Patricia Nell Warren

Amelia Earhart: You have to think like a pilot

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | March 22, 2008 11:28 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, Politics, The Movement
Tags: search for Amelia Earhart, women's history

Some great women go on making headlines long after their deaths. Earhart is one of those. She's unforgettable for her efforts to make way for women in aviation -- and for her disappearance on July 3, 1937, after she and her navigator took off from Lae, New Guinea, during a record-setting flight around the world. Her Lockheed Electra 10E failed to show up at tiny Howland Island, midway between New Guinea and Hawaii, where they'd planned to land for refueling.

Many are the passionate theories about how and where Earhart and Noonan met their mystery end. I'm one of those people who are sure they know where the wrecked plane, and their remains, can be found.

A few years ago, after I published an article about Earhart's pioneering in sport aviation for, I was contacted by an Australian search-and-recovery group who had read my piece on the Web. They believed they have the documentary evidence that nobody else has. The evidence: an aluminum tag with some engineering data stamped on it.

Here's how they found that clue. In 1945 in New Guinea, during the closing days of World War II, an Australian platoon returned from a patrol on the island of New Britain. They made a report on an old plane-wreck site that they'd stumbled across in the jungle. The little tag was visible inside one of the mangled engines, and they'd taken it with them. Paperwork on their report was duly shared with Australia's ally, the U.S., who replied that the engine was probably a Pratt & Whitney Wasp, and the aircraft a Lockheed Electra. Later notes were jotted on the patrol map, including the cryptic words "CN 1055."

After a brief flurry of interest, the wreck was evidently forgotten amid the closing throes of war with Japan. After all, the South Pacific was riddled with plane wrecks by then.

Not till the 1990s did one of the four surviving Aussie platoon veterans find himself watching a TV documentary about the ongoing search for Amelia Earhart. The elderly sergeant listened as the film told of the Wasp engines on Earhart's plane, and he suddenly had the hair-raising thought that the mysterious wreck they'd found so long ago might be Earhart's Electra.

Since then, an Australian search-and-recovery organization, the Papua New Guinea Group, has formed around the still-living elderly eyewitnesses. The PNGG is headed by aircraft engineer David Billings of Brisbane. Billings was the one who found my Earhart article on the Web, and emailed to tell me about their work, and his solution of the CN 1055 mystery. CN 1055 turned out to be the construction number for Earhart's plane, meaning it was # 55 to be built by Lockheed in their 10 series. Lockheed would have stamped it on the tag after they made repairs to Earhart's engines in 1937, prior to the commencement of her last flight.

The PNGG have made a series of ongoing expeditions back to New Britain. They've searched the general area methodically, and feel they're closing in on the wreck site, which was half-buried in deep rain forest some miles inland on the northeast end of the island, about 40 miles from the port and airfield at Rabaul.

Other Earhart searchers pooh-pooh the Australian theory. The U.S. government's official story is that Earhart ran out of fuel while searching for Howland Island, and her plane crashed and sank in the deep ocean. One group, TIGHAR, believes that Earhart flew on to the neighboring Phoenix Islands and crash-landed on a small atoll there. Other groups believe that the U.S. sent Earhart to spy on Japanese installations in the Marshall Islands, where she was captured and executed. Millions of dollars have been spent on these searches, but they have found no conclusive evidence. Yet there are always big headlines whenever one of these searches announces their latest effort.

However, when the Wall Street Journal recently featured the Earhart wreck as one of the "seven missing wonders of the world," along with Genghis Khan's tomb and the Ark of the Covenant, the newspaper mentioned growing interest in the PNGG search. After all, it is the only search effort with some real documentary evidence of the wreckage, and where it might be located. After Billings contacted me, I read just about everything ever written about Earhart's disappearance, and I am now associated with the PNGG and share their conviction.

Indeed, there are four July 3 radio messages that support the PNGG's case, that were picked up by radio operators on Nauru, over 1000 miles to the west of Howland. The messages prove that Earhart was still in the air many hours after she supposedly crashed and sank near Howland.

How would Earhart wind up in New Britain, more that 2000 miles west of where she was supposed to land?

Pilots tell me, "You have to think like a pilot to figure out Earhart's story." In 1937, air navigation and radio communications were still in their infancy. The South Pacific was still a vast blue terra incognita that had only a few airfields around its perimeters. Its groups of tiny islands were almost lost in vast expanses of open water. In 1937 the South Pacific had never been overflown. Hence the challenge that Earhart was ready to take.

After the July 2 take-off from Lae, Earhart's radio messages reveal that she and her navigator ran into worsening weather, radio and navigation problems. Early the next morning, as they were supposed to be nearing Howland, they evidently realized they were lost over those vast empty waters. It's a life-and-death rule in aviation, when you get in trouble, that you turn around and head back before you've used half your fuel. So, rather than continuing to search for a pinpoint island out ahead in that vastness, with nothing but empty Pacific beyond, she evidently headed back towards New Guinea, where the map guaranteed that she would run into large land masses. She could hardly miss New Guinea -- the total area is almost as big as Texas. The nearest airfield, at that point, was the one on New Britain, at Rabaul.

David Billings has spent years studying Electra fuel-usage. Earhart's aircraft carried 1150 gallons -- enough to fly well over 4000 miles, according to data from other flights. If Earhart powered down to the slowest possible airspeed, so her engines were burning only 10 gallons an hour each -- a thing she'd done on a previous long flight -- she would ration her fuel well enough to reach New Britain. Tragically, it appears that she ran out of gas just 40 miles from the Rabaul airstrip, and the plane crashed into the rain forest.

Earhart dreamed of a future for women pilots in commercial aviation and peacetime air exploration. It took half a century for her dream to come true. But today the planet is laced with air routes, and many women pilots are out there flying passenger planes, cargo planes, emergency aircraft. Women routinely compete in air racing today. Even the women astronauts are her spiritual daughters. Beyond aviation, Earhart's life has inspired countless women to excel and pioneer in other fields as well.

Meanwhile, the New Britain search goes on. When that wrecked aircraft is found -- and if we think like a pilot -- we can finally get some clarity on the last 24 hours of Earhart's life. It was surely her finest hour as an aviator. She will inspire us all over again with that fierce struggle to save her own life and that of her navigator, as she flew against ever-mounting odds across 2000 miles of unforgiving ocean.

Ironically, Earhart's final, fatal failure is what stamped her successes so vividly and unforgettably into our consciousness of women's history.

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Wow - this is a really cool post, Patricia. I've never really heard much about Earhardt. But I LOVE conspiracy theories, so now you have me all intrigued.

So I'm curious, was she a lesbian?

Well, she certainly was a feminist.

Many LGBT historians like to claim Amelia Earhart. I discuss her orientation in my LAVENDER LOCKER ROOM piece about her, and share that feeling that she was a lesbian, though the early 1900s was not a time when it was possible to come out.

Many of the pioneering women pilots that Earhart associated with, like Pancho Barnes and Bobbie Trout, seemed to be "orientationally unconventional" as well. Helen Richie, who was often Earhart's co-pilot in the national air races, was known to be a lesbian. Richie later committed suicide after she was prevented from joining the commercial pilots' union.

It was Earhart's outrage over this union issue that pushed her to undertake that last world flight -- she was determined to prove that women pilots could deliver in commercial aviation.

Earhart married publicist George Putnam, but it was pretty clearly a marriage of convenience, and they never had children.

I had heard, somewhere, that she and Noonan was or had been an item. She might have been bi, only her hairdresser knows for sure.

The story that she was captured and later executed by the japanese is pretty common. I hadn't heard the part about her spying for the government, though that is possible. Even if she wasn't spying, anti-western feeling among the japanese military was such that, if they had of gotten hold of her, odds were good she would have been executed anyway on general princibles.

Thanks for the article Patricia, Earheart has always been one of my heroes.

There were also rumors about Earhart and veteran pilot Paul Mantz, her advisor for the world flight. Somehow I doubt that Earhart was an item with anybody masculine. For one thing, she never seemed as interested in men as she was in women. Even her closest friendships were with other women -- pilot Jackie Cochran and others. I also think that rumors about men were encouraged by Earhart associates who wanted to put a stop to rumors that she was a lesbian.

About the Japanese spying rumors -- they've gotten a lot of attention over the years. To me, they're not very credible. For one thing, Earhart was too high-profile to be effective as a spy. For another thing, the time schedule would have had her overflying the Marshalls at night, when she couldn't have seen or photographed anything of value. This was 1937 -- the camera technology of the day wasn't up to night spying.

What Earhart WAS doing for the government was working on testing and development of radio navigation and radio direction finders. It was publicly known that she had a contract with the Department of Commerce. Her work with them was said to have a peacetime purpose, for development of trade and travel in the South Pacific. Her aircraft was outfitted with a late-model RDF device that was intended to help the Coast guard support people at Howland guide her to the tiny island.

However, it's clear that the government had top-secret military intentions with radio navigation. They already knew the U.S. would eventually be at war with the Japanese Empire. The Allies and the Japanese were already building aircraft carriers during World War I, but the Japanese were ahead on carrier design. The ability of American pilots to navigate their way to pointpoint destinations and land safely -- like the deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific -- would be a key technology in the coming war.

So on July 2, 1937, flying Earhart's plane to a tiny island not much bigger than a carrier was the task...and the government blew it big time. There were snafus and miscommunications, the hardware was not reliable, and Earhart was unfortunately not as well trained in radio operation as she should have been. She has been blamed for this, but in my opinion the U.S. Navy was at fault. They were supposedly the experts, and it was their show...they should never have let her take off without sending her to radio boot camp.

So things went terribly wrong that day, leaving Earhart stranded in the air, unsure of her position and unable to shake hands with her radio ground support.

The loss of Earhart and Noonan evidently left the U.S. military aghast at the realization that their RDF operations were not nearly as reliable as they'd thought.

I believe that the myth of Earhart spying on the Japanese really has its roots in this real-life connection of hers with radio navigation research.

Considering the amount of time the services put their own pilots through in order for them to qualify, you would think that they would have done some dry runs before sending her aloft to test the equipment.

Of course this was during a time where everything the military did was on a shoestring, so I guess it is hard to say.

Of course we could always choose to believe that she flew through a space warp, wound up on a planet far far away, and eventually was found by the crew of the Voyager.

Is my Trekkieness showing through much. ;)

Hmmmm! I crashed the plane on an island occupied by the japanese and was captured and tortured by geisha girls. after my escape. i gave up girls and in later life found myself attracted to men. the secret is out... i am amelia earhart. or is it the lindberg baby? i get confused...

Jer - you're definitely the Lindberg baby.

Thanks for this Patricia. When we talked on the phone about this, you got me so excited about Amelia that I had to go look her up online and read all about her.

Great Women's History Month post. I was hoping you'd profile her in a post. :)

Yes, one would have thought that there'd be dry runs on this.

But early aviation had been a bit slapdash. Pilots, and the military, got away with things in the 1920s and the early-model aircraft, which were made of wood and cloth and didn't fly very fast, and you navigated by dead reckoning and a road map. If you were a combat pilot, you reached out the window and dropped your bombs by hand. If things went wrong, you were usually flying over land, so you crash-landed in a cow pasture and more often than not you walked away from the wreck in one piece.

But in the 1930s, planes went metallic and faster, way more sophisticated and less forgiving. Radio navigation (which had become routine with ships) entered the picture for pilots, along with a great deal more over-water flying. The risks soared, but the slapdash attitude lived on for a few more years.

It's clear that Earhart carried some 1920s attitude into the world flight. She had flown the Atlantic solo, missed her destination and landed in a cow pasture in Ireland. But the Pacific flight was a huge stretch beyond Atlantic-hopping -- a vaster distance, with no large land masses waiting ahead to make navigation a little safer.

Earhart herself did some underestimating. Her original plan was to make the entire world flight solo, because she thought she'd get more credit for women if she did everything herself. All her advisors were horrified at the idea, especially the escalated risk of the New Guinea-Hawaii leg -- 5000+ miles over water, with no handy cow pastures to land in, and the pilot trying to do everything -- fly, manage the fuel, operate the radio, navigate, stay awake, etc. Earhart reluctantly gave in to everybody's insistence that she take a navigator along, and Fred Noonan was one of the best.

However, it's also pretty clear that many people in the Coast Guard and the military had a bit of slapdash in their approach as well. Few had any idea just how hazardous the Lae-Howland hop was going to be for much potential there was for a perfect storm of things going wrong, considering their reliance on a radio technology that was relatively untried in aviation and whose science was still poorly understood.

Of course it's easy to read about all this today, and second-guess. There's a lot that historians and Earhart buffs know about this flight today that even Earhart didn't know. For instance, we have the vital weather reports that failed to reach Earhart and Noonan before they took off from Lae. The reports missed getting to her because of the haphazard nature of communications among the few small radio stations that dotted the South Pacific.

When I lived on Kwaj in the Marshall islands there was a stroy that she had been held prisoner there right up to just prior to the invasion. And that her plane was still there but ordered destroyed by the US Army. So yes there are lots of stories about her in the Pacfic.

Either way she has been one of those women in history that I have admired for being there selfs and doing it there way when that was not the norm.She was married but I think it was more a marraige of convenice.

Cathy, there is a fascinating book written about this subject. In the 1960s, CBS reporter Fred Goerner spend several years researching in the Marshalls and on Saipan, with CBS support.

Goerner's book is still around. You can probably find a used copy on He was not able to verify anything about this theory...but he sure tried hard.

I must admit that I have not followed her history enough to make proclaiments about her sexual orientation. Though I thought it should be mentioned that people in the poly community are claiming her as poly. Her prenuptial agreement is seen as evidence of that.

It's also interesting to note that there is a clause that will let them dissolve the marriage if happiness is not found after a year -- which would suggest that she found or at least expected to find happiness with her husband (in addition to anyone else in her life), and perhaps it was not just a marriage of convenience.

Thanks for all the additional info, Patricia. This is so fascinating. As if I needed yet another obsession.

Virgil Walker | July 28, 2009 10:06 PM

Everyone knows that Earhart, despite her "marriage" to Putnam, was, in fact, a flaming dyke.

Mrs Patrice:
I express my heartfelt emotion for having read his book: "The Front Runner" I have a firm purpose in life and that is: Once in a life to embrace and mourn with you for your great story. Curiously, the son of Billy as my age would have the date in his book that this is the date of my birth. That's why I was born the day you finish reading your book and I hope soon, thanks to meet you. Reuben b. Mexico City