africa and Asia. On July 2, 1937, as Earhart took off from Lae, New Guinea, and headed for Howland Island nearly 2,600 miles away, her communications suffered a blow.
Photos and home movies of the takeoff show that as she taxied down the runway, a radio antenna on the bottom of her plane tore away. That may be why Earhart was unable to hear Coast Guard crewmen who were trying to make contact with her as she neared Howland Island 19 hours later.
“We are circling but cannot see island, cannot hear you,” she radioed as the crewmen listened helplessly. A series of increasingly distressed messages continued for another hour and a quarter before Earhart, in a distraught voice, gave her location: “We are on the line of position 157 dash 337. ... We are now running north and south.”
The rest was silence.
The Search Some Navy and Coast Guard ships began looking for Earhart right away, but the epicenter of the search, Howland Island, is in the middle of nowhere, 1,700 miles from Hawaii, so it took two weeks for the search to acquire much manpower. Search planes passed over a tiny, apostrophe-shaped patch of coral called Gardner Island, about 400 miles away, and spotted signs of recent habitation.
But Navy records showed that tribes of Pacific Islanders had been living there, which seemed to explain that, and the planes moved on. The search continued several weeks, but turned up absolutely nothing. In the 1960s, journalists began searching for Earhart — but their focus was 2,800 miles west of Howland Island, on Saipan, where U.S. Marines fought a vicious battle against Japanese occupational troops during World War II.
In the aftermath of the fighting, it was said, American troops had made a grisly discovery that Washington had covered up: that the Japanese had captured Earhart and Noonan and, believing them spies, either executed them or mistreated them so badly they died in prison. (The Japanese-capture-and-execution theory is actually a variant on a conspiracy theory that swept America during World War II. In that one, Earhart and Noonan were secret agents assigned by the U.S. government to fake their own disappearance, giving the U.S. Navy an excuse to search the Pacific gathering intelligence about Japanese military activity. There was even a Hollywood movie called Flight for Freedom starring Rosalind Russell as a thinly disguised version of a spy Earhart. Big problem with the theory: Earhart was a fervid pacifist who despised war after working in a military hospital during World War I.)
It wasn’t until the 1980s that modern technology - and perhaps even more importantly, modern fundraising techniques — began making it feasible to mount private searches for Earhart in the area where she disappeared. Using sophisticated underwater radar and deep-sea diving vehicles, groups devoted to the case searched for her plane in the waters around Howland Island, by now deserted.
But still no conclusive evidence emerged.
TIGHAR was not one of those groups. Though it was formed in 1985 by aviation fanatics interested in investigating old missing-plane cases and, if possible, recovering the aircraft, Gillespie steered TIGHAR clear of the Earhart mystery.
Earhart had run out of gas somewhere on a very large ocean, he figured, and her plane could be anywhere in it, miles under the water. But in 1988, two of his members came to him with a proposal.
What if Earhart didn’t crash into the sea? What if she reached an uninhabited island?
“The key to it is her final message, where she says ‘line of position 157 dash 337,’” Gillespie said. “That’s a line that Noonan calculated from the sunrise, running 337 degrees to the northwest and 157 degrees to the southeast. And if you follow it far enough, there are two deserted islands on it, McKeon Island and Gardner Island.”
It didn’t take long for TIGHAR investigators to find that somebody else had already mentioned the possibility of Earhart landing on Gardner Island. In 1960, a 68-year-old ex-Marine named Floyd Kilts gave an interview to a San Diego newspaper recounting his visit to Gardner Island in 1946, when he was sent there to dismantle a navigational device installed there during World War II. Kilts said a Micronesian tribesman living on Gardner told him that when the Micronesians moved onto the island in 1938, they found a partial human skeleton, along with a woman’s shoe — a sign that she was a foreigner, since the tribesmen all went barefoot.
The remnants of a fire pit nearby contained burned bones of small birds and fish, which suggested the woman had lived there some time. The bones had been given to a British colonial official, who thought they might be the remains of Earhart. The Micronesian didn’t know what happened after that, and neither did Kilts.
That story sounds straight from the captured-by-the-Japanese template - except in this case, British archives yielded a load of radio traffic about the discovery of the bones and detailed measurements by a British medical examiner. (The bones themselves had disappeared. The British doctor had concluded the bones belonged to a man of mixed Polynesian and European race, though forensic anthropologists who looked at the data in the 1990s thought it more likely they were those of a European woman.)
One other thing TIGHAR’s research turned up: The Navy’s belief that Micronesian tribesmen had recently been living on Gardner Island in 1937 when its pilots flew over it was wrong. The tribesmen arrived for the first time a year later.
Those signs of habitation had been left by someone else. The Wreckage Gillespie and his group made their first expedition to Gardner Island - by now renamed Nikumaroro and part of the Republic of Kiribati — in 1989. It was once again deserted; drought drove the population away in the mid-1960s.
Some of their empty buildings, including a general store, survived. Otherwise, not much was found.
A second, better-funded expedition arrived in 1991. The past two years had been hard on the island; a major storm had knocked down what little remained of the Micronesian settlement. But as they poked through the rubble, investigators found a fascinating piece of junk: A scrap of aluminum, 19 inches wide by 23 inches long, with four precisely measured rows of rivet holes.
It looked for all the world like the torn outer skin of an airplane. Over the years, tests have shown that’s exactly what it was.
The scrap is made from a substance Alcoa Aluminum called 24ST Alclad, which was used in the manufacture of nearly all American planes manufactured in the 1930s — including Earhart’s Lockheed Electra.
But Gillespie got out well ahead of his forensic evidence in 1992 by holding a Washington, D.C., press conference where he declared that “every possibility has been checked, every alternative eliminated. ... There is only one possible conclusion: We found a piece of Amelia Earhart’s aircraft.”
In fact, as other Earhart-investigation groups (there are more of them than Justin Bieber fan clubs, and they can be just as temperamental) quickly pointed out, the rivet patterns on Gillespie’s scrap were very, very different than those on Lockheed’s Electra.
“It was soon apparent that the Earhart mystery was not solved,” Gillespie admitted ruefully.
For years, the metal scrap was like a thorn in TIGHAR’s paw.
“We knew it was significant, we knew it was a piece of a plane, but we just couldn’t quite figure out where it fit,” Gillespie said.
Three months ago, the group decided to come at the scrap from the opposite direction: If it wasn’t from a Lockheed Electra, then what plane was it from? Gillespie’s investigators spent a day with the reconstruction team in Dayton, Ohio, at the U.S. Air Force Museum, which rebuilds World War II-era planes for a living.
The team scoured its vast store of blueprints and technical drawings. It didn’t fit anything.
“That’s when one of our investigators said, look, we know there’s one piece on that plane that wasn’t built or installed by Lockheed - the replacement for that missing window,” Gillespie recalled. “So maybe that’s the match.”
TIGHAR began reviewing its massive archive of photos of Earhart’s plane. But relatively few showed the right side of the aircraft, because photographers usually wanted to get Earhart herself in the shot, and her pilot’s seat was on the left side.
Only one shot offered a really good view of the patch: that 1937 photo from the Miami Herald.
“The replacement of that window had to be done in Miami, at a Pan Am facility that was helping Earhart,” Gillespie said. “They may have used different materials than Lockheed. ... If we can match that rivet pattern in the photo, I don’t see how anybody can argue against this any more.”
Gillespie’s theory is that Earhart landed her plane on a coral reef just off Gardner Island that becomes visible at low tide. For a time, she used the plane’s radio to send out distress signals, until rough weather washed the aircraft off the reef into a deep ocean trough below. More than 100 shortwave radio listeners around the United States — many of them with enhanced antennas intended to pick up distant signals — reported hearing distress calls from a woman identifying herself as Earhart in the days after her disappearance.
At the time, they were all dismissed as hoaxes or mistaken identities, but Gillespie believes some of them may have been genuine, the product of a signal leakage known as harmonics that was common on early radio transmitters.
Among the most haunting of the reports came from a St. Petersburg teenager named Betty Klenck, who died just last week at the age of 92. In 1937, she was a kid spending her summer afternoons trolling the shortwave radio her father had rigged with a 60-foot antenna, scribbling down in a notebook song lyrics and bits of news she heard.
Three days after the plane went down, Betty stumbled onto a call from someone who identified herself as Earhart.
For three hours, the teenager listened, transfixed and jotting notes all the while, as the woman pleaded for help, comforted an apparently injured Fred Noonan, and sometimes cried.
“Oh, if they could hear me,” she moaned in despair at one point. Betty’s father came home from work about midway through the broadcast and joined her in listening to it.
Later he showed her notebook to Coast Guard authorities, who weren’t interested, thinking it the fantasy of a bored teenager. Yet the notebook contains intriguing hints of things Betty couldn’t possibly have known, and which may support the idea that the woman on the radio was Earhart, calling from Gardner Island.
For instance: Earhart’s constant repetition of something that sounded like “New York City.” That wouldn’t have made much sense.
But if the words were “Norwich City,” it’s another matter: The S.S. Norwich City was a freighter lost at sea in 1929 that washed up on the reef just off Gardner Island.
Bits of the wreckage can still be seen there today.
They say it looms darkly in the spectral shadows just before dawn.
Published June 27, 2014
Amelia Earhart is scheduled to land in Miami Friday on the first leg of her planned flight around the world. And put down that telephone — do not call the Herald to complain that your carrier is 77 years behind on deliveries.
This is a new Amelia Earhart and a new trip circling the globe.
“I’m not saying my flight will be as difficult as hers, or as much of an achievement,” says Amelia Rose Earhart, a 31-year-old Denver weather-reporter-turned-pilot who shares most of a name if not any bloodlines with Amelia Mary Earhart, the pioneering aviatrix whose disappearance on a 1937 round-the-world flight remains one of aviation’s greatest mysteries.
“But Amelia filed a flight plan 77 years ago, and because she didn’t return, it’s still open. I want to symbolically close it.”
Earhart — let’s call her Modern Amelia, as opposed to Pioneer Amelia — was scheduled to leave Denver, early Friday morning and arrive at Miami International Airport in the early afternoon. She began her trip Thursday from Oakland, Calif. It’s the first hop of an aerial journey that will cover 28,000 miles in two-and-a-half weeks, with 17 stops in 14 countries.
Modern Amelia began planning it 10 years ago when, after a lifetime of fighting off jibes about her name (yes, it’s real, given to her by a mother who wanted to call her baby Amy but have something more sophisticated to fall back on as an adult), she decided to embrace it instead and learn to fly.
“My name is definitely a conversation-starter,” she says, “and it certainly gave me the spark to try flying. But you don’t stick with something 10 years just because of your name. When I tried flying, I loved it.”
Her flight is part commercial enterprise, part media hype and part genuine homage to a feminist icon who was daringly insisting to the world that females could do most anything males could at a time when U.S. women had barely gotten the vote. Certainly
Modern Amelia is proving that women can rake in the corporate sponsorship dollars as effectively as any man. Her sponsors include such big aerospace guns as Honeywell, Pratt & Whitney, Satcom1 and — down on the ground — Target.
What she’s proving in the air is a different matter. The longest leg of her trip is nine hours, shorter than many airline flights from the United States to Europe.
Modern Amelia doesn’t pretend for a minute that her flight is anywhere near as difficult or as dangerous as the 1937 trip that cost Pioneer Amelia her life when she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, couldn’t find a little sand spit known as Howland Island — on which no plane has ever landed, before or since — and went down in the middle of the trackless Pacific Ocean.
“No, no, no,” Modern Amelia says. “I’ve got a lot of advantages she couldn’t have dreamed of. “We’re not using 1937 equipment or even replicas of 1937 equipment.... We’re honoring her flight, but we’re not duplicating it.”
Modern Amelia is flying a Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12NG, a state-of-the-art turboprop plane so rugged and powerful that the U.S. Air Force has adapted it for special-operations work. Even more important is her navigation equipment.
Pioneer Amelia flew with a navigator, Noonan, who charted their position by taking readings on the sun and stars. And her balky and confusing radio gear left her unable to contact her ground crew in the final moments of her doomed flight as she frantically searched for Howland Island.
Modern Amelia has dual GPS’s, dual radios (including a high-frequency set that’s especially effective over the ocean), satellite phones, two smart phones jammed full of navigation apps and a hand-held device that will allow her to live-Tweet the entire trip from her cockpit. Perhaps most importantly, she’s got a co-pilot, Shane Jordan, who is 10 years older and has literally thousands more hours of flying a PC-12 than she does. (He’s actually a PC-12 instructor by trade.)
“I couldn’t have anybody better in the cockpit with me,” says Modern Amelia.
Some of her critics say Jordan will more like a supervisor than a co-pilot. “The Pilatus PC-12 is a lot of airplane, and there’s no way in hell she should be flying it,” says Richard Gillespie, a veteran pilot and former aviation insurance risk manager.
Gillespie, who has also led several expeditions to the Pacific in search of Pioneer Amelia’s plane, says Modern Amelia doesn’t have nearly enough flying time on the Pilatus to pilot it by herself.
“He can let her handle the controls, but he’s always in command,” he says. “She’s essentially flying around the world as a passenger.”
Certainly there’s a grand tradition of round-the-world flights commemorating Pioneer Amelia by highly publicized female pilots with older, more experienced male co-pilots sitting in the shadows beside them; it was done in both 1967 (on the 30th anniversary of the fateful flight) and 1997 (the 60th.) But a generous helping of hype may actually make Modern Amelia’s flight closer in spirit to Pioneer Amelia’s, Gillespie admits.
Pioneer Amelia was an aviation celebrity who knew how to milk the media.
“Make no mistake about it, she was a brave woman and an important woman and she certainly did her own flying,” he says. “But for all the breathless talk about flying around the world, her trip — except for the last couple of legs, the ones she didn’t complete — was mostly broken into bite-sized chunks.
She took four days to fly from Oakland to Miami when she could have done it in one.
“The reason for that was that she had a deal with the New York Herald Tribune and its syndicate that she would file a story from every place she landed.
A story under her name, every day, in newspapers all over America! That publicity was invaluable.”
Published March 22, 1997
Oh, how South Florida throbbed with excitement June 1, 1937, when Amelia Earhart, America’s flying sweetheart, called “Lady Lindy” for her intrepid flying exploits, took off from a North Dade airstrip on the first overseas leg of the odyssey that would lead her to her doom, and into history.
The Miami Herald’s story of her takeoff roll was nearly apoplectic: “Twenty-five seconds of breathless suspense . . . of thrills and chills trickling up and down the spine of several hundred spectators! “Twenty-five seconds from the first forward lurch of the great silver ship till the wheels cleared the runway . . . of straining for the skies . . . of admiration and fear . . . wherein daring might turn at any second to disaster.”
Sixty years later, the lost flier’s journey is being re-created by Texas pilot Linda Finch, who is flying a rebuilt Lockheed Electra, like Earhart’s plane, around the globe.
Thousands of students are following Finch’s trip through an education program called You Can Soar, which aims to teach them history, geography and science, among other topics.
After a brief stopover in West Palm Beach that isn’t open to the public, Finch is scheduled to land at Tamiami Airport Monday, and her plane will be on display at Weeks Air Museum there. Wednesday, more than a thousand students are expected to see the plane and hear from Finch, who departs U.S. soil early Thursday.
Today, few remember that Earhart’s takeoff was from the old Miami Municipal Airport, built in the 1920s by George Curtiss, pioneering developer of Hialeah, Miami Springs and Opa-locka. Or that the only physical evidence of that takeoff today is a plaque at the customer service counter of a United Parcel Service office that stands on the site of the old airstrip.
Earhart had already encountered rough flying on her round-the-world trip by the time she reached Miami.
Three months earlier, she had started around the world in the other direction, flying west from Oakland, Calif. But she blew a tire on takeoff from Honolulu heading for the tiny Pacific atoll called Howland Island, wrecked her landing gear and had to return to Oakland for repairs.
On her new attempt, which had started with an Oakland-to-Miami flight, she was heading east, taking advantage of seasonal shifts in tail winds. After her Miami takeoff, South Florida and the world watched as Earhart flew east — to Dutch Guiana, Brazil, French Senegal, Khartoum, the Red Sea, the Middle East, India, then to New Zealand and Lae, New Guinea.
With 22,000 miles and 19 countries under her belt by July 1, she had only 7,000 miles to go — a 2,556-mile leg to tiny Howland Island, another to Honolulu, a third back to Oakland and a hero’s welcome.
Tragically, guided by navigator Fred Noonan’s crude bubble octant and a Bendix radio direction-finder, she couldn’t find Howland Island. “We must be on you but cannot see you,” she radioed to the fleet of U.S. Navy ships awaiting her arrival. Below, the Navy ships were frantically trying to communicate with her, sending up giant billows of black smoke, but had no way to contact her, because she had only a one-way radio.
“We started picking her up quite clearly on our radio,” said a naval officer. “But . . . she persisted in using her voice, when we needed Morse dots and dashes to triangulate her position.”
Despite the world’s biggest air-sea search, including 100 planes, 10 Navy vessels and 3,000 men, she was never found.
Rumors ran rife. She had been shot down and executed by the Japanese Navy after stumbling onto secret airfields being built for the coming war in violation of treaties. She had been on a side mission spying on the Japanese for the U.S. government. She lived out her years a castaway on a deserted Pacific atoll. Nothing was ever proved.
From the start of Earhart’s adventure, The Miami Herald had been running a series of reports she had written. She proved a more enthusiastic pilot than journalist.
The “silver lining” in her first crash in Honolulu, she wrote in one report, was that “for a time I shall not have to write any more accounts for The Miami Herald. Hard as my reporting may have been on readers, I doubt if they can know what a chore reporting or trying to report can be to one whose other jobs include trying to herd an airplane around the Equator.”
Even before Earhart arrived in Miami, local officials had hired Lampert Bemelmans, a Federal Art Project sculptor, to create a bronze bas relief of her with her plane. She posed beside it before taking off.
After her disappearance, a 10-foot chunk of coral rock was quarried in Key West to hold the bas relief. The monument was dedicated at the airstrip Jan. 6, 1939, by the Dade County Federation of Women’s Clubs to the roar of 550 planes passing overhead in the largest mass flight of private aircraft in history. Later, the airstrip was renamed in her honor.
As time went on, the airfield closed, making way for the present Opa-locka Airport five miles to the north. The old airport land became today’s 510-acre Amelia Earhart Park, at 11900 NW 42nd Ave., Opa-locka, and the North Campus of Miami-Dade Community College.
In 1959, Hialeah resident Ruth Tinsman and her husband, out walking, came across the old rock and bronze monument in a weed-choked field at the abandoned airport. Proud of her city’s link to Earhart, Tinsman returned a few months later with a troop of Cub Scouts to cut the weeds.
“The rock was still there,” she says now, “but the plaques were gone.”
For 29 years, Tinsman, who became an aide to U.S. Rep. William Lehman, fought for a new monument. Finally, in 1989, United Parcel Service, which had built an office where the old airstrip had stood, donated a plaque to Earhart that today can be seen at the public service counter of the building at 6001 E. Eighth St., Hialeah.
Lehman helped dedicate the new plaque in June 1989.
“What a wonderful day it was,” says Tinsman. “AP [the Associated Press] picked it up, and I got calls and letters from all around the world. Letters that said, ‘My father gassed up her plane,’ or ‘My mother made her lunch.’ “I was about as proud of that as anything else in my life,” says Tinsman, now an aide to U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings.
By then, another tragic Miami link to Earhart’s fated trip had surfaced. A Herald editor wrote around 1960 that, when Earhart passed through Miami, she had been offered a new two-way radio developed by Pan American Airways that would let her communicate back and forth with surface ships.
It might have let her hear the frantic calls from the Navy ships around Howland Island. She turned it down.
“We’ll save the weight,” she reasoned. “Besides, I’d be embarrassed trying to talk to ships.”