Amelia Earhart and George Putnam, an
unusual husband-and-wife team!
A Pilot Grows Up
Pilots are always dreaming dreams. My dream, of
owning a multi-motor plane, probably first took form in May 1935. I was
flying nonstop from Mexico City to New York. The straight line course, from Tampico to New Orleans, took me over about seven hundred miles of the Gulf
of Mexico. There weren't many clouds, so for once what lay below was quite
visible. It did seem a good deal of water.
Previously I'd been by air twice across the North
Atlantic, and once from Hawaii to California. All three voyages were flown
chiefly at night, with heavy clouds during most o the daylight hours. Son in
the combined six thousand miles or more of previous over-ocean flying it
happened I'd seen next to nothing of ocean. Given daylight and good
visibility, the Gulf of Mexico looked large. And wet. One's imagination toyed
with the thought of what would happen if the single engine of the Lockheed
Vega should conk. Not that my faithful Wasp ever had failed me, or indeed,
even protested mildly. But, at that, the very finest machinery could develop
So, on that sunny morning out of sight of land, I
promised my lovely red Vega I'd fly her across nor more water. And I
promised myself that any further over-ocean flying would be attempted in a
plane with more than one motor, capable of keeping aloft with a single
engine. Just in case. Which, in a way, was for me the beginning of the world
flight project. Where to find the tree on which costly airplanes grow, I did
not know. But I did know the kind I wanted - an Electra Lockheed, big
brother of my Vegas, with, of course, Wasp engines. Such is the trusting
simplicity of a pilot's mind, it seemed ordained that somehow the dream
would materialize. Once the prize was in hand, obviously there was one
flight which I most wanted to attempt - a circumnavigation of the globe as
near its waistline as could be.
Before writing about the preparation for that
flight, and of the journey itself, it seems well to set down briefly the
career, such as it is, of a girl who grew up to love flying - the who, when
and why of this particular pilot.
The Fokker Friendship, in which
Amelia rode to fame as the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air.
She rebelled at being merely a passenger
and determined to repeat the trip flying solo.
At the age of ten I saw my first airplane. It was
sitting in a slightly enclosed area at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. It
was a thing of rusty were and wood and looked not at all interesting. One of
the grown-ups who happened to be around pointed it out to me and said:
"Look, dear, it flies." I looked as directed but confess I was much more
interested in an absurd hat made of an inverted peach-basket which I had
just purchased for fifteen cents. What psychoanalysts would make of this
incident, in the light of subsequent behavior, I do not know. Today I loathe
hats for more than a few minutes on the head and am sure I should pass by
the niftiest creation if an airplane were anywhere around.
The next airplane which impinged upon my
consciousness was about the time of the armistice. Again I fond myself at a
Fair, this time the great exposition held at Toronto in Canada. A young
woman friend and I had gone to the Fair grounds to see an exhibition of
stunt flying by one of the aces returned from the war. These men were the
heroes of the hour. They were in demand at social teas, and to entertain
crowds by giving stunting exhibitions. The airplanes they rode so gallantly
to fame were as singular as they. For aviation in those days was very
limited. About all a pilot could do was to joy-hop. That is (1) taking a few
hardy passengers for short rides; (2) teaching even hardier students to fly;
and (3) giving exhibitions. The idea that airplanes could be transportation
as today entered nobody's noggin.
My friend and I, in order to see the show, planted
ourselves in the middle of a clearing. We watched a small plane turn and
twist in the air, black against the sky excepting when the afternoon sun
caught the scarlet of its wings. After fifteen or twenty minutes of
stunting, the pilot began to dive at the crowd. Looking back as a pilot I
think I understand why. He was bored. He had looped and rolled and spun and
finished his little bag of tricks, and there was nothing left to do but
watch the people on the ground running as he swooped close to them.
Amelia in Burbank, California, with the
Lockheed brain trust
(left to right), Allen Loughead, Carl
Squier, and Lloyd Stearman.
Pilots, in 1918, to relieve the monotony of never
going anywhere, rolled their wheels on the top of moving freight trains;
flew so low over boats that the terrified occupants lay flat on the deck; or
they dived at crowds on the beach or at picnics. Today of course the
Department of Commerce would ground a pilot for such antics. I am sure the
sight of two young women alone made a tempting target for the pilot. I am
sure he said to himself, "Watch me make them scamper."
After a few attempts one did but the other stood
her ground. I remember the mingled fear and pleasure which surged over me as
i watched that small plane at the top of its earthward swoop. Common sense
told me if something went wrong with the mechanism, or if the pilot lost
control, he, the airplane and I would be rolled up in a ball together. I did
not understand it at the time but I believe that little red airplane said
something to me as it swished by. I worked in a hospital during the war.
From that experience I decided that medicine interested me most. Whether or
not medicine needed me I did not question. So i enrolled at Columbia
University in New York and started in to do the peculiar things they do who
would be physicians. I fed orange juice to mice and dissected cockroaches. I
have never seen a cockroach since but I remember that the creature has an
extraordinarily large brain.
However, I could not forget airplanes.
I went to California for a summer vacation and
found air meets, as distinct from wartime exhibitions, just beginning. I
went to every one and finally one day came a chance to ride. Frank hawks
took me on the first hop. He was then a barnstorming pilot on the west
coast, unknown to the fame he later acquired. By the time I had got two or
three hundred feet off the ground I knew I had to fly. I think my mother
realized before I did how much airplanes were beginning to mean to me, for
she helped me buy the first one. It was second-hand, painted bright yellow,
and one of the first light airplanes developed in this country. The motor
was so rough that my feet went to sleep after more than a few minutes on the
rudder bar. I had a system of lending the plane for demonstration so as not
to be charged storage. Hangar rental would have annihilated my salary.
Amelia in Oakland, triumphant after the
After a year my longest hop was from Long Beach to
Pasadena, about 40 miles. Still I all but set off to cross the continent by
air. The fact that I couldn't buy gasoline myself forced me to compromise
and rive a car with Mother along. I am sure i wouldn't be here to tell the
tale if I had carried out the original plan. I did what flying I could
afford in the next few years and then the "Friendship" came along. I was
working in Denison House in Boston, one of America's oldest social
"Phone for you, Miss Earhart."
"Tell 'em I'm busy." At the moment I was the center
of an eager swarm of Chinese and Syrian neighborhood children, piling in for
games and classes.
"Says it's important."
So I excused myself and went to listen to a man's
voice asking me whether I was interested in doing something dangerous in the
air. At first I thought the conversation was a joke and said so. Several
times before I had been approached by bootleggers who promised such reward
and no danger - "Absolutely no danger to you, Leddy."
The frank admission of risk stirred my curiosity.
References were demanded and supplied. Good references. An appointment was
arranged for that evening.
"Would you like to fly the Atlantic?"
My reply was a prompt Yes" - provided the equipment
was all right and the crew capable. Nine years ago flying oceans was less
commonplace than today, and my own experience as a pilot was limited to a
few hundred hours in small planes which work and finances permitted. So I
went to New York and met the man entrusted with the quaint commission of
finding a woman willing to fly the Atlantic. The candidate, I gathered,
should be a flyer herself, with social graces, education, charm and,
perchance, pulchritude. His appraisal left me discomforted. Somehow this
seeker for feminine perfection seemed unimpressed. Anyway, I showed my
pilot's license (it happened to be the first granted an American woman by
the F.A.I.) and inwardly prepared to start back for Boston.
But he felt that, having come so far, I might as
well meet the representatives of Mrs. Frederick Guest, whose generosity was
making the flight possible, and at whose insistence a woman was to be taken
along. Those representatives were David T. Layman, Jr., and John S. Phipps,
before which masculine jury I made my next appearance. It should have been
slightly embarrassing, for if I were found wanting in too many ways i would
be counted out. On the other hand, if I were just too fascinating, the
gallant gentlemen might be loath to risk drowning me. Anyone could see the
meeting was a crisis. A few days later the verdict came. The flight actually
would be made and I could go if I wished. Naturally I couldn't say "No." Who
would refuse an invitation to such a shining adventure?
Amelia made good on her promise, becoming
the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.
Landing in an Irish cow pasture, she
arrived to a warm welcome.
Followed, in due course, after weeks of mechanical
preparation, efforts to et the monoplane "Friendship" off from the gray
waters of Boston Harbor. There were chill before-dawn gettings-up, with
breakfasts snatched and thermos bottles filled at an all-night lunch
counter. Brief voyages on the tugboat Sadie Ross to the anchored plane,
followed by the sputter of the motors awakening to Mechanic. Lou Gordon's
coaxing and their later full-throated roar when Pilot "Bill Stulz
gave them the gun - and I crouched on the fuselage floor hoping we were
really off. Thrice we failed, dragging back to Boston for more long days of
waiting. Waiting is apt to be so much harder than going, with the excitement
of movement, of getting off, of adventure-around-the-corner.
Finally one morning the "Friendship" took off
successfully, and Stultz, Gordon, and I transferred ourselves to
Newfoundland. After thirteen days of weary waiting at Trepassey (how well I
remember the alternating diet of mutton and rabbits!) the Atlantic flight
started. Twenty hours and forty minutes later we tied up to a buoy off
Burryport, Wales. I recall desperately waving a towel; one friendly soul
ashore pulled off his coat and waved back. But beyond that for an hour
nothing happened. It took persistence to arouse interest in an itinerant
trans-Atlantic plane. I myself did no piloting on that trip. But I gained
experience. In London I was introduced to Lady Mary Heath, the then very
active Irish woman flyer. She had just made a record flight from London to
Cape Town and I purchased the small plane she had used. It wore on its chest
a number of medals given her at various stops she made on the long route.
After the pleasant accident of being the first
woman to cross the Atlantic by air, I was launched into a life full of
interest. Aviation offered such fun as crossing the continent in planes
large and small, trying the whirling rotors of an autogiro, making record
flights. With these activities came opportunity to know women everywhere who
shared my conviction that there is so much women can do in the modern world
and should be permitted to do irrespective of their sex. Probably my
greatest satisfaction was to indicate by example now and then, that women
can sometimes do things themselves if given the chance.
Autographed photograph of Amelia and her
crew before taking off from Oakland, California, for Honolulu.
(Left to right) Paul Mantz, Amelia
Earhart, Harry Manning, and Fred Noonan.
Manning would take leave of the crew
after the accident in Hawaii.
Here I should add that the "Friendship" flight
brought me some thing even dearer than such opportunities. That
Man-who-was-to-find-a-girl-to-fly-the-Atlantic, who found me and then
managed the flight, was George Palmer Putnam. In 1931 we married. Mostly, my
flying, has been solo, but the preparation for it wasn't. Without my
husband's help and encouragement I could not have attempted what I have.
Ours has been a contented and reasonable partnership, he with his solo jobs
and I with mine. But always with work and play together, conducted under a
satisfactory system of dual control. I was hardly home when i started off to
fly the continent - my 1924 ambition four years late. Lady Heath's plane was
very small. It had folding wings so that it actually could fit in a garage.
I cranked the motor by standing behind the propeller and pulling it down
with one hand. The plane was so light I could pick it up by the tail and
drag it easily around the field.
At that time I was full of missionary zeal for the
cause of aviation. I refused to wear the high-bred aviation togs of the
moment. Instead i simply wore a dress or suit. I carried no chute and
instead of a helmet used a close-fitting hat. I stepped into the airplane
with as much nonchalance as i could muster, hoping that onlookers would be
persuaded that flying was nothing more than an everyday occurrence. I
refused even to wear goggles, obviously. However, I put them on as I taxied
to the end of the field and wore them while flying, being sure to take them
off shortly after I landed. That was thoroughly informal flying. Pilots
landed in pastures, race course, even golf links where they wee still enough
of a novelty to be welcome. In those days domestic animals scurried to the
fancied protection of trees and bans when the flying monsters roared above
them. Now along the airways there's not enough curiosity left for a
self-respecting cow even to lift her head to see what goes on in the sky.
She's just bored. Stories of that happy-go-lucky period should be put
together in a saga to regale the scientific, precision flyers of tomorrow.
Nineteen-twenty-nine was the year of the women's
derby from California to Cleveland, the first time a cross-country race had
ever been sponsored for women alone. I felt I needed a new plane for this
extraordinary sporting event. So I traded in the faithful little Avion for
my first Lockheed Vega. It was a third-hand clunk but to me a heavenly
chariot. I crossed the continent gain from New York to California to stop at
the Lockheed factory. I thought possibly there might be a few adjustments
necessary before I entered the race. There I met the great Wiley Post for
the first time. Wiley Pot had not then had his vision of stratosphere
flying, and was simply a routine check pilot in the employ of the Lockheed
It fell to him to take my airplane up for test.
Having circled the field once, he came down and proceeded to tell everyone
within earshot that my lovely airplane was the foulest he had ever flown. Of
course the worse he made the plane, the better pilot I became. The fact that
I should have been able to herd such a hopeless piece of mechanism across
the continent successfully was the one bright spot in the ensuing half hour.
Finally Lodkheed officials were to impressed by my prowess (o so sorry
for me) that they traded me a brand new plane. The clunk was never flown
again. The Derby produced one of the gems which belong in the folklore of
aviation. Something went wrong with her motor and Ruth Elder made a forced
landing in a field thickly inhabited by cattle. The bovine population
crowded around her plane and proceeded to lick the paint off the wings -
there seemed to be something in the "doped" finish that appealed to them.
Meanwhile, Ruth snuggled down in the safety of the cockpit. "You see," she
explained, "I didn't know much about such things and was uncertain as to the
sex of the visitors. My plane was red - very red. And I'd always heard what
bulls did to that." . . . Apparently the cows were cows.
Three classics: Lockheed Electra, Cord
Cabriolet, and Amelia Earhart.
After the "Friendship" flight I did not immediately
plan to fly the Atlantic alone. But later as i gained in experience and
looked back over the years I decided that I had had enough to try to make it
solo. Lockheed #2 was then about three years old. It had been completely
reconditioned and a new and larger engine put in. By the spring of 1932
plane and pilot were ready. Oddly, one of my clearest memories of the
Atlantic solo concerns not the flight itself but my departure from home. On
May 19th the weather outlook was so unpromising we had abandoned hope of
getting off that day. So I had driven in to New York from our home in
Westchester. Just before noon an urgent message caught up with me
immediately to get in touch with Mr. Putnam at the Weather Bureau.
Our phone conversation was brief.
"It looks like the break we've waited for," he
said. "Doc Kimball says this afternoon is fine to get to Newfoundland - St.
John's anyway. And by tomorrow the Atlantic looks as good as you're likely
to get it for some time." I asked a few questions. A threatening "low" on
the first leg of the route had dissipated to the southeast; a "high" seemed
to be moving in promisingly beyond Newfoundland.
"Okeh! We'll start," I said. Mr Putnam agreed he
would corral Bernt Balchen, my technical adviser who was to go with me to
Newfoundland to be sure that everything was as right as could be before I
hopped off. I explained I would have to rush back to Rye to get my flying
clothes and maps. We arranged to meet at two o'clock at the city end of the
George Washington Bridge, which leads across the Hudson toward Teterboro
Airport in New jersey, where my plane waited.
The press seized upon Amelia's almost
eerie resemblance to Charles Lindberg,
a likeness that not even her tousled hair
could mask, and that flying gear made all the more distinct.
At last as i dared - traffic cops being what they
are - I drove the twenty-five miles to Rye. Five minutes was enough to pick
up my things. Plus a lingering few more to drink in the beauty of a lovely
treasured sight. Beside and below our bedroom windows were dog-wood trees,
their blossoms in luxuriant full flower, unbelievable bouquets of white and
pink flecked with the sunshine of spring. Those sweet blooms smiled at me a
radiant farewell . . . That is a memory I have never forgotten. Looking
back, there are less cheering recollections of that night over the Atlantic.
Of seeing, for instance, the flames lick through the exhaust collector ring
and wondering, in a detached way, whether one would prefer drowning to
incineration. Of the five hours of storm, during black midnight, when I kept
right side up by instruments alone, buffeted about as i never was before. Of
much beside, not the least the feeling of fine loneliness and of realization
that the machine I rode was doing its best and required from me the best I
And one further fact of the flight, which I've not
set down in words before. I carried a barograph an instrument which records
on a disc the course of the plane, its rate of ascent and descent, its
levels of flight all co-ordinated with clocked time. My tell-tale disc could
tell a tale. At one point it recorded an almost vertical drop of three
thousand feet. It started at an altitude of something over 3,000 feet, and
ended - well, something above the water. That happened when the plane
suddenly "iced up" and went into a spin. How long we spun I do not know. I
do know that I tr4ied my best to do exactly what one should do with a
spinning plane, and regained flying control as the warmth of the lower
altitude melted the ice. As we righted and held level again, through the
blackness below i could see the white-caps too close for comfort.
Marshall Islands First Day Cover,
depicting the loss of Amelia Earhart
All that was five full years ago, a long time to
recall little things. So I wonder if Bernt Balchen remembers as I do the
three words he said to me as I left harbor Grace. They were "Okeh. So-long.
While this is to be a record of the round-the-world
voyage, now that I've referred to the Atlantic flights I would like to tell
here also the story of the trip from Hawaii to California. Contrasted to the
Atlantic crossing, that was a journey of stars, not storms, of tropic
loveliness instead of ice. While I sued the same type airplane on the
Pacific flight as on the Atlantic, and the identical Wasp motor (bless its
heart!), still I had improved equipment for the latter trip.
For instance, my plumbing system, by which I mean
the metal fuel lines, was entirely encased in rubber tubing - double
insurance against possible leak of precious fuel. Then I had a controllable
pitch propeller. The controllable pitch propeller works as does the gear
shift in your car. A flyer takes off in low, climbs to the altitude at which
he wishes to fly, shifts into high, and away he goes. The propeller
facilitates taking off with heavy loads, and gives greater speed in the air.
Of course speed is a very definite safety factor when flying over dangerous
areas, or over long stretches of water in a land plane.
Your little geographies told you that the northeast
trade winds blow steadily in the mid-Pacific region. They do, excepting on
the day I planned to take off. Then the winds switched around to the south
and southwest and blew steadily from that direction. Early on the morning of
January 11, 1935, the clouds began to gather over Honolulu and by eleven a
tropical downpour was in full force. I was assured it was very unusual
weather. The military airport from which I planned to take off has no
hard-surface runways and i knew that if I left that afternoon, as planned, I
should have to lift my heavy load from very soggy ground. Wheeler Field then
was about six thousand feet long, laid out in the direction of the
prevailing winds, which refused to prevail.
The Army had very kindly mowed a pathway for me in
the long grass and planted little white flags along both edges to facilitate
my taking off in a straight line. So effective was that planting of white
flags that i used the same system later in the take-off from Mexico City
where we fashioned a home-made runway on the baked surface of a dry
lake-bed. At one o'clock conditions wee no better, nor at two, nor at three.
Following luncheon at an Army officer's home we kept our noses flattened
against the windowpane, watching the weather. At 3.30 the rain definitely
slackened and it looked as if the clouds might lift. So I lied me down to
the hangar, in which my plane was housed, to look the situation over. I
found the field soaked; and the spirits of the faithful few who were
standing by, very damp indeed. However, i asked the men to get the plane
out, to put in the few remaining gallons of gas the tanks would hold, to
stow all m equipment (including a prized rubber boat) and to warm up the
motor. I felt a take-off later in the day was possible and i wished the
plane ready in every detail.
I must say something about the plane which has been
my companion aloft for so many flying hours. It was a raft to delight the eye,
its wings and fuselage painted red with gold stripes down the side. Possibly
it may have seemed a trifle gaudy on the ground but I am sure it looked
lovely against one of those white clouds. It was a closed plane. I drive a
closed car and fly a closed plane. i don't like to be mussed up. Further,
the added comfort of a closed plane very definitely lessens fatigue, and
fatigue must be considered when one is preparing for a long flight. The Vega
normally carries six passengers and the pilot, the passengers in the rear,
the pilot in front perched in a cockpit overlooking the motor with is 500
horse. The six passenger seats had been replaced by large fuel tanks capable
of carrying 520 gallons of gasoline. There are no service stations between
Honolulu and the united States!
Posing with more assurance than she felt,
Amelia assumes the classic "hands-on-prop"
My cockpit was a very cozy little cubbyhole. I sat
on a cushion just large enough for me. On the right-hand side of the seat
was a large black box, the radio, with the dials on top so I could reach
them easily. On the left was a large compass and two pump handles, pumps
which enabled me to change fuel from one set of tanks to the other. Some of
the fuel was carried in the wing, which is he normal position in commercial
craft, and some in the cabin tanks. In case my motor-driven pump should fail
i could still keep going by using that hand system. I have had to pump as
long as six hours on occasion, which is pretty tiring. But it is well worth
having that emergency system.
In a little cupboard in the wing, to the right, I
carried provisions. I don't drink tea or coffee so I had none with me. On
the Atlantic flight i had a thermos bottle of hot soup, but it did not work
out very well, so from Honolulu I carried a thermos bottle of hot chocolate.
Then I had malted milk tablets, sweet chocolate, tomato juice, and water.
One of the Arm officer's wives thought i was starting out on a 2,400-mile
journey with entirely too little to eat so she asked if she couldn't put up
a picnic lunch for me. I told her that for some reason or other it was
always difficult for me on a long flight to eat much food, but if she packed
a lunch i would take it with me. So I had that too.
On the left side there was another little cabinet
in which were stored my tools, I don't use hairpins so I have to carry
regular tools! Also, there were extra fuses, extra flashlight, pad and
pencils, rags, string, odds and ends that might come in handy. After i asked
the men to warm up the motor, i went over to the Weather Bureau for a final
check and found that if I did not leave that afternoon, despite local
conditions, I would be held indefinitely by storms coming in over the
Pacific. So about 4.30 I returned to the plane, which was sitting out on the
concrete apron. The motor purred sweetly. I crawled into the cockpit and
tested it myself. I sounded perfect. So I told the men to take away the
blocks in front of the wheels.
I turned the plane and headed for the take-off
pathway, my mechanic running along beside it. I could see him out of the
cockpit window and observed that with every step he took the mud squashed up
to his shoe tops, so soft was the ground. My mechanic was very gloomy, his
cigarette hanging out of the corner of his moth, his face as white as his
coveralls. I wanted to call, "Cheer up, Ernie! It will soon be over." But of
course I couldn't make him hear over the sound of the motor. Glancing to the
left, I noticed the fire-engines drawn up in front of the hangars, and one
ambulance. The Arm to a man seemed to have those little squirt fire
extinguishers, and the women present had their handkerchiefs out, obviously
ready for any emergency. The take-off with an excessive fuel load is the
most hazardous moment, if such could be determined, because of the
possibility of fire if anything goes amiss. But please do not compare such a
take-off with those of ordinary everyday flying. It is nor more fair to
compare the two than it is to compare automobile racing and safe automobile
driving - if such there be!
A complex aircraft for its day, the
twin-engine Lockheed had to fly from one primitive airport to another.
When my mechanic had pried loose a great ball of
mud and grass that had caked up on the tail skid, I put the plane in
take-off position, looked down the long pathway ahead of me, and beyond to
the sugarcane fields stretching to the crest of the mountains which cross
the island diagonally. Those mountains usually are sharp in outline but that
day they were softened by low-hanging gray clouds. From the little flags
hanging limply on their sticks I saw that what wind I had was with me. That
was a disadvantage. you realize a plane takes off against the wind, not with
it, just as a small boy flies his kite. He doesn't run with the wind
to get his kite into the air, but runs against it. Of course an airplane is
simply a kite with a motor instead of the small boy.
I pushed the throttle ahead. The Vega started to
move and gather speed. i felt the tail come up. The plane got lighter and
lighter on the wheels. After rolling about two thousand feet a large bump on
the surface of the field threw the plane completely off the ground. I pushed
the throttle ahead to the farthest notch, and gave her all the power I had.
The plane started to settle, then caught - and we were off. I have often
been asked what i think about at the moment of take-off. Of course no pilot
sits and feels his pulse as he flies. He had to be part of the machine. if
he thinks of anything but the task in hand then trouble is probably just
around the corner. Although I had plenty to do immediately after that
take-off, some impressions of the moments that followed remain vivid in my
I realized that at one time i was flying over a
forbidden area at a forbidden altitude. The islands are dotted with military
reservations over which civilian aircraft may not fly under a certain
altitude, and as I was climbing lowly with my heavy load i was definitely
under the prescribed limit. I wondered in a third-person kind of way whether
the navy (it was a Naval reservation) would begin taking pot-shots at me, or
whether they would have me arrested when I arrived, wherever I arrived, if I
My course lay over the edge of Honolulu. As I flew
by that lovely city and realized it was just about the close of the business
day, the thought flashed through my mind that everyone was going home to
supper - but me. It was just five o'clock as I passed over Makapuu Point,
the last island outpost on my course. Shortly afterward I let down my radio
antenna and sent my first message, something like this "Flying 6,000 feet,
through scattered clouds, temperature outside 50 degrees. Everything okeh."
I was tuned in at the time to a musical program on
KGU, the commercial broadcast station in Honolulu. I wasn't listening to the
music as such, but simply keeping the station tuned in so that when word
came for me, as arranged beforehand, I could increase the volume and
understand what was said. Suddenly I heard the music stop and the
announcer's voice say, "We are interrupting our musical program with an
important news flash. Amelia Earhart has just taken off from Honolulu on an
attempted flight to Oakland."
Then the announcer's voice continued: "Mr. Putnam
will try to communicate with his wife." Then I heard my husband's voice as
if he were in the next room saying: "A. El, the noise of your motor
interferes with your broadcast. Will you please try to speak a little louder
so we can hear you." It was thrilling to have his voice come in so clear to
me, sitting out there over the Pacific. It was really one of the high points
of the flight. Clouds were all about me from the start. I had to climb 6,000
feet to get over the first layers of filmy white. I could look down and see
the water, dark blue and then darker blue, then black, as night came on. It
was a night of stars. Stars hung outside my cockpit window near enough to
touch. I have never seen so many or such large ones. I shall never forget
the contrast of the white clouds and the moonlight and starlight against the
black of the sea. It is interesting that I have flown over thousands of
miles of water but have seen only hundreds of miles. I have been over
clouds, between two layers, or actually in the formation for hours on end,
and have seen no shops excepting very near land. However, on the Pacific
flight I took along a chart showing the position of every ship on the course
that night. The possibility of one little airplane and on little ship
passing near enough to see each other in that rather large ocean seemed
I had been flying off the islands for about six
hours when I became aware of a pink light to my right - pink in contrast to
the stars. I realized i was actually seeing a ship. I couldn't see it as a
ship, of course. It appeared only as a revolving pinkish light. All the
vessels had agreed to keep their searchlights on in case I was anywhere
around. I flashed my landing lights, which are pretty bright, three times.
Then again, until I got an answering signal from that little thing 8,000
feet below. I was tuned in on KFI in Los Angeles. Whatever the program was,
suddenly it was blocked out by code cracking like buckshot in my ears and I
knew that ship was sending word to shore it had sighted me overhead. At that
time I was nine hundred miles on my course, as correctly as could be.
After this friendly exchange with the ship, the
clouds came together below me, blocking all sight of water. Meanwhile I
could see the tops of those clouds and as I looked ahead the stars around
the horizon were dim. It was as if a veil hung between mine and them. The
veil cre0pt higher and higher up the horizon until it enveloped my plane and
I could see nothing outside of the cockpit. Fine rain-drops were on the
glass and as suddenly as I had gotten into the rain squall, for such it was,
I came out again into the moonlight and starlight. I continued to run
through little rain squalls for possibly two hours. At no time during the
flight did the outside temperature register below forty degrees. However, I
had the cockpit window open a bit and the cold rain beat in on me until I
became thoroughly chilled. I thought it would be rather pleasant to have a
cup of hot chocolate. So I did, and it was. Indeed that was the most
interesting cup of chocolate I have ever had, sitting up eight thousand feet
over the middle of the Pacific Ocean, quite alone.
Irony. Amelia examines the loop of the
Radio Direction finder unit.
Properly installed and properly used, it
could have saved her life.
After midnight the moon set and I was alone with
the stars. I have often said that the lure of flying is the lure of beauty,
and I need no other flight to convince me that the reason flyers fly,
whether they know it or not, is the aesthetic appeal of flying. On the
Atlantic trip I thought the most beautiful thing I should ever see would be
dawn over the ocean. But then I did not see dawn as it was obstructed by
clouds. This time I was more fortunate. A shadow of light played around the
horizon and suddenly the stars wee gone. Dawn is a fearful thing to see from
the air. Only by wearing dark glasses can a pilot face the rising sun for
any length of time because of the brilliance of the light. In addition
to enjoying its beauty, that dawn over the Pacific was disconcerting. For
the sun made its appearance well to the right of the course I was following.
It seemed to me I should be flying much more in its direction than I was.
For a brief moment I wondered if all night long I had been headed for
Alaska! I checked my charts and I checked my compass and everything seemed
to be as it should - so I could only conclude that the sun was wrong and I
After it became light enough to see, I found myself
over a closely packed white cloud bank, which seemed to extend to the ends
of the earth and looked extraordinarily like stiffly beaten whites of eggs.
I don't know if there is anything in the power of suggestion, but about that
time I ate a hard-boiled egg the only solid food I had during the flight. My
radio frequency was not particularly efficient after sun-up. However, I kept
on broadcasting periodically, knowing that listening shore stations would at
least get my signal and thus know I was still afloat. Being fairly sure they
could understand little of what I said, I became slightly careless with
words. I commented on the scenery, which wasn't much, and made other
remarks. After flying over this monotonous fog you have no idea how
wearying it can be - for one hour, for two hours, for three hours, I
remember saying into my little hand microphone: "I am getting tired of this
fog." My message was picked up "I'm getting tired." So a nurse and physician
were dispatched to the airport at Oakland to revive the exhausted flyer when
and if she arrived. Of course I wasn't tired at all. No one should undertake
a long flight who becomes fatigued after staying up just one night under
normal flying conditions.
About the fifteenth hour out the fog bank began to
break up (as it often does near land) and holes appeared through which I
could look down and see the water once again. This time it was blue in the
morning sun, ruffled with little crinkles. I glanced casually down through a
cloud window and thee was another boat. I cocked the wing of my plane up and
went down through that hole faster, I think, than I ever flew before, from
8,000 feet to two hundred. A large dollar sign on the steamer funnel
established it as the Dollar Liner President Pierce coming from San
Francisco. it was going in the right direction, too, and just where it
should be, according to my chart. And so as I. I circled the ship several
times, wanting the Captain to be sure to notice me. Then I lined myself up
with the wake of the vessel, which I could see form more than a mile behind
it, and found that the course I had been flying coincided exactly with the
track made by the ship, which was a very good check on direction. i could
not talk directly with the steamer, so i radioed San Francisco asking for
its position and within fifteen minutes received word that I was then three
hundred miles off the coast of California, exactly on my course.
There is no doubt that the last hour of any flight
is the hardest. If there are any clouds about to make shadows one is likely
to see much imaginary land. I saw considerable territory in the Pacific
which California should annex! When I actually first sighted land I was
flying about 1,800 feet off the surface of the water, considerably below the
summits of the coastal hills. As I approached shore I strained my eyes to
see something recognizable, and there was nothing. However, I noticed a low
place in the hills, and I thought, like the bear, I would go over the
mountains to see what I could see. Drawing nearer, I pulled the nose of the
plane up, eagerly peering ahead as we floated gently over those hospitable
hills. And thee lay San Francisco Bay in front of me. All I had to do was to
go across and sit down. The landing at Oakland contrasted with that in
Ireland in 1932. Neat Londonderry, after scaring most of the cows in the
neighborhood, I pulled up in a farmer's back yard. Three people came out to
sew what was in the airplane. I pushed the hatch back and stuck out my head.
Not knowing the proper phrase for the situation i simply said, "I'm from
America." It made no impression whatsoever on the reception committee.
At Oakland I did not have to explain whence i came.
Front-page news in 1937, the disappearance
first lady of the air still generates
countless theories, but as yet no proof.
There were three factors
which determined me to try a flight to Mexico. One, I had a plane in perfect
condition for a long distance effort. Two, i had been officially invited by
the Mexican Government. (I had never been invited before. I just went to
Ireland.) three, Wiley Post. I remember telling Wiley Post of my plans. He
walked across the room, looked at a globe standing on the table, and asked
me what route I intended to use from Mexico City to new York. I told him I
planned to fly in as straight a line as possible.
"Are you cutting across the
Gulf?" he asked.
I said I was. He measured it
with his fingers.
"That's about 700 miles.
Almost half an Atlantic. How much time do you lose if you go around by the
I told him I saved probably
one hour, or a little more, by following the straight line.
Wiley said: "Amelia, don't
do it. It's too dangerous."
I couldn't believe my ears.
Did Wiley Post, the man who had braved every sort of hazard in his
stratosphere flying, really regard a simple little flight from Mexico city
to New York across the Gulf as too hazardous? If so, i could scarcely wait
to be on my way. On April 19, 1935, NR 965Y (my Vega) and I started from
Burbank, California, for Mexico City. Slightly over thirteen hours later we
landed at Valbuena Airport, 1,700 miles southward. From a pilot's standpoint
that was an interesting journey. The start made before midnight was lit by a
generous moon which gilded the hills gloriously, but by the time I had
reached the arid stretches of the Gulf of California there crept up a white
haze which made it difficult to tell what was water and what was sand ahead.
Only when I could catch a glimpse of the moonlight on the water or see the
black shadows of crinkled sand directly below, could I tell which was which.
Even the mechanical difficulties which beset the early hours of the flight -
chiefly an engine which overheated because of a faulty propeller setting -
could not mar the rare loveliness of the might and of the far-flung
countryside which slumbered beneath.
Slightly below Mazatlan, on
the Mexican coast, a thousand miles or so from the starting point, the chart
directed me to turn easterly toward Mexico City, six hundred miles away.
Here were ruffles of mountains sloping upward into the high tableland of
central Mexico. I was flying by compass and successfully located the towns
of Tepic and Guadalajara, and thought perhaps I would escape the fate that
had been promised me, that of straying on the final stretch of the journey.
But I suddenly realized there was a railroad beneath me which had no
business being where it was if I were where I ought to be. I was flying at
an altitude of more than 10,000 feet, with mountains and plains not far
below me. I had counted on arriving before one o'clock Mexican time, but
when that hour came I realized that, while probably near my destination, my
exact location was uncertain. Just about then an insect, or possibly some
infinitesimal speck of dirt, lodged in my eye. In addition to being
extremely painful, that minute accident played havoc with my sight. So, with
the maps, such as they were, blurred even to my "good eye," which at once
went on strike in sympathy with its ailing mate, and having the feeling of
being lost anyway, I decided to sit down and ask the way.
My landing place was a
pasture not unreminiscent of another landing in Ireland, although here the
cattle were stolidly indifferent to my arrival while their trans-Atlantic
brethren (sistern?) raised a temperamental ruckus when my roaring motor
disturbed their privacy. This field was decorated not with shamrock but by
occasional cactus and prickly par. The near-by village, I found, was named Nopala, which means prickly pear. No sooner was i down, after brushing the
field a couple of times to see if a landing was possible, than cowboys and
villagers sprang up miraculously. They were helpful, polite and not at all
astonished, even when their visitor turned out to be feminine. My picture
was a dry lake-bed, not overly large, but level and reasonably free from
dangerous obstructions. M Spanish does not exist, and none of the vaqueros
spoke English. So our negotiations were mostly accomplished with signs and
smiles, which sufficed well enough, particularly with a bright dark-skinned
boy who established my location on the map, which turned out to be about
fifty miles from Mexico City.
After taxing the ship to the
end of the clear space, a couple of the more enthusiastic spectators rode to
the middle of my "runway." confident they would be helpful there. To make it
quite clear that such a location would be thoroughly unfortunate when my
ship charged down on them for the take-off, it was necessary to climb out of
the cockpit and plow afoot through the dust for further discussion. Once the
point was well established, my friends withdrew to the sidelines and saw to
it that the cattle, goats and children were herded to safety. Actually there
was not much difficulty in getting into the air again and half an hour later
I was given a more official welcome at the Capital.
The critical moment in the takeoff, when
the tail wheel has just left the ground
and the rudders are just becoming
effective. In Hawaii, the airplane got away from Amelia.
In ensuing days were a kaleidoscope of things done
and seen, and hospitable people met. "Fun in Mexico" would be an appropriate
title. President Lazaro Cardenas graciously extended official greetings and
privileges. We barged through the flower-laden floating gardens of Xochimilco,
a bucolic tropic Venice on the fringe of the Capital. We saw the Basque game,
jai alai, a fast and furious glorified squash; and a charro fiesta, which is
to say a cowboy exhibition, demonstrating that superb horsemanship is the same
art the world over, needing, like music, no interpretation. Unfortunately
opportunity lacked to discuss with women, as I would have liked to, their
strivings and ambitions. What law and tradition permit them to do outside the
home i am uncertain. While I met only sheltered women among the well-to-do, I
saw many worn with the labor of farm life, and briefly touched a few groups of
self-supporting city women workers. I saw enough of the spirit of the new
Mexico, however, to want to know more of what reforms the new order holds for
its women. I, for one, hope for the day when women will know no restrictions
because of sex but will be individuals free to live their lives as men are
free -irrespective of the continent or country where they happen to live.
At a concert given in my honor I admired the cowboy
regalia worn by the musicians. Forthwith, to my embarrassment (and pleasure).
I found that Secretary of State Portes Gil had ordained that I should have
such a one for myself. This outfit is as traditional as the pink coat of the
British huntsman or the kilts of the highlander. Mine, as delivered some days
later, is a formal creation of blue and silver, topped by a picturesque
sombrero, heavy with corresponding trimmings. How such a colorful costume may
be adapted to flying is a sartorial problem I never mastered. Mine, alas, was
a flying visit in both senses of the word. Scarcely had I slighted when the
problems of departing pressed upon us. In Mexico City both the military and
civilian airports are excellent. But at the mile-and-a-half altitude their
runways, while ample for normal flying, were not as long as my overloaded
plane required. So we explored the mud-caked flats which once had been the
bottom of Lake Texcoco adjoining the metropolis and there on the lake-bed,
aided by Mexican soldiers, who filled a ditch and shaved off hammocks, we
contrived a home-made airport with a runway three miles in length.
I have often said the most potent letters in the
alphabet of aviation are "w" and "p." In flyers' shorthand "wp" means "weather
permitting." it's a wise pilot who prefaces announcem4nt of his plans with
that proviso. For eight days in Mexico City "w" had not "p." Not until one
o'clock in the morning of may ninth did I learn definitely that the elements
had relented. Over the telephone from the Weather Bureau in New York Mr.
Putnam gave me the final reports as prepared by our old friend Dr. James H.
Kimball, dean of record flights. So I sent word out to the men at the plane to
fill the ranks with the 470 gallons of gasoline required, while I curled up
for a few hours' sleep. Then at four o'clock, Edmundo Rendon, our able
interpreter, drove me to the home-made runway, staked out with flags for my
Earlier in the day Charles Baughan, a veteran
Lockheed pilot who operates a sky-taxi service in Mexico City, had flown my
plane from the Pan American hangar over to the level stretches of the
lake-bed, whence the take-off was planned. The drums of gasoline already wee
there, with soldiers, under the direction of Captain Casolando, to guard them
and the plane, and to herd people, cows, horses and goats out of harm's way.
Under the direction of Bauhan the "gassing up" was accomplished, while
Casasolo, Pan American star mechanic, gave my Wasp motor its final check by
the light of automobile headlights meagerly supplemented with the dim radiance
of a very young moon.
That day I had breakfast in Mexico Cit and supper in
New York - a very early breakfast, to be sure, and a decidedly late supper,
for it was 10.30 when I landed at Newark, 2,185 miles to the north. It was a
few minutes past six, Mexican time, when I took off. Although I used perhaps a
full mile of the improvised runway the plane got into the air with surprising
ease. My Vega was always doing that - surprising me with superb performance.
Dire predictions had been made regarding that overload take-off in the rare
air of an 8,000 foot altitude. But all I had to do was to keep the plane
moving in a straight line and hold it on the ground until we'd built up a
speed well over a hundred miles an hour - then it just flew itself into the
air. Slowly I climbed to 10,000 feet, to skim over the mountains that hem in
the high central valley where the city lies, separating it from the lands that
slope down to the sea. Majestic Popocatepetl raised its snowy head to the
south, luminous in the rays of the rising sun. A fairyland of beauty lay below
and about me - so lovely as almost to distract a pilot's attention from the
task at hand, that of herding a heavy plane out of that great upland saucer
and over the mountains that make its rim.
Seen from the air, all countries have characteristics
peculiar to themselves. Ireland is recognizable by its green fields, white
cottages, and thatched roofs. Like the ubiquitous baseball diamond of the
United States, most Mexican towns have their unmistakable bull-ring sitting in
the midst of adobe houses and walled gardens. These were vivid in my visual
memories of that morning's flight. Once across the divide, clouds banked
continuously below me, stretching down over the Gulf. I saw little but their
fleecy contours with the exception of one brief glimpse of a group of oil
tanks which I estimated to be close to Tampico. Thence I bore northeasterly in
a straight line across the Gulf for New Orleans, a distance of about 799
miles. From New Orleans on, radio communication between my plane and airway
stations below was constant. Indeed, our conversations were so continuous I
felt as if I were more-or-less sliding home along a neighborly "party line."
All in all, the flight was marked by a delightful
precision. Everything worked as it should. Its only exciting moments followed
my landing at Newark when the crowd overflowed the field. In due course I was
rescued from my plane by husky policemen, one of whom in the ensuing melee
took possession of my right arm and another of my left leg. Their plan was to
get me to the shelter of a near-by co-ordination. For the arm-older started to
go one way while he who clasped my leg set out in the opposite direction. The
result provided the victim with a fleeing taste of the tortures of the rack. But, at that, it was fine to be home again.