One of the most fascinating aspects of researching and writing Finding Amelia – The True Story of the Earhart Electra is how Amelia’s world flight evolved from the way it was first envisioned. As described by George Putnam in a letter to Purdue University President Edward Elliott in March 1936, Amelia’s plan was for “another world flight.”
In 1936, circumnavigation of the globe by air was nothing new. The U.S. Army had been the first in 1924. The Graf Zeppelin was next in 1929. Wiley Post had done it twice, with Harold Gatty in 1930 and again solo in 1933. By September 1936 it would be possible for anyone to make the entire journey around the world as a commercial airline passenger. Nonetheless, Putnam wrote that a world flight by Amelia would be of great value. “Those concerned with the development of aviation are convinced that such a world flight is of prime importance in stimulating greater interest in pure and applied research in aeronautics.” Who those people were was not mentioned.
Amelia’s world flight was to take place in late 1936 or early in 1937. She would begin with a send-off in Washington, DC after which she would fly to Purdue for the official beginning to the world flight. Her route would be from Lafayette, Indiana to San Francisco; to Honolulu; to Tokyo, Japan; to Hong Kong, China; to Rangoon, Burma; to Karachi, India; to Cairo, Egypt; to Dakar, French West Africa; to Natal, Brazil; to Havana, Cuba; to New York; and back to Purdue.
(Click on the map to open a larger version in a new page.)
The proposed route was, to say the least, ambitious. Envisioned as a solo flight like her other long-distance records, three of the legs, if flown nonstop, would involve flights of about thirty hours duration. Putnam wrote that Amelia would accomplish the circumnavigation as quickly as possible but “the emphasis will be on conservatism. Comparative safety and the acquisition of important data will not be sacrificed for speed.” There would be no records to be “held up in comparison” because no east to west flight or similar route had ever been attempted.
The trip would include “the unprecedented exploit of bridging the 3,900 miles of Pacific between Honolulu and Japan.” Putnam saw the flight’s importance to aviation “in its utilization of a twin-engine plane and the latest in all branches of scientific aeronautical equipment.” All previous circumnavigations had been in single-engine aircraft but the advantages of multi-engine, all-metal aircraft in long-distance flying was not in question. Two of the top three finishers in the 1934 MacRobertson Trophy Air Race from England to Australia, had been twin-engined American airliners, a Douglas DC-2 and a Boeing 247. In 1935 Pan American Airways had begun scheduled passenger service across the Pacific in four-engined Sikorsky S-42B flying boats.
Putnam was correct, however, that the most important aspect of the world flight would be Amelia’s star-power. “Above all, its public interest lies in the record and personality of its pilot.”
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How do you write a history book? Well, you seek out the source material, figure out what happened, and tell the story – right? Right, but to make the book as truthful and accurate as possible, each of those steps requires a great deal of diligence.
Right now I’m working on the third chapter of Finding Amelia – The True Story of the Earhart Electra. The title of the chapter is “The Realization of a Dream” and it covers March through July 1936. This was the period during which the deal with Purdue University was finalized including initial plans for the world flight; the order for the Electra was placed with Lockheed; and the airplane was constructed and delivered to Earhart.
The first step is to make sure you have the best primary source material available. Books don’t count. Books are secondary sources. The information they provide is useful only to the extent that they cite primary sources, and then you have to go and check the primary source to make sure the author got it right. Sometimes, the source cited is “interview by author” which is a euphemism for “anecdotal recollection.” Human memory is notoriously unreliable. Oral history is history the way somebody remembers it. There is no way to know its accuracy without corroboration by contemporaneous written or photographic documentation.
Fortunately, for this subject, there are some excellent primary source materials available.
Earhart’s own writings and newspaper stories about her and the Electra are readily available, but they’re a record of what was said publicly, and private sources often tell a different story.
Purdue University Special Collections has extensive correspondence between Earhart, Putnam, and various Purdue University officials, and also internal Purdue correspondence, much of it available on-line via the excellent Purdue e-Archives. There are some drawbacks. The correspondence is not reliably chronological and the images are often scans of carbon copies, fuzzy and hard to read.
The FAA has a fairly extensive file of official correspondence and inspection reports relating to the Earhart Electra, but it’s far from complete.
The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum archive has the research papers of Doris L. Rich, author of Amelia Earhart – A Biography (1989, Smithsonian Press). The file includes copies of extensive correspondence between Putnam, Paul Mantz and Lockheed relating to the selection and construction of the Earhart Electra.
Photographs can be important primary sources of information if they can be reliably dated. The best way to do that is to find original copies with the dated news service captions and credits glued to the reverse side. TIGHAR member Larry C. Inman has assembled the finest collection of original Earhart-related press photos for his Remember Amelia exhibit and has graciously given TIGHAR full access to his collection.
Once you have identified the available primary source materials the next step is to integrate them into an accurate comprehensive chronology. This is especially important in this case because it has never been done before. Doris Rich did not reference the Purdue material. Susan Butler (East to the Dawn [1997, Addison Wesley]) covered the Purdue connection but didn’t have the Putnam–Mantz correspondence. None of the Earhart authors has had the full story.
Once you have the chronology you then have to carefully wade through the material to get an understanding of the sequence of events and what was going on. This is the most interesting part because it’s where you often discover that the true story is quite different from the traditional story.
Finally, you start writing. This is the hardest part because now you have to interpret the raw data. You have to look at the whole picture and present the trajectory of events in such a way as to allow the reader to draw insights into why things happened the way they did. You can’t dumb it down or over-simplify, but it has to be fun to read or no one will read it. Good history might be the toughest writing there is, but it may also be the most important.
May 9, 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the most important failed flight in history. On that day in 1927, the world waited breathlessly for word of the first nonstop crossing of the Atlantic between New York and Paris. On the morning of May 8th French aces Charles Nungesser and François Coli had taken off from le Bourget Field in the giant Levasseur PL-8 biplane L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird), and headed westward in an attempt to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first flight between Paris and New York. It was the first time an airplane loaded with enough fuel for a nonstop crossing had gotten airborne. Two rival aircraft had crashed on takeoff at the cost of four lives. Another competitor, a modified Ryan design, was in California being flight tested by a little-known airmail pilot. He cancelled his plans to try for the prize when he learned that the famous Frenchmen were on their way to New York.
But the crowds and official welcoming committee in New York waited in vain. An impatient French journalist wired home a complete account of The White Bird’s triumphal arrival. Paris went wild until it became apparent that the news was tragically premature. Nungesser and Coli were down – somewhere. A massive search by the navies of four nations (larger than the search for Amelia Earhart ten years later) was launched, and the airmail pilot in California set out for New York and immortality.
For the next eleven days, headlines covered the fruitless search and marveled at the audacity of “the Flying Fool” who was determined to try for the prize solo. When Charles Lindbergh left Roosevelt Field on May 20, few among the 500 people who saw him off expected that he would ever be seen again. The next night, when he landed The Spirit of St. Louis on the same runway where Nungesser and Coli had departed just days before, a screaming crowd of 100,000 was there to greet him.
Although little remembered in the U.S., the failed flight of L’Oiseau Blanc was a hinge-pin in history. Had Nungesser and Coli arrived in New York, Lindbergh would not have flown the Atlantic and the tremendous boost to American aviation development and innovation inspired by his accomplishment would not have happened. What might have been the consequences a few years later when the fate of the world rode on American wings.
After 42 days at sea, Nauticos has concluded search operations and is headed home, having failed for the third time to find any trace of the Earhart Electra. The technology deployed by scientists and technicians from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution seems to have functioned well, and the 1,800 square-mile target area was presumably examined. There is, undoubtedly, some value in mapping that relatively tiny segment of the vast Pacific, and the daily educational postings on the expedition’s website were well-received, but the point of the reportedly three million dollar effort was to find the aircraft – and it didn’t.
Nauticos’ failure to find the Lockheed on the ocean bottom near Howland Island doesn’t prove it isn’t there. What proves it isn’t there are the many radio distress calls that were sent from the aircraft for six nights following its disappearance. As was known at the time, those signals could only have come from the aircraft if it was on its wheels and able to run an engine to recharge the battery upon which the transmitter relied for power. When the Navy’s aerial search failed to see an aircraft on land, it was assumed – but never proved – that the messages were somehow bogus. The subsequent open-ocean search turned up nothing. If only one of the 57 credible receptions was genuine, the airplane did not go down at sea.
Adherents of the Crashed & Sank theory are quick to disregard the artifacts TIGHAR has found on Nikumaroro as being attributable to later activity – always a possibility with archaeological discoveries. Bones and objects found in 1940, before the island was subject to much in the way of human presence, are more difficult to dismiss. Electromagnetic phenomena, documented in contemporary sources, are not subject to the “it could be anything” wave of the hand. Those signals came from a radio that was transmitting on frequencies that were reserved for U.S. registered aircraft, and they originated from the vicinity of Gardner Island.
There are two possibilities:
1. There was a hoaxer who had a transmitter that could broadcast on Earhart’s two primary frequencies; knew that neither Earhart nor Noonan was adept at Morse code; was able to mimic Earhart’s voice; and was pre-positioned on or near Gardner Island and therefore knew several days in advance that the flight would not reach Howland Island —
2. The signals were sent from the Electra on Gardner Island.
In trying to discover the fate of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan, our search naturally focuses on finding evidence of what happened. But, as an accident investigator, I’m just as interested in knowing why it happened. The point of all accident investigation, beyond determining cause and assigning blame, is the prevention of future accidents. My commitment to that goal began many years ago when I witnessed the worst disaster in air racing history.
In the summer of 1969 I was 21 years old, fresh out of college, and grabbing any flying job I could find to build time while waiting to go on active duty with the U.S. Army. By September I had scraped together enough money to buy a standby airline ticket to Reno, Nevada for the National Championship Air Races. By pure dumb luck I landed a place as gofer on the pit crew for Ed Snyder, a T-6 racer from Jacksonville, FL. Ed and his wife Jerri adopted the all-agog young pilot and, for a wonderful week, I was a junior member of the air racing fraternity.
Two years later, as a 2nd Lt. in Advanced Radio Systems School at Ft. Monmouth, NJ, I learned that there was to be an air race at nearby Cape May that included a T-6 class. Hoping to re-connect with old friends, I rounded up my fiancée and, with my brother and his wife, we made the pilgrimage. Sure enough, Ed, Jerri and the whole gang from Reno were there. We agreed to get together for dinner after the race, but horror intervened.
On the start, the seven-plane field came snarling past the stands, rounded the scatter pylon and banked left into the first turn. My friend Dick Minges and another T-6 were trailing behind the leaders. Dick didn’t see the other airplane flying tight with him at 3 o’clock low and when he rolled out of the turn, his right wing came down on the other guy’s canopy. Dick’s wing folded up like a fighter parked on the deck of a carrier. The other plane pulled up and away, the pilot lacerated by the shattered canopy but otherwise okay. Dick’s airplane did a complete roll on its way to the ground. He hit doing something over 200 mph, raising a huge cloud of dust but no explosion.
The other pilots, out ahead, had not seen the accident, but by the third lap the dust had cleared and the crumpled aircraft was visible. The three leaders, tight one behind the other, came around the turn, over the crash site, and headed down the backstretch.
Nobody seems to have seen what happened next. Everyone was focused on the emergency vehicles racing toward the wreck until a sound I’ll never forget snapped our eyes to the spectacle of three T-6s headed straight down like three fence posts. One of them was Ed Syder. They disappeared into the trees and were gone. Where a minute before there had been the deafening blat of R-1340s at full throttle there was now only the muted wail of the crash trucks.
Watching my friends die was a shattering experience. I grew up with airplanes. I learned to fly literally on my father’s knee. Aviation had always been a positive part of my life. I was, of course, aware that airplane accidents happened, but they were not something that touched me personally, until now. Aviation safety took on a new meaning and when I got out of the Army I chose a career as a risk manager for an aviation insurance company. I discovered that I had a particular talent for accident investigation.
Thinking back to that sad day at Cape May, there was no mystery about what had happened. Four midair collisions had resulted in four fatalities, but why? What went wrong? There were no known photographs or motion picture images of the race, but the cause of the first accident was obvious. Dick simply didn’t see the other plane.
The three-airplane collision is more difficult to explain. The FAA eventually determined that the second airplane hit the first airplane and the third plane ran into the debris of the first two. But why did number two hit number one?
Human factors are often behind the “why” of an accident. Ed Snyder was in the number two position. Dick Minges was his close friend. Flying in tight formation requires unblinking concentration. After Ed flew over the wreck of Dick’s plane he may have looked back over his shoulder to see if Dick was all right. That’s all it would take.
I left the insurance industry in 1984 and, with my wife Pat Thrasher, founded TIGHAR the next year. The cases are colder but the principles of investigation are the same. The research for my new book, Finding Amelia – The True Story of the Earhart Electra, makes it clear that human factors led directly to the tragic events of July 2, 1937. As in my first book, Finding Amelia- The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance, original contemporary sources tell a very different story than the popular legend.
Amelia Earhart was keenly aware that her record-setting flights were essentially publicity stunts. In the wake of her 1935 Honolulu to Oakland and Los Angeles to Mexico City flights she said, “My flights haven’t meant anything to the scientific advancement of aviation.” It has become an article of faith that flying around the world was Amelia’s primary goal, but it is not true. The world flight was a financially motivated publicity stunt. Amelia’s first priority was to justify her fame to herself by making genuine contributions to the development of aviation.
Earhart’s husband’s original appeal to Purdue University for funding for a new airplane focused on her desire to make “certain flights as laboratory tests involving various scientific aspects of modern aviation.” The airplane Amelia wanted was a Lockheed Model 10 Electra. After becoming “intimately familiar with the ship under all conditions” Amelia would establish some new transcontinental records, make a flight to Panama or Cuba, and undertake “detailed experimental work at various altitudes, including oxygen flight.” The scientific test flights would be followed by “the ultimate big flight, to be attempted only if and when everything proves out satisfactorily, to be around-the-world [emphasis in the original], starting at the Purdue airport and ending at Purdue. The plane could carry the name ‘Purdue’.”
Reality intervened. Test flights do not make money. They cost money, and there was no money for scientific work. Record-setting stunt flights make money. Before the deal with Purdue was even completed, Putnam and Earhart had reversed the plan. The world flight would now take precedence over the experimental work, but there was a problem. The Lockheed Electra was the wrong ship for a trip around the world. Earhart’s technical adviser Paul Mantz felt that the safest choice for the world flight would be the new Sikorsky S-43 “Baby Clipper” amphibian. Putnam agreed, but Amelia was adamant – she wanted an Electra.
And so began a cascade of compromises fueled by human factors rather than prescribed by best practices. The tragic events of July 2, 1937 were not the consequence of misfortune, nor wanton negligence, but by a progression of poor decisions made in response to practical, emotional, and financial pressures. Finding Amelia – The True Story of the Earhart Electra will be the “prequel” that permits a new understanding of the events chronicled in Finding Amelia – The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance.