Monday, October 26, 2009
I inherited my fascination with flight from my father who was a high school kid when World War II dominated the scene. He had dreams of flying back then. In many ways, it was an air war. But my dad’s dreams of piloting aircraft were never realized.
We made model airplanes together, and spent hours at the end of runways just watching the airplanes land. Dad’s sense of wonder rose up whenever a big old airliner approached the landing site. I can still hear him describe the sensation of take off in the new Boeing 707 on business trips; the power of four jet engines thrusting that big bird into the clouds. Impossible, he would say, but there it is. Take a look. The fact that those heavy steel machines could get off the ground at all was miracle enough for my Dad. He was a true believer.
So I read and re-read all the entries related to flight in our Compton’s Encyclopedia as a kid just in case I ever ended up in flight school. I wanted to have head start on my classmates. The basics of lift and drag and aerodynamics fueled my own dreams. Ailerons and rudders and instrument panels and flaps and trim tabs. Retractable gear. Vector navigation. I remember pouring over the maps with my rich-kid pal who secured a multi-engine rating just after he got his drivers license. We would map out our journey, factoring cross winds and fuel consumption. We’d fly his dad’s Cessna Skymaster all over Southern California.
So when I heard that there would be a movie about Amelia Earhart, I knew I’d be first in line on opening day – just like I did when the Howard Hughes movie was released (The Aviator).
Seeing the movie (starring Hilliary Swank as Amelia Earhart) is better than a trip to the museum. You get to see these old historic birds fly. She flew them all. The single engine speedster. The heavy seaplane. The tri-motor. And finally, the Lockheed Electra 10E. It is all right by me when the special effects kick in, computer generated graphics and the use of models. But then, this film, made by a purist, used real airplanes and real flight sequences. The Lockheed Electra in polished chrome with the radial engines sparkled in the sunlight. It called up all those memories from Compton’s Encyclopedia, complete with a musical score.
Amelia’s life was complicated. The focus and drive to break records and inspire are now the stuff of legend. Her personal life, too. Was hers a marriage of convenience (to fund the flying) or was it love? She was just a little girl when the Wright Brothers proved that it could be done. A child of the heady roaring twenties, she became one of those models of can-do Americanism during the dark depression years when the New Deal set the pace for innovation and hard work. After conquering the trans-Atlantic barrier, and the trans-continental, too, she set her sights on the impossible: circumnavigating the globe along the Equator. Twenty-four thousand miles. It had not been done before. She would be the first. And she nearly made it.
Except for the last great challenge. And there, she would be lost to history. Crossing the Atlantic was tough enough. But the Pacific. Wow. It would be nearly five thousand miles over water with but two stops. Howard Island and Hawaii. A few years before, she made the trip from California to Hawaii: two thousand miles over water.
But the two legs that presented the greatest challenge to this day seem entirely beyond reason. New Giunea to home in Oakland with those two unimaginable stops.
In May of 1937, she took off in Oakland, California to circle the globe. Then she crossed the Southern states, dropping down through Florida through the Cuban Islands to South America all the way to Brazil. There, she soared over the Atlantic to Africa, and across that Continent. Over the endless sand dunes of Saudi Arabia and on through India to Calcutta. From there she flew over Southeast Asia over the islands of Malaysia all the way to New Guinea. From there, she launched that impossible mission, along with her Navigator, Fred Noonan. (Map.)
And that’s the piece of her story that leaves me breathless. Howard Island is but four hundred fifty acres of dry land barely above sea level two thousand five hundred miles from Lae, Papua, New Guinea. It’s roughly half way over the open water to Hawaii. They built a makeshift runway on the Island just for her. The Navy vessel Itasca waited there with fuel brought in just for this momentous record-breaking project. They set up radio communication to assist her in the middle of the vast stretch of open sea. But make no mistake. Given the navigational tools available to her at the time; this was mission impossible.
It would be like flying from Cleveland to Bakersfield non-stop with no GPS, no radio navigation, no Omni stations and finding the campus of Bakersfield High. But think about it – no visual reference points, either. None. Twelve hours of wide-open, mind-numbing sea. Vector navigation. One tenth of a degree off with trade winds and air currents is all it takes and you’ll never see that little dot on the horizon. Worse still, you can’t see it on the horizon. It’s flat. You must be directly over it to catch it in your sights.
So she prepared for launch. And that’s when things went wrong. One after the other. Noonan the navigator slipped into his habit of drinking too much. Radios failed. Morse code, too. Late in the flight, the veteran pilot seemed disoriented in the few transmissions anyone could pick up. Radios went silent. Primitive locators failed to pinpoint her position. Howard Island never picked up a definitive signal. An intense search followed. No sign of Amelia, Fred or the Electra has been found to this day. She was barely forty years old.
The conspiracy theories still live. Like Elvis and John Lennon and JFK and Anastasia, post-death (in her case, [post-disappearance) sightings of Amelia abound. But like so many aviation stories, the ending is Shakespearian level tragedy.
So what do we take from Amelia on this Monday?
The common bromide, that at least she died at the stick in the captain’s left seat she loved, doesn’t do much for me. But her passion for flight. Her courage as a woman. Her instincts. Her ambitions. This is what we remember.
Pursuing your dreams is risky business. The dangers are real. Mistakes get made. The sky beckons still.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009