Why the endless fascination with a woman who by most accounts was a mediocre pilot, best known for disappearing in the Pacific?
With the exception of two or three famous astronauts, there are only four pilots in the entire history of aviation whose names every American will recognize: Wilbur and Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. In fact the producers of the major Earhart biopic that recently opened figure her first name alone will be enough to draw tens of millions of customers to Cineplexes, to Blockbuster, to Netflix. Amelia. Admittedly she had the good fortune to have not been christened Sally or Martha, and to have inherited a surname so perfect even a romance novelist would reject it: Air-heart.
Earhart’s position in history might seem strange. Her talents as a pilot were questioned, perhaps with envy, by many contemporaries. Her fame grew out of a flight on which she was simply a passenger—as important as “a sack of potatoes,” according to one critic— when she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air. And her ultimate notoriety came from a flight that failed—her 1937 round-the-world attempt—at least in part due to some grievous errors of airmanship.
Yet Amelia lives on, while Louis Blériot, Eddie Rickenbacker, Wrong-Way Corrigan, Frank Hawks, Wiley Post and hundreds of other skilled, brave, inventive and once-famous pilots have been tossed into the trashcan of aviation enthusiast history.
Let’s be honest and admit that outside of grade school classrooms, where Earhart’s role as a proto-feminist and all-American hero are still taught, the three questions that continue to fascinate us about her are: 1. How good a pilot was she? 2. What was her sex life like? and 3. Where and how did she die? Her life and times have been exhaustively described in biographies—the best of them by Susan Butler (East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart), Mary Lovell (The Sound of Wings) and Doris Rich (Amelia Earhart: A Biography)—so we’ll cut to the chase.
If I have one advantage over Earhart’s otherwise superb biographers, it’s that as a pilot I have spent thousands of hours flying modern (and vintage) aircraft of performance and complexity equivalent to those that Amelia piloted. And as a pilot of embarrassingly ordinary skills, I have a tiny window into the difference between baloney and prime beef in what has been written about Earhart the aviator.
If she had a fault, it was that she would never have admitted such a lack of flying talent. With one exception, when she acknowledged planting a Lockheed Vega on its nose due to “over-application of the brakes,” accidents were never her fault. They were always due to a hidden ditch, “spectators say a whirlwind hit me,” landing gear weakened by another pilot’s bounced landing, or a mechanical failure. When Earhart crashed an autogyro heavily in 1931, she climbed out of the wreckage and in a moment of candor said, “It’s all my fault.” But she later explained that, heavens, what she actually meant was that it was her fault that her husband, George Putnam, had tripped and broken a rib while rushing toward the wreck.
It would have been better, perhaps, if Earhart confessed to occasionally screwing up, for it was a time when engines routinely failed, pilots got lost because they had no navigation aids other than railroad tracks, and landings in pastures because it was getting dark were part of the game. Of course she crashed now and then. Who didn’t?
Amelia learned to fly during an era, the early 1920s, when the Avro Avians and Kinner Airsters she first flew were vastly more difficult to handle than are the Cessna 150s and Piper Cherokees she’d have been using half a century later. And she quickly progressed to big radial-engine, taildragger Lockheed Vegas and Electra twins that few of her modern amateur pilot critics could even start, much less taxi—and forget about actually flying the beasts.
In fact test pilot Wiley Post declared Earhart’s first Vega, which she flew across the country to the Lockheed factory in California for repairs, “the foulest he’d ever flown,” yet she had safely managed many hours in the big pig. It was so bad that Lockheed traded her a new one rather than fix it.
Earhart flew that single-engine Lockheed across the Atlantic in 1932, becoming the first American woman to solo the Pond. The flight required many hours of night instrument flying, which was a new and relatively untested skill for her and had to be done with what a modern pilot would consider emergency-only “partial panel” instrumentation. At that, her altimeter failed several hours into the flight, and she figured out a way to basically estimate altitude by what power settings the engine would accept, which happened to be a very smart move. She ran into icing at night and at one point spun the Vega, recovering only after breaking out of the clouds low enough to see individual whitecaps. (Anybody who makes light of this has never flown an airplane, certainly never spun one.)
Worse yet, an exhaust collector ring weld failed, and she flew for hours watching right in front of her, through the gap between cowling and fuselage, a pulsing blue flame, knowing the firewall might not hold if the exhaust fractured completely. Then avgas began dripping down the back of her neck from a wing tank fuel-gauge leak above her…
The previous year, Putnam, always in search of publicity, had lined up Earhart to make the first transcontinental flight in a Pitcairn autogyro, its fuselage plastered with the logo of chewing gum purveyor Beech-Nut, the flight’s sponsor. Amelia had no interest in the autogyro’s STOL capabilities but flew it simply as a kind of Goodyear blimp, an odd advertising vehicle that attracted crowds wherever it landed. She crashed her Pitcairn three times, once so close to the crowd at Abeline, Texas, where she was demonstrating it that the Department of Commerce issued what would today be called an FAA violation and wanted to ground her for 90 days, a major penalty. Only the intercession of a few high-placed friends kept her flying, with just a formal rebuke in her file.
But the Pitcairn was so difficult to fly that it was said the incident/accident rate was once every 10 flying hours. A factory pilot crashed Earhart’s own (borrowed) Pitcairn not five hours after it had been repaired. Amelia had unwittingly become a test pilot.
One of Earhart’s major critics, Hollywood pilot Paul Mantz, said she was an impatient and careless pilot. Many assumed he must have known what he was talking about, since he’d flown and traveled with Earhart extensively, and certainly Mantz had the weight of vast experience and flying talent behind his words. But he also was hugely miffed that Amelia had, for a variety of reasons, decided to dispense with him as her “aviation adviser” on the eve of her round-the-world attempt. One has to wonder how much of Mantz’s ill will toward his one-time pal—they were even falsely rumored to have had an affair—was simple resentment and payback.
Another Earhart detractor, young pilot Elinor Smith, was an acquaintance but also a competitor, which may have flavored her words. (Smith was convinced George Putnam had seen to it that she didn’t get sponsorship for any of her own flying projects, which would hardly make her a fan of his wife.) Smith was a demo pilot for Bellanca, and Earhart was considering buying a Bellanca. So she flew one with Smith, who many years later re called that Amelia had done a dreadful piloting job—so dreadful that Giuseppe Bellanca supposedly refused to sell her one of his airplanes.
But that was still early in Earhart’s flying career, and virtually all her flight time had been in low-powered lightplanes such as her Airster and Avian. The Bellanca was the first high-performance single she’d ever flown, so perhaps Elinor Smith should have cut her some slack rather than, years later, perpetuating the Amelia-couldn’t-fly legend.
Soon thereafter, Earhart bought her first Lockheed Vega, which probably was about as demanding to fly as any first-line fighter of the era. Imagine a 250-hour private pilot today buying a P-51D Mustang and soloing it. (Earhart claimed 560 hours at roughly this point, but probably half of it was bogus, what pilots came to call “Parker P-51 time,” after the popular fountain pen. Amelia rarely logged her flight time, and it is difficult to imagine how she could have flown that much between 1921 and 1929, what with 1924 through 1928 being virtually devoid of flight time.)
The inexperienced Earhart had a hard time handling the big Vega, so Putnam initially hired a pro, Bill Lancaster, to do the actual flying. Lancaster was listed as Amelia’s “mechanic,” and the fact that he did much of the piloting was kept quiet. But Amelia couldn’t fake being at the controls during the original Powder Puff Derby, in 1929, and she ran off the end of the runway at a refueling stop in Yuma, Ariz., bending the prop. Characteristically, rather than admit she had misjudged the Vega’s hot landing speed, she said that “something had gone wrong with the stabilizers,” a nonsensical claim.
At the end of the race, in Cleveland, she made a horrendous landing, bouncing and porpoising and nearly ground-looping. Still, even critical Elinor Smith was awed that the low-time Earhart was able to survive flying the big Lockheed. And the famous Lockheed engineer Kelly Johnson, who helped check Amelia out in her next airplane, a special twin-engine Lockheed Electra 10E, thought her a good pilot, “sensible, very studious, and paid attention to what she was told.”
Earhart’s most notorious crash came as she was leaving Hawaii westbound in her Electra on her first round-the-world attempt. Something went bad during the takeoff, and she ended up ground-looping at speed, doing damage that required an extensive rebuild.
Some say a blown tire caused it. Earhart later hinted that Mantz was the cause, since he flew the San Francisco-to-Honolulu leg and made a rough landing that, Earhart claimed, weakened the starboard gear-leg oleo strut, which collapsed to initiate the ground loop. But Amelia had one bad habit as a twin-engine pilot: Even at speeds where the rudders were effective, she still tried to control direction with differential throttles. That can work at the beginning of a takeoff roll, but it’s a big mistake at 80 mph with the tail up and could well have caused the swerve that collapsed a gear leg on the heavily overloaded airplane.
Having twice flown the Atlantic in light twins and made countless transcontinental trips in everything from two-seaters to business jets, I’m awed by Earhart the aviator because she had the ability and temperament to fly day after day, week after week, for five to eight hours a day. Only somebody who has been there can comprehend how physically and emotionally wearying it is to be a single pilot totally in charge of navigating, aviating, weather-guessing and dealing with every aspect of an airplane’s needs in the air and on the ground. Earhart did it when navigation aids, weather forecasting and airport facilities were laughably primitive compared to what today even the rankest student pilot has at her disposal. To read Amelia’s own accounts of navigating across Brazil and the South Atlantic, then crossing bleakest Central Africa under the pounding sun day after day, can’t help but make a pilot admire her strength, intelligence and courage.
Certainly navigator Fred Noonan did much of the hard work, but Earhart was still in charge and, like any captain, bore the ultimate responsibility. She was a pilot who sometimes—and necessarily—was in over her head, urged by her promoter-husband to constantly push her own aviating envelope. Yet Earhart ultimately rose to the challenge and performed beyond the bounds of what far too many of her critics, both then and now, might themselves be able to accomplish.
Earhart grew up spunky and adventuresome, and as an adult she chose to keep her hair in a quasi-masculine tousle and wear pants (though skinny and lanky from the knees up, she felt awkward about her disproportionately heavy legs and ankles). She made her career in a man’s world of airplanes and oily engines, so she was inevitably lumbered with the term “tomboy,” in some circles taken as shorthand for lesbian. There is in fact zero evidence of that being true, though the myth still lingers, as it does around so many strong women. If anything, Earhart was somewhat asexual; her emotional drive focused on adventure and accomplishment, not sex and marriage.
When she wed George Putnam in 1931, she presented him, hours before their marriage, with a bold prenup (though the term hadn’t yet been invented). Amelia required that both she and Putnam were to feel free to do as they wished, whether alone or with whomever they wished, and that neither should feel constrained by anything as archaic as marriage vows and monogamy. And if after one year of marriage Earhart decided she didn’t like being someone’s wife, the deal was off.
Earhart had been engaged, before her marriage to Putnam, to young engineer Sam Chapman. Her involvement with Chapman almost certainly was a relationship she agreed to because that’s what a conservative, proper young woman did in the 1920s: got engaged, planned a wedding and married. There was apparently no sexual involvement with Chapman; they were just friends and indeed would remain so after she ended the engagement.
There would be whispers and gossip about several of the men with whom Earhart flew and traveled, not only Paul Mantz but also navigator Noonan. Earhart never had more than a friendly relationship with the happily married Mantz, and as for Noonan, just a month before he and Amelia left on their last flight, he’d married a woman who Amelia knew well and who obviously had no qualms about sending her new husband forth with the famous aviator for several weeks of enforced cockpit intimacy. Noonan spent every spare moment during the round-the-world trip posting letters home to his wife—hardly the conduct of a cheating husband.
Some suspect that Earhart was in fact pregnant with Putnam’s child during the round-the-world flight. Either she was susceptible to avgas fumes—her explanation—or Amelia was experiencing frequent morning sickness.
But one of the most tantalizing questions that has come down through the nearly 73 years since Earhart’s comet blazed brightest is whether she had a long-term affair with handsome ex–West Point football team captain, Olympic athlete, former Army Air Corps pilot, entrepreneur and government official Eugene Vidal—father of writer Gore Vidal. The film Amelia spends much of its energy perpetuating the legend, with Hilary Swank (Earhart) and Ewan McGregor (Vidal) vigorously heating the cinematic sheets.
There’s ample evidence that Earhart had a crush on the married Vidal—they were involved in a number of business dealings together—but little to indicate a sexual relationship beyond the insistence of Gore Vidal that Amelia was his father’s mistress. Gore would have been about 10 at the time, so the affair was most likely the imaginings of a fertile young mind amplified over the years.
If Earhart hadn’t disappeared into the Pacific on July 2, 1937, she’d today be as obscure an aviator as Jacqueline Cochran, Louise Thaden, Blanche Noyes, Beryl Markham, Hanna Reitsch, Amy Johnson and a dozen other women pilots who were accomplished record-setters but today are little known to the general public. But tragedy created notoriety—particularly tragedy that took the life of an attractive, mysterious and strangely sexy woman, which was guaranteed to thrum the heartstrings of celebrity-besotted Americans.
How and where Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan died have fascinated everyone from conspiracy theorists to analytical calculators of Earhart’s known and assumed flight tracks, fuel consumption, possible power settings, potential groundspeed, wind drift, navigational sun sights, emergency options, what she had for breakfast and everything else that can be deduced—make that guessed—about her last flight. For the sake of simplicity let’s roll eyes editorially and ignore Elvis theorists who claim Earhart was alive and well in New Jersey, or died in Japan’s Imperial Palace or was beheaded as a spy. Without belaboring the excruciating details and the angry debate that has created an Internet cottage industry, the two leading theories of how she and Noonan vanished currently are:
That when Earhart and Noonan couldn’t find Howland Island, the navigator provided her with a northwest/southeast search track roughly perpendicular to their course toward Howland—capping the T, in effect—and that she took a chance and followed it on the southeast heading, which took her away from Howland, to an uninhabited atoll today called Nikumaroro. There she force-landed and survived, making several pleading radio calls while the Electra’s batteries lasted, until lack of fresh water and food brought them a slow and painful death.
This theory is espoused by the U.S. organization TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery), which has so far spent about $4 million searching Nikumaroro during four expeditions. TIGHAR has recovered some encouraging artifacts, but nothing that can unquestionably be connected to Earhart or her Electra. TIGHAR’s Richard Gillespie and a multitalented team will next attempt to find more artifacts on Nikumaroro that can be scrupulously recovered and preserved, then tested for an Earhart DNA match.
A second intriguing theory is that Earhart had a carefully considered fallback plan if she failed to find Howland: She would do a 180 and fly back toward New Guinea and hope to blunder across one of the substantially larger islands that lay to the east of it—perhaps New Britain, which had two airstrips at Rabaul.
Australian wreck-chaser David Billings, who is openly contemptuous of TIGHAR’s methodology, claims that in 1945 an Australian army patrol on New Britain stumbled across the corroded hulk of a radial engine and nacelle, plus the overgrown airframe of a twin-engine airplane of some sort. Busy fighting late-war Japanese holdouts, the soldiers had only enough time to retrieve a metal “repair tag” wired to the engine mount, and the tag—which has since disappeared—is said to have denoted the engine’s type and the serial number of the airplane for which it had been repaired. Both matched Earhart’s Electra, construction number 1055 with two Pratt & Whitney S3H1 Wasp engines. Billings claims to have a crude map of the patrol’s route, and penciled onto its margin are the very same numbers and letters.
Billings and volunteers have tramped the New Britain jungle hoping to stumble across the wreckage just as the Aussie patrol did 65 years ago, but so far no luck. He realizes they need an expensive helicopter-borne magnetometer search if the wreckage is still there, by now totally overgrown and perhaps even buried.
Actually, there’s a third theory that she searched frantically for Howland, found nothing and finally ditched or perhaps crashed into the Pacific. Having flown many hours in twin-engine aircraft in the Caribbean and the Bahamas—similar to the islanded areas of the Pacific—I can tell you that finding a tiny island on the sea when there are clouds in the sky (and there were many when Earhart arrived in the vicinity of Howland) is a fool’s errand: Every cloud creates a perfect shadow the size and shape of an island, for dozens of miles in every direction.
Once when I was low on fuel in a Shrike Commander twin, I radioed the airport operator at the tiny Caribbean island of Grand Turk and asked him to step outside and tell me if he could hear my engines. Just as Earhart begged the Coast Guard cutter Itasca to home on her, I begged Grand Turk to tell me yes, they could hear me. They couldn’t. So I know her terror, know what it’s like to fly from one phantom shadow to another. I survived. She didn’t, but I know what happened to her, because it almost happened to me.
So perhaps it’s time to stop, and leave the lady where she lies. The search for Earhart has become an expensive yet ultimately pointless exercise. Ric Gillespie of TIGHAR at least admits that it’s not the Earhart legend that drives him but the chase—the deduction and analysis, the footwork and fundraising, overcoming obstacles for a goal that is not gold bullion sunk in a Spanish galleon, or a rich-veined Dutchman’s Mine, or strange Nazi secrets entombed in a U-boat; it’s the intellectual exercise.
Country singer Iris Dement certainly didn’t have Earhart in mind when she wrote “Let the Mystery Be,” but she might as well have.
Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they all came from
Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done
But no one knows for certain, so it’s all the same to me
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.
That might be the most meaningful way of all to honor Amelia: Let the mystery be.
Stephan Wilkinson is a former executive editor of Flying magazine. For further reading, he recommends the Earhart biographies by Susan Butler, Mary Lovell and Doris Rich, and notes you can learn more than you need to know about her last flight at tighar.org and electranewbritain.com.
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.