This is the story of the brave men who were inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 transatlantic flight to attempt one of aviation’s greatest triumphs. In 1919 Alcock and Brown were the first to fly across the Atlantic, an amazing feat in an open cockpit WW1 bomber. Then in 1927 Lindbergh had proven that a man could fly from New York City to Paris.
But there remained a question that had dogged aviators from the very beginning; was it possible to fly across the Atlantic with a woman on the plane? Aviators knew from previous men of daring that it was indeed possible to fly an airplane with a woman on board. And of course they knew it was possible to fly across the Atlantic without a woman on board. Given these two facts, shouldn’t it be possible to fly across the Atlantic with a woman in the plane? In theory it seemed feasible, but few aviators of the day were willing to risk their lives on such a theory. No one knew for sure what would happen if a woman were on board over the middle of the Atlantic. Would she have an uncontrollable urge to redecorate the plane in mid flight, damaging the aerodynamics? Would she make so many sandwiches the plane became off balance? Few men were willing to face these risks.
But some men were willing to take the risk for the opportunity to be first. No one remembers the second man to fly from NYC to Paris, and no one would remember the second man to fly a woman across the Atlantic; it is only the man who is first who secures his place in history. Lindbergh’s amazing feat had set the stage for this next aviation breakthrough; the race was on.
George Halderman, October 11 1927
The first to try was flight instructor George Halderman. Halderman decided that a seaplane would be his best bet for such a risky crossing, but he also knew he would need to have a woman on board for the flight to have any meaning. Halderman decided this role would be filled by Ruth Elder, one of his students. In October 11, 1927 Halderman took off from Roosevelt Field with plenty of fuel and of course his essential cargo, Ruth Elder.
For days no one heard from Halderman. The time came and passed when he should have made it to land, but still no word came back. Spectators were left to wonder; had the existence of a woman on the plane caused the disaster they all feared? Soon they had the happy news that engine problems had caused Halderman to land the seaplane next to a Dutch freighter 350 miles off the Azores. The plane was lost, but Halderman and his cargo were retrieved safely aboard the freighter.
Wilmer Stultz, October 17 & 23 1927
Halderman hadn’t made it, but his flight did seem to prove that a woman would not explode once a plane reached the middle of the Atlantic, nor would she doom the flight via an uncontrollable urge to decorate or make sandwiches. Still, this left the nagging question; was there something about having a woman on board that would cause an aircraft’s engine to fail over the Atlantic?
Wilmer Stultz was willing to bet his life that it was possible to fly a woman across the Atlantic. The machine he would use was a Sikorsky S-36 amphibian named Dawn. He carefully selected his cargo, Frances Grayson, and on October 17th 1927 took off from Roosevelt Field headed for Newfoundland to start the transatlantic flight. Unfortunately Stultz had to return due to fuel system problems. With the fuel problem fixed, Stults loaded Grayson back into his plane and tried again on October 23rd. However, he was again forced to turn back, this time due to engine problems. Stultz then decided that it was now too late in the season for another try.
Frank Koehler, December 23 1927
Frank Koehler saw his opportunity to cross the Atlantic with a woman on board once Stultz decided to hold off for the season. Knowing that Stultz had been turned back twice already in his attempt, he loaded Grayson onto the Dawn and took off for Newfoundland on December 23, 1927. Unfortunately, Koehler, Grayson, and the two others on the plane were never heard from again.
Wilmer Stultz, June 17 1928
Undeterred, Stultz decided to continue to try to prove that this could be done. Koehler and Grayson had gone down in the same plane Stultz had originally tried with, so Stultz now needed both another woman and another plane. In a stroke of luck, both problems seemed to be suddenly solved in the person of Amy Phipps Guest. Guest purchased a plane and indicated that she would be willing to be the cargo, but her family objected to such a wealthy woman taking the risk. Guest agreed to honor her family’s wishes if another, more suitable, cargo could be found. Famous publicist George Putnam was enlisted into the venture and quickly located a cargo which met the approval of Guest. Her name was Amelia Earhart, and she had the look and image Guest was looking for.
A lesser man would have turned back, but Stultz believed it was possible to fly a woman across the Atlantic, and he knew others would be trying. It would only be a matter of time before someone made it across the Atlantic with a woman on board, Stultz reasoned. With a new woman and plane secured, Stultz again tried what he and at least two other men had previously failed to accomplish. On June 17, 1928 Stultz and his copilot/mechanic Louis Gordon secured their cargo and took off from Newfoundland headed to Burry Port, Wales. This time man and machine performed flawlessly, and Stultz proved to the world that it was possible to fly a woman across the Atlantic!