Amelia Earhart Plans Her Final Flight

Facing criticism and concern after crash landing during her first attempt to fly around the world, Amelia Earhart plans to try again in this excerpt from “Amelia Earhart: A Biography.”

Lockheed Electra.jpg
Amelia Earhart standing in front of the Lockheed Electra in which she disappeared in July 1937.

From the moment the Electra lay crumpled on the runway at Honolulu, Amelia was caught in the vortex of two converging currents—pride and money. Her reputation for honesty, commitment, and courage was at stake. So was her livelihood. With almost all of her capital invested and her future earnings pegged to a successful flight, she had to circumnavigate the globe.

Within twenty-four hours of her return she went to Indian Palms to see Jackie Cochran. For the first time in her life she needed to talk about a crackup. At the ranch she found a sympathetic audience of three—Cochran and two guests, Ben and Maxine Howard, who were still recuperating from the serious injuries they had suffered seven months before in the 1936 Bendix race. Amelia had visited them soon after, in a Chicago hospital, where she offered Ben the Electra “to practice on,” he said, “until I could learn to fly with a wooden foot."

That night Amelia sat on the floor in front of the fireplace, her thin, pale face lit by the firelight as she reviewed every detail of the accident. Finished, she looked up to her three friends, waiting for their comments but there were none. “What!” she said, “Aren’t you going to ask me ‘Are you going to try again?’” Only Cochran answered. “I hope you don’t,” she said.

Amelia Earhart

Doris L. Rich's exhaustively researched biography downplays the “What Happened to Amelia Earhart?” myth by disclosing who Amelia Earhart really was: a woman of three centuries, born in the nineteenth, pioneering in the twentieth, and advocating ideals and dreams relevant to the twenty-first.

Cochran spoke out of concern for a friend but Amelia was bitterly criticized by Marine Maj. Al Williams, test pilot and naval racer, in a syndicated newspaper article. He said that the worst exploitation of aviation for fame and fortune was that of individual transoceanic flying, presented under the banner of “scientific progress.” Claiming Amelia’s “flying laboratory” was the latest useless stunt staged for a trusting public, Williams said her proposed Pacific flights were already being done by Pan American and, although she had made the one to Hawaii faster than the two Pan American planes, they were still operating while hers was being shipped home in a box.

Williams wanted to know why in all the publicity stories nothing was said about Amelia’s profits from lecture contracts, magazine and book rights, and stamp cachets. Instead, he wrote, the public got a garbled account of the crackup and a false story of heroism in which Amelia cut the switches and saved her crew. Actually, Williams wrote, she had lost control of the ship. He hoped that the Bureau of Air Commerce would refuse permission for her second attempt and put an end to aviation’s biggest racket, this “purely scientific” ballyhoo.

Williams’s first story was published by the Scripps Howard syndicate on April 30. G. P. waited until it was repeated a week later in the Cleveland Press before denying that Amelia had made any claim to “purely scientific” flight. When the trip was announced back in February, she said that the research program had been postponed until after the world flight, G. P. insisted, and her stated reason for going was “because I want to.” At the same time, G. P. pointed out, she had explained that the only revenue aside from her own writing would be the cacheted covers. Amelia’s only comment on the Williams story was “I’m glad a woman didn’t write it."

Williams’ criticism was the least of Amelia’s troubles. Assuming that the BAC would grant another flight permit to her she needed fifty thousand dollars—twenty-five thousand for repairs to the Electra and twenty-five thousand for another set of flight arrangements, this time in the opposite direction, from west to east because of changing weather conditions. In an appeal to her friend, aviation promoter Harry Bruno, she employed more than a little of the feminine guile that she ordinarily scorned.

Photo of Amelia Earhart in 1935. Earhart played herself in a radio dramatization of her Honolulu to Oakland flight. The program aired in three segments on NBC Radio. Public Domain

“She came into the office,” Bruno said, “and she was pretty, well—she was an unhappy girl. She said, ‘I don’t know how it happened, but I guess I’m all washed up.’”

Bruno asked her how much she needed. “I don’t know,” she told him. “Let’s call George.” G. P. said he thought thirty thousand dollars in addition to what he himself could raise would be enough. Bruno called Vincent Bendix, who said, “For Amelia, with pleasure,” and offered twenty thousand dollars. Floyd Odium gave another ten thousand. Master financier and friend of FDR, Bernard Baruch, gave twenty-five hundred dollars and Richard Byrd, in spite of his falling out with G. P., gave fifteen hundred. He was returning, he said, the gift that Amelia had once made to his South Pole expedition, her fee for the cigarette endorsement that had aroused so much criticism of the nation’s newest heroine back in 1928.

Paul Mantz could not help. He still owed her fifty-five hundred dollars from their partnership deal in United Air Service and he had just lost a damage action for four thousand dollars compensation for a United plane wrecked by renters, a suit in which Amelia testified as an expert witness.

In addition to money from friends, Amelia earned whatever she could. She agreed to an appearance on a popular radio network program, the Kraft Music Hour, with Bing Crosby, actor John Barrymore, G. P., and Mantz. In mid-April she signed a contract with Harcourt, Brace and Company to write a book on the flight. New arrangements for cacheted mail were made with Gimbels. The first lot of sixty-five hundred, retrieved from the Electra and sent back to Oakland, were restamped, “Held over in Honolulu following takeoff accident of March 20, 1937.” On April 24 she appeared in the store’s eleventh floor restaurant to boost the sale of an additional one thousand covers.

Not all of Amelia’s attention centered on the flight. She took time to make the best arrangements she could for her sister and her mother. There was very little she could do for Muriel, who had changed her mind about divorcing Albert. Muriel needed money and Amelia did not have any to give. For a fee Muriel had given a national network radio interview three days after the Honolulu crackup, one in which she had said that Amelia looked much younger than she because, “taking care of a house and two children is more care, it would seem, than flying solo across the Atlantic,” and “there were times when even the best behaved children tire you.” Muriel also claimed that she knew how to fly but her duties as a housewife and mother did not allow her time to get a pilot’s license. Amelia said nothing about the interview, although it must have annoyed her. Instead she sent Muriel clothing and shoes and used, but expensive, curtains and blankets.

It was both more imperative and easier to provide for her mother. By mid-April Amelia had moved her from the Morrisseys’ in Medford to the new house at Toluca Lake. She intended it to be Amy’s permanent home.

On May 2 Amelia returned to California from her last trip to New York. The day before, her picture had appeared on the cover of McCalls magazine with the accolade, “America’s Great Women: Amelia Earhart, Who Spanned an Ocean and Won a World.” She had generated a flurry of publicity for the world flight, signed a book contract, and completed her sales pitch for the covers sold by Gimbels. Her will was made, her mother settled in California.

Amelia’s personal affairs were in far better order than the flight arrangements. Harry Manning, whose leave from the U.S. Lines would expire before the Electra could be repaired, was dropped from the flight. Manning was no great loss but the BAC’s William Miller was. He was sent on an assignment to New Zealand and Australia.

The only man with the same gifts as Miller—pilot and master of detail and government regulations—who was still with the flight was Jacques de Sibour. He had already sent along information on weather conditions in the eastern hemisphere and west coast of Africa and a complete set of aerodrome maps for all points plus emergency landing grounds along the Arabian coast. He had even asked the Cairo office to prepare a letter in Arabic stating that Amelia was on an important mission on behalf of King George VI and was not to be harmed, just in case she made a forced landing in Arabian territory.

Photo of Amelia Earhart and Dr. Edward C. Elliott, president of Purdue University as Earhart with the Lockheed Electra she later disappeared in. Purdue University paid for the plane as Earhart was then a consultant on aeronautics there. Public Domain

But Vicomte de Sibour was in London and control of the flight was in the hands of two men who did not like or trust each other—George Palmer Putnam and Paul Mantz. G. P. was neither as patient nor as prompt as Miller with paperwork. Not until eleven days before Amelia was to take off on her second world flight attempt did he write to the BAC chief, Colonel Johnson, that weather conditions had required changing her flight direction. He had, he said, notified the Navy, Coast Guard, and departments of Interior and State that Amelia would be flying from west to east this time, but the State Department wanted a new letter of authorization from Johnson. Johnson gave it and the State Department concurred just three days before the flight began.

In spite of the tension between G. P. and Mantz, they did agree on hiring Fred Noonan as navigator. Mantz thought he was good and Putnam knew he was cheap. Amelia did not want him. Albert Bresnik, hired by G. P. to do all of Amelia’s publicity photographs for the world flight, was sure of this. Already well-known for his portraits of film stars, the seventeen-year-old Bresnik had fallen in love with this “genius in a farm woman’s body whose radiance made her beautiful.” He watched her every move, listened to everything she said. He was certain she did not trust Noonan.

Noonan had done nothing to reassure Amelia. Divorced from his first wife in Mexico a few days before he left with Amelia on the flight to Honolulu, Noonan married again two weeks after they returned to California. A week later, he was one of the drivers in a two-car collision in which his wife was seriously injured. The other driver was a thirtyseven-year-old woman with an infant passenger. No official charges were made against Noonan but Amelia could not be sure that he was keeping his promises of sobriety.

Amelia told her secretary, Margot DeCarie, that she really wanted to go alone, that too many people were involved in the flight. When DeCarie asked her why she didn’t do what she wanted, Amelia said, “We cannot always do as we wish.” DeCarie thought she seemed “discontented” and far from as resigned as she claimed.

G. P. and Mantz both wanted her to take Noonan as navigator. Amelia knew that if she refused, Noonan’s reputation as an alcoholic would make it almost impossible for him to find other work. Her friend Cochran thought she was too poor a navigator to go without expert help. Noonan was good, Cochran said, but good navigation might not be enough. He could probably bring the plane to within two or three miles of Howland but she still didn’t see how Amelia, “without dumb luck . . . was going to hit that island.” Howland, Cochran insisted, was no bigger than the Cleveland airport.

Amelia spent most of the last three weeks she was on the West Coast at Indian Palms. Cochran had hoped that riding, swimming, and enough sleep would improve Amelia’s health, but feared that her friend was still too tired and frail for such a demanding flight. Although Amelia insisted she was doing it because she wanted to, Cochran thought her decision was not so much self-willed as determined by “some inner compulsion beyond her control.” Once Amelia had made up her mind, Cochran did whatever she could to help her prepare for the flight.

Gene Vidal was also concerned about Amelia. Suspecting she might be going through an early menopause, Vidal was certain that she was tired of G. P. and of the constant exposure to the public that he asked of her. Vidal was in Washington but kept in touch by mail and telephone. A few days before Amelia left Oakland she sent him a thank you note for his “sweet giftie ... as attractive and useful as can be,” but made no mention of what it was. It might have been underdrawers. His son Gore said that although G. P. thought Amelia wore his boxer shorts when she was flying, in fact, she wore Vidal’s jockey shorts. In a second note Amelia thanked Vidal for calling her and told him she expected to take off on May 21.

The Electra was ready on May 19, completed by a Lockheed crew that worked overtime, time they donated to Amelia. On May 21 she flew it from Burbank to Oakland, where the stamped covers were secretly put aboard. G. P., Noonan, and McKneely were with her. Mantz was not. He was in St. Louis, flying competitive aerobatics at an air meet, when he heard on the radio that she was in Oakland. He was very concerned.

Mantz thought she needed more time, time in which he could give her power settings for fuel consumption on each leg of the journey. He also was dissatisfied with the five-hundred-kilocycle band on her radio, which could provide a second, backup system to the Bendix homing device that was relatively unfamiliar to Coast Guard radiomen. They would want the five-hundred-kilocycle frequency in use for emergency SOS calls at sea and the Electra’s telephone-radio did not have enough power on the five-hundred band for direction finders on the ground or on ships at sea to get a “fix” on the plane. When Mantz asked Western Electric experts for advice, he was told a trailing wire at least 250 feet long should be used. In St. Louis he remembered how Amelia had complained about the nuisance of reeling out the long wire every time she was airborne and he worried. G. P., with his moneymaking schemes, had won the battle for Amelia’s time and attention. She was leaving without the guarantees Mantz thought essential for the flight’s success.
Photograph showing Amelia Earhart sitting in the cockpit of an Electra airplane. Public Domain
At Oakland on May 21 Amelia told reporters that she was on a leisurely shakedown cruise to Miami to test the Electra’s equipment, explaining her lack of candor later by repeating her career-long insistence that announced flight plans brought accusations of publicity-seeking and of cowardice if the flight was cancelled.

That same afternoon she flew to Tucson, where backfire after landing touched off a blaze in one of the engines. It was extinguished immediately, but while Mantz worried about the radio and fuel charts, Amelia was more concerned about the aircraft itself. She asked for a full, overnight checkup. Although the Electra’s record as a ten-passenger commercial aircraft was good, her plane had had more than its share of malfunctions. Before the 1936 Bendix race, the oil seals leaked and during the race the hatch blew off. In January one engine, then the other, had ignited while mechanics were warming them for takeoff at San Francisco. In February Mantz reported that the Lockheed crew was working day and night on “unavoidable difficulties,” and that the Sperry people would have to fix the horizon, which was causing a five-degree turn every ten or fifteen minutes. Before the crackup in Hawaii, the Pratt and Whitney man claimed the propeller bearings were dry.

From Tucson Amelia flew to New Orleans, where she was met by Ninety-Niner and ex-Navy nurse Edna Gardner. Probably the best and certainly the most competitive woman pilot in closed-circuit racing, Gardner disliked G. P. She was certain he manipulated Amelia for his own benefit and that after making a fortune publicizing Lindbergh he found another hero-figure to exploit in Amelia. “When he asked her to promote a plane or a project,” she said, “she would do it. With not enough experience, not enough [flying] hours, she had the courage to do it.

It was almost six o’clock on a Saturday night when the Electra landed at Shushan (now Lakefront) Airport in New Orleans. After Amelia and G. P. checked into the airport hotel, they had dinner with Gardner, Noonan, and the airport manager. “He [G. P.] was so domineering and so pushy,” Gardner said. “We were at dinner and Amelia was saying something about her radio and he said, ‘You had a chance to change. It’s too late now.’”

When Gardner saw Amelia, who looked very tired and pale, lower her head and stare at her plate, she heard G. P. say, “Stop your sniveling.” “She wasn’t sniveling,” Gardner said, “she just sat there and he was just as cruel as he could be, right in front of all of us.”

Amelia told him that she thought she might never complete the flight. “It’s not a premonition,” she said, “just a feeling.”
At Miami the next morning Amelia brought the Electra in for a near crash landing. A reporter who was there wrote that the “creak of metal could be heard all over the field as the big ship landed with a thud.” Emerging from the cockpit, her sunburned forehead wrinkled in mock astonishment, Amelia said, “I certainly smacked it down hard that time.”

When reporters asked her about her plans she lied again, telling them she had none and would stay several days in Miami while two technicians sent by Pan American district superintendent W. O. Snyder worked on the plane, particularly on the radio. After that, she said, she would return to Oakland and start on her world flight from there about the end of the month.

Amelia learned a few hours later that the bad landing was caused by shock absorbers that were improperly packed and leaked fluid all the way from New Orleans. Her troubles with the Electra were not over. She telegraphed to Mantz the next day that the fuel-flow gauge had a broken wire on the engine armature and the oil lines were still leaking. These were being repaired with a product used by Eastern Air, she told him.

At that time Carl Allen of the Herald Tribune was the only reporter informed of her plans to start the world flight from Miami. He met her there, bringing his Oakland notes for updating the story. Going over a checklist with her Allen noticed that the marine frequency radio operating on five hundred kilocycles with a Morse key was missing. “Oh,” she told him, “that was left off—when Manning had to drop out of the flight.” She explained to Allen that neither she nor Noonan could operate a Morse code key fast enough to justify carrying the extra weight. That left, as Mantz already knew, the only means of sending or receiving a “fix” on her location the five-hundred-kilocycle band on the Western Electric telephone-radio that required the 250-foot-long trailing antenna. Before the week was up, Amelia had done just what Mantz feared. She dropped the trailing wire. He did not learn about it until after she had left Miami, when a letter from G. P. informed him that the radio that gave them “unending trouble” was finally fixed by technicians in Miami, who decided the aerials were all too long and shortened them.

On May 29 Amelia announced her revised plans to the press. She would leave from Miami, flying east to west on Pan American’s regular route through the West Indies and along the east coast of South America. She would not, she said, use the code wireless set (she did not admit she had dumped it) but would depend entirely on voice broadcasts of her position on a daytime frequency of 6210 kilocycles and a nighttime one of 3105. Her only cargo was the six thousand five hundred original flight covers and two thousand more, stamped for the second attempt.

Amelia spent most of her time at the airport until Sunday, when Noonan persuaded her to go fishing for pompano. He had already charmed a Miami business man, W. Bruce Macintosh, into offering him an office, and when he told Macintosh that Amelia liked pompano, the Miami man and his wife, Lily, invited Noonan and Amelia to spend the day fishing on their boat. Macintosh noticed that Amelia was too distracted to do much fishing but she seemed to enjoy the outing, so much so that when he asked her about her departure time she told him she couldn’t say but suggested that he come to the airfield early Tuesday morning. He did, later claiming he was the last man to shake her hand before she left the country.

Other than this one Sunday, G. P. took over any time Amelia was not at the municipal airport. There were numerous interviews and news photography sessions, including one in which David and Nilla Putnam, who had come from Fort Pierce to say goodbye, were pictured. On May 31, Amelia’s last full day in Miami, G. P. escorted her to the Pan American operations base at Dinner Key to thank the mechanics and officials for their “splendid assistance.” They met Noonan there visiting his former colleagues after picking up two pairs of eyeglasses. He had broken his only pair, he said. He sat on them while driving to the airport.

Amelia and G. P. left Dinner Key without Noonan, for lunch with Harvey Firestone at his Miami Beach House. After lunch Amelia was supposed to spend the afternoon napping in her hotel room but she spent at least part of it at a dentist’s office where her upper right third molar was extracted “to cure headaches.”

A better cure for her headaches might have included a navigator with a reputation for sobriety, a single supervisor responsible for all aspects of the flight, more practice flying in the Electra, and a husband less eager to cash in on the flight. She had always insisted that anticipated dangers were seldom realized. This time she was not so sure. She had given Cochran a small, silk American flag, one she had carried on all her long-distance flights. When Cochran asked her to take it with her and autograph it when she returned, Amelia said, “No, you’d better take it now."

When she asked Carl Allen what her chances were, he said he thought about fifty-fifty. Amelia told him that she thought she might never complete the flight. “It’s not a premonition,” she said, “just a feeling.” Except for Noonan’s sake, this didn’t worry her, she said to Allen. “As far as I know, I’ve got only one obsession—a small and probably feminine horror of growing old—so I won’t feel completely cheated if I fail to come back."

Amelia Earhart: A Biography by Doris L. Rich is available from Smithsonian Books. Visit Smithsonian Books’ website to learn more about its publications and a full list of titles. 

Excerpt from Amelia Earhart: A Biography © Smithsonian Institution