My wife watched a documentary yesterday on Amelia Earhart where they suggested that the famous aviator and feminist hero likely lost her life due to her unwillingness to learn how to properly use her radio. This made me wonder if Earhart was the real deal or another result of feminist myth-making. I did some quick searching on the question and while I didn’t find the specific facts they had referenced in the documentary, it does sound like she lacked the basic skills needed to effectively communicate with the Coast Guard ship which was helping her navigate; she communicated with them in voice mode on a Morse code frequency, and couldn’t understand their reply since she didn’t know Morse code. She may also not have known how to use the radio direction finding equipment she was using. Per Wikipedia:
Some sources have noted Earhart’s apparent lack of understanding of her Bendix direction-finding loop antenna, which at the time was very new technology.
The new technology excuse is rather strange, because that comes with the territory of being a pioneer. It also turns out that her failed attempt to fly around the world which resulted in her death and the death of her navigator was actually her second try. The first attempt was called off after she damaged the plane while still on the ground. Again per Wikipedia:
In addition to Earhart and Noonan, Harry Manning and Hollywood stunt pilot Paul Mantz (who was acting as Earhart’s technical advisor) were on board. Due to lubrication and galling problems with the propeller hubs’ variable pitch mechanisms, the aircraft needed servicing in Hawaii. Ultimately, the Electra ended up at the United States Navy’s Luke Field on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. The flight resumed three days later from Luke Field with Earhart, Noonan and Manning on board and during the takeoff run, Earhart ground-looped. The circumstances of the ground loop remain controversial. Some witnesses at Luke Field including the Associated Press journalist on the scene said they saw a tire blow. Earhart thought either the Electra’s right tire had blown and/or the right landing gear had collapsed. Some sources, including Mantz, cited pilot error. With the aircraft severely damaged, the flight was called off and the aircraft was shipped by sea to the Lockheed facility in Burbank, California for repairs.
Ouch! Her own technical advisor said it was due to pilot error. But don’t worry ladies, all is not lost. She really was a pioneer. She was the first woman to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. But before we go into the details of her groundbreaking transatlantic flight, I thought I would share some of the history of transatlantic flight.
Alcock and Brown, June 1919
The first nonstop transatlantic flight was made by the British aviators Alcock and Brown in June of 1919 in a modified WWI bomber. You might have been thinking Lindberg was the first to fly the Atlantic, but his was the first from the US to the European mainland. This earlier flight was significantly shorter from Newfoundland to Ireland. Even so, it was a truly groundbreaking flight for its day, on the cutting edge of what equipment and men were capable of. Per Wikipedia:
The flight nearly ended in disaster several times owing to engine trouble, fog, snow and ice. It was only saved by Brown’s continual climbing out on the wings to remove ice from the engine air intakes and by Alcock’s excellent piloting despite extremely poor visibility at times and even snow filling the open cockpit.
That’s insane. He had to climb out onto the wings during the flight to chip ice off of the air intakes while flying over the North Atlantic! Here is a picture of their plane on takeoff.
Charles Lindbergh, May 1927
Following Alcock and Brown’s flight the next truly groundbreaking flight was by Charles Lindbergh in May of 1927 when he flew nonstop and solo from Long Island New York to Paris. This was a far longer route of 3,600 miles compared to Alcock and Brown’s flight of 1,890 miles. In doing so Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize, which had been unclaimed since May of 1919.
Lindbergh won the prize in the now famous Spirit of St Louis, an aircraft which he had custom built for the purpose. As is typical with truly ground breaking feats, the machine he used sacrificed ordinary features in order to allow the pilot to achieve the extraordinary. Per Wikipedia:
The large main fuel tank was placed in the forward section of the fuselage, in front of the pilot, which improved the center of gravity. While locating fuel tanks at the front reduced the risk of the pilot’s being crushed to death in the event of a crash, this design decision also meant that there could be no front windshield, and that forward visibility would be limited to side windows only. A periscope was installed to provide a forward view, as a precaution against hitting ship masts, trees, or structures while flying at low altitude; however, it is unclear whether the periscope was used during the flight. Lindbergh also used special navigation instruments such as the Earth Inductor Compass as its main instrument, allowing Lindbergh to navigate while taking account of the magnetic declination of the earth. Lindbergh sat in a cramped cockpit which was 94 cm wide, 81 cm long and 130 cm high (36 in × 32 in × 51 in). The cockpit was so small, Lindbergh could not stretch his legs.
Amelia Earhart, June 1928
As promised, now we get to Earhart’s historic flight. This is the flight which won her the nicknames Lady Lindbergh, and Queen of the Air. Earhart made a flight very similar to Alcock and Brown’s flight nearly 10 years earlier, flying from Newfoundland to Wales. However, aviation technology had advanced rapidly in the intervening years, so instead of a modified open cockpit WW I bomber Earhart and her companion Wilmer Stultz were able to make this flight in comparative comfort using an early airliner called the Fokker Tri Motor.
Even though her flight was relatively unremarkable for its day from a technical perspective, the fact that she was the first woman to make the crossing made her an instant celebrity. She and Stultz were thrown a ticker tape parade in New York, and she was invited to meet President Coolidge at the white house.
Keep in mind when I say she was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, I mean as a passenger. Per Wikipedia:
Since most of the flight was on “instruments” and Earhart had no training for this type of flying, she did not pilot the aircraft. When interviewed after landing, she said, “Stultz did all the flying—had to. I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes.” She added, “…maybe someday I’ll try it alone.”
As proof of how unremarkable the flight was for the day, the actual pilot is only noted for having her as his passenger on that flight. Eventually she did try the flight herself, but before we look at that I’ll share one more crossing by another pair of true aviation pioneers.
Post and Gatty, June 1931
Wiley Post and Harold Gatty flew their Lockheed Vega around the world in 8 days, breaking the previous speed record of 21 days held by the Graf Zepplin. They made this groundbreaking flight in their Lockheed Vega named the Winnie Mae. One of the first legs of their historic journey was from Newfoundland to Wales.
Amelia Earhart, May 1932
Like Post and Gatty a year earlier, Earhart also flew from Newfoundland to the UK in a Lockheed Vega, although her flight was not part of a larger record breaking attempt. Per Wikipedia:
At the age of 34, on the morning of May 20, 1932, Earhart set off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland with the latest copy of a local newspaper (the dated copy was intended to confirm the date of the flight). She intended to fly to Paris in her single engine Lockheed Vega 5b to emulate Charles Lindbergh‘s solo flight. Her technical advisor for the flight was famed Norwegian American aviator Bernt Balchen who helped prepare her aircraft. He also played the role of “decoy” for the press as he was ostensibly preparing Earhart’s Vega for his own Arctic flight. [N 11] After a flight lasting 14 hours, 56 minutes during which she contended with strong northerly winds, icy conditions and mechanical problems, Earhart landed in a pasture at Culmore, north of Derry, Northern Ireland. The landing was witnessed by Cecil King and T. Sawyer. When a farm hand asked, “Have you flown far?” Earhart replied, “From America.” The site now is the home of a small museum, the Amelia Earhart Centre.
And thus, a mere 5 years after Lindbergh’s ground breaking flight from Long Island to Paris, Earhart followed in his footsteps by completing a far shorter flight comparable to the one made by Alcock and Brown 13 years earlier, using a plane two other men had used to fly around the world a year prior.