Thirty years after Amelia Earhart vanish, another woman flier set out to retrace her unfinished journey.
The Lockheed Model 10 Electra circled above the vast Pacific, its crew members straining their eyes in search of a small island, just two miles long and rising about 10 feet above the ocean. Rain obscured their vision and played tricks on them. Was that land? No, just raindrops clouding the endless vista. The Pratt & Whitney radials continued their steady drone, but the crew realized they didn’t have much time left before their fuel ran dangerously low.
The Electra’s pilot was a young, vivacious blonde, but her name was not Amelia. Ann Holtgren Pellegreno’s love of flying and yen for adventure had led her to undertake this ambitious journey in July 1967. She and her crew were re-creating the ill-fated around-the-world attempt of Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan in 1937, last heard broadcasting to the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, desperately trying to locate tiny Howland Is – land. Earhart’s plane vanished into the shadows of a mystery that continues to this day.
There were many parallels between the two pilots. Like Earhart, Ann Holtgren grew up in the Midwest, south of Chicago. Ann and her sister Lois enjoyed adventures usually re – served for young boys, just as Amelia and her younger sister Muriel had. By the time Holtgren reached her teens, she enjoyed watching planes take off and land at Midway Airport. But that’s as close as she got to aviation until the year after she and her husband Don graduated from the University of Michigan, when both were bitten by the flying bug.
“My first lesson was in an Aeronca Champ at Young Field, several miles west of Ann Arbor, Michigan,” Ann recalled. Meanwhile she taught English at nearby Saline Junior High School, just as Amelia had near Boston before starting her aviation career. After achieving her commercial and flight instructor ratings, Pellegreno taught flying at Ann Arbor Airport.
It was the Pellegrenos’ aircraft mechanic, Lee Koepke, who suggested Ann participate in a commemorative flight. Koepke owned a restored Lockheed Model 10, a sister ship to the one Earhart flew, and envisioned re-creating that 1937 odyssey with the help of a woman pilot. He had taken great pains during the plane’s refurbishment to prepare it for an around-the-world journey. But the true test of his skill would be how the old Electra performed on such a long flight.
Planning began in January 1967. They wanted to make the flight at the same time of year as the original attempt, and they hoped to follow Earhart’s route as closely as possible. Additional fuel tanks were needed to raise the capacity to 850 gallons, along with fuel and oil transfer systems, as well as state-of-the-art communication and navigation equipment. For that they would need to find sponsors. Earhart had benefited from Purdue University’s generous purchase of her Electra, which was dubbed a “flying laboratory.” When Pellegreno learned that Earhart had taken more than 10,000 flight postal covers with her to have canceled at designated stops, for sale to stamp and aviation memorabilia collectors in sets, she decided to do the same.
Eventually donations began trickling in from the Champion Spark Plug Company, Jeppesen & Company, Goodyear and Garwin-Weston. There was even a much-appreciated check for $12.76 from the seventh-grade students at the school where Pellegreno had taught.
The navigation challenges seemed overwhelming at first. Earhart of course had help from Fred Noonan, who was considered one of the best navigators of his time. Noonan had been instrumental in laying out the Pacific routes for Pan American’s famous Clippers. Pellegreno and Koepke needed someone who could recommend the proper equipment and perhaps a potential navigator. Bill Polhemus, president of an Ann Arbor– based navigation research engineering firm, fit the bill. He knew exactly what equipment they would need and had contacts within the industry who were willing to loan the team whatever they required. Polhemus himself had served as a lead navigator in the U.S. Air Force on Convair B-58s in the 1950s, participating in record-breaking flights.
Pellegreno and Polhemus studied maps and plotted primary routes, alternate routes, magnetic courses and potential overnight stops. “That must have been some flight in 1937,” Polhemus remarked at one point. “Look at those areas in Africa. Nothing but sand. No radio aids either. Not many now. The more I look at their route and know the equipment they used, the more I respect and admire those two.”
Earhart’s plan was to fly close to the equator, and Pellegreno and Polhemus wanted to retrace her path. There was to be only one major deviation from the 1937 flight: Instead of flying across central Africa, political issues would force them to go from Dakar, Senegal, north to Lisbon, Portugal, then east across Europe, picking up Earhart’s route in Karachi, Pakistan. And since How – land Island was no longer inhabited, they planned to drop a commemorative wreath during a flyover, then continue on to Canton Island.
Pellegreno recalled: “Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed had been equipped with a three-axis autopilot called a ‘Sperry Robot Pilot’ to relieve the physical strain of flying. My lack of flying experience outside the United States combined with the tight schedule before the flight, the small amount of time I would have to fly the plane, and no autopilot meant a copilot was mandatory.” Enter U.S. Air Force Colonel William R. Payne, who had flown B-58s with Polhemus as well as Beech C-45s, very similar in configuration to the Electra. Payne managed to get a month’s leave from active duty. Their flight would be designated “Rapid Rocket.” It seemed the perfect team—Pellegreno, Koepke, Polhemus and Payne—had been assembled.
At 10:45 a.m. on June 9, 1967, Electra N79237 lifted off the runway at Oakland, Calif., heading east. Fuel stops at Tucson and Miami, with an overnight in New Orleans in between, comprised the continental U.S. stops. By the time the crew was ready to leave U.S. airspace, everyone had settled into a routine and learned the Electra’s little quirks.
Tropical storms in the Atlantic caused them to change course frequently as they headed toward South America. The last fuel stop before crossing the Atlantic was at Natal, Brazil. The flight after that would be over almost 1,900 miles of ocean, lasting more than 15 hours and requiring nearly 600 gallons of fuel. That meant the Electra would be dangerously close to its maximum takeoff weight, and it would require every inch of runway. The takeoff from Natal had been risky for Earhart as well; she and Noonan had paced off the length of the grass runway and had lifted off at 3:15 a.m., using the entire strip.
As Pellegreno started down the runway—only visible to the halfway point, since it sloped downhill after that—Koepke was poised behind her, his hand on the fuel dump valve just in case. She pushed the throttles forward and the Lockheed slowly gained speed. “I could have run faster!” Pellegreno recalled. Finally, with the green lights marking the runway’s end fast approaching, the plane staggered into the air. “We were relieved when 1,000 feet had been gained,” she said, “but even then if an engine failed, the Lockheed might be almost in the ocean before we had dumped enough fuel to lighten the plane sufficiently.” Thus began a long flight, through the darkness and rain squalls, with no landmarks in sight.
Prior to landfall on the African continent, Polhemus gave Ann a course correction that put them right into Dakar. Flying across southern Europe, the Lockheed was cleared to altitudes above 10,000 feet, where everyone had to bundle up. Warmth greeted them when they landed in Tehran, Iran; by the time they made it to Karachi, they were back on Earhart’s trail.
When they reached Port Moresby on New Guinea, Polhemus purchased a wreath made of green, yellow and red leaves, with a white card bearing the words “In memory of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan—1937.” The next day’s flight took them across the island to Lae, their final stop before leaving for Nauru and Howland Island, and the last place Earhart and Noonan had re – fueled 30 years earlier.
More than 400 people, some of whom recalled witnessing Earhart and Noonan’s takeoff, greeted them at Lae. In fact the “Rapid Rocket” Electra occupied the same hangar that Earhart had used, one of a handful of the island’s structures not destroyed by bombing during World War II.
At dawn the next day, July 1, Pellegreno embarked on the journey’s most significant leg—the 3,000 miles from Lae to Canton Island, with a flyover of Howland. Following a quick refueling stop at Nauru Island, it would be empty ocean and skirting squall lines, with Polhemus calling out navigation corrections roughly every 10 minutes. Earhart had left Lae a day later, but Pellegreno timed her flight so she could send a message from aloft to members of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots, and Amelia’s sister Muriel Morrissey, who were gathered at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
About 400 miles west of Howland Island, Pellegreno broadcast: “Thirty years ago another silver Lockheed 10 was flying toward Howland Island about this time. In essence we’ve been back in that year, 1937.We’ve thought about Amelia Earhart and other aviation pioneers. Along with these thoughts has come the realization of the tremendous undertaking an around-the-world flight was in 1937. My navigator has worked out a sun line, the same one Amelia was working and we will attempt to find Howland using the method used during the 1937 flight.”
The success of this leg was now up to Polhemus. But as with the earlier flight, everyone would have to be vigilant to spot tiny Howland Island in the middle of that vast blue ocean. As they neared Howland’s coordinates, rain squalls blocked their view. The ETA came and went with no landfall. At Polhemus’ suggestion, and with the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Blackhaw verifying their position, they flew in several directions, believing they couldn’t be very far from Howland. But by 20 minutes past their ETA, everyone was be ginning to get tense. Given their fuel level, they would soon have to head for Canton Island.
Pellegreno recalled: “I heard another message echo. ‘KHAQQ calling Itasca. We must be on you but cannot see you.’ Thirty years later we had the same feeling. We must be near Howland, but where was it? The bearing taken on the Blackhaw indicated we were in the right area.”
It was Koepke who finally spotted Howland Island through a break in the clouds, lying about 10 miles to their south. Soon everyone could see the red and white tower on the isle’s western side that houses the Earhart Beacon, as well as foundations of other buildings that once stood there. “As we circled Howland, lying jewel like in a dark blue ocean, I felt a sense of history—an exciting feeling—and also one of extreme relief that we had found the island,” Pellegreno remembered. “This was where another Lockheed 10 should have landed thirty years ago. No trace of the three runways prepared for the other plane was visible, the scrub brush having obscured them. It was easy to imagine that high above us the ghostly silver wings of another Lockheed 10 were casting a shadow on the island which had been there in 1937 too….”
Pellegreno went back to where Koepke had secured himself in his seat. He opened the door and held onto her, to keep her from being pulled out into the slipstream as she tossed out the wreath. As she leaned forward, the wreath was wrenched from her hands and fell earthward.
There was no time to waste. The crew was exhausted by the time they arrived at Canton about three hours later. But by midnight the next day, everyone was again ready to go. Honolulu was about 2,000 miles to the northeast. It was July 4, the day Earhart and Noonan had planned to be back in the States in 1937. Roughly 14 hours after takeoff, the Lockheed taxied up to the Pan American gate.
The crew still faced the longest leg of the trip, nearly 2,500 miles over nothing but ocean between Honolulu and Oakland Airport—a little over 17 hours’ flying time. Headwinds cut back on their airspeed for a time, but eventually the winds diminished and skies cleared. They all knew they were nearing journey’s end when a twin-engine plane with news photographers aboard drew alongside to get the first shots of their return. At last they spotted the California coastline. The Electra headed for the same runway it had used one month before on its departure.
The crew was mobbed with well-wishers, family members and corporate sponsors. Celebrations were held at Oakland, Denver and Newton, Kan., where Muriel Morrissey thanked Pellegreno for completing her sister’s flight.
Then the Electra continued on to Oshkosh, Wis., Koepke’s hometown, and finally back to Detroit’s Willow Run Airport. As Pellegreno cut the throttles for the last time, she had mixed feelings. “We were breaking up a family of five—the four of us and that grand old Lockheed,” she recalled. “It had taken the cooperation and assistance of hundreds of people to get the Lockheed around the world. We had completed Amelia Earhart’s flight plan from Oakland to Oakland, and now had finished ours. The right synthesis of plane, people, and flight plan had brought this venture to a successful conclusion.”
The following year Koepke sold the Electra to Air Canada, and it now has pride of place in the Canada Aviation Museum, part of Ottawa’s National Museum of Science and Technology. He subsequently opened the Detroit Institute of Aeronautics at Willow Run.
Polhemus returned to his Ann Arbor navigation company, where he helped to develop a helmet-mounted display for the military and equipment for precision instrument approaches. Payne rejoined the Air Force, later retiring to become the personal pilot for the owner of a development company.
Ann and Don Pellegreno went on to build or restore several aircraft. After contributing articles on her great adventure to Air Progress and McCall’s magazines, Ann wrote a book, World Flight: The Earhart Trail, published in 1971, as well as a three-volume history of Iowa aviation, Iowa Takes to the Air. The recipient of many writing and flying awards, she has also been inducted into the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame, the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame, the EAA Hall of Fame and the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2004 she received the Amelia Earhart Pioneering Achievement Award.
Shortly before her last flight, Amelia Earhart wrote, “…failure must be but a challenge to others.” Ann Pellegreno agrees. To women hoping to make a career in aviation, she says: “Just forget your gender and learn to fly or pursue any of the hundreds of other related jobs. Thousands of other women have essentially led the way into virtually all aspects of aviation.”
Pellegreno should know; she’s one of them.
Scott Fisher is a retired teacher who writes from Allerton, Iowa. For further reading, he recommends: World Flight: The Ear – hart Trail, by Ann Holtgren Pellegreno; and The Sound of Wings: The Life of Amelia Earhart, by Mary S. Lovell.
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.