"There’s a call for you", the telephone operator, at Denison House, Boston, informed Amelia Earhart, a social worker.
"I’m too busy to attend to the call just now. Ask whoever is calling to try again", she told the operator.
"But", said the operator, "he says it’s urgent."
Reluctantly, she picked up the receiver. Over the phone crackled a male voice, "Hello, you don’t know me. My name is Railey… Captain H. H. Railey. Could you come to my office for an interview?"
"Not till I know what it’s all about", Amelia shot back.
"I’m thinking of a flight across the Atlantic. Would you be interested?" the man enquired.
Amelia’s heart instantly gained a faster beat. This sounded too good to be true. Amelia had done some flying. She believed that the true skill of a pilot lay in how one handled the airplane. She showed her control, at air shows, while performing breathtaking stunts.
Despite all these she had never thought of flying across the Atlantic.
"I’ll come", she told Railey.
The two met. Railey was taken in by her confidence and bearing. She reminded him of Charles Lindbergh. He rolled the name, in his mind, "Lady Lindy". That name stuck.
He told her of two experienced pilots, Wilmer Stulz and Louis Gordon, who would be flying a Fokker tri-motor
called The Friendship. Would she like to go along with them? "It’s a chance of a life time. You’d be the first woman to fly the Atlantic", Railey pointed out. Amelia agreed.
On 27 June 1928, The Friendship set out on the historic flight from Trepassey Bay, New Foundland. The plane ran in and out of fog and clouds, storms and cold icy winds. The radio didn’t function properly. One of the engines caused problems. The pilots got a scare when the fuel gauge indicated that the plane would remain airborne only for a couple of hours more. But luck favoured them. They touched down at Burry Port, in South Wales, England. They had covered 3420 km in 24 hours
Amelia became, overnight, a celebrity (Fig. 7.1). However, much she tried to share the credit with Stultz and Gordon, she received more accolades than the other two. President Coolidge sent her a message, "to you the first
WOMAN SUCCESSFULLY TO SPAN THE NORTH ATLANTIC BY AIR THE GREAT ADMIRATION OF MYSELF AND THE UNITED STATES".
Amelia asked herself, "What have I done to deserve all this?" The Editor of Flight, the leading British aviation magazine, expressed the same thought, "Well, the first lady passenger has crossed the Atlantic, by air, although what special merit there is in that is not altogether easy to set— The crossing of the Atlantic as a passenger doesn’t seem to us to prove anything in particular".
Amelia resolved, then, to prove herself. That chance came four years later.
One day, in 1932, Amelia and her husband George Putnam were having breakfast. She lifted her head, smiled
and asked George, "Would you mind if I flew the Atlantic solo?"
He smiled. "If you want it, dear", he replied. He felt elated at the spirit of adventure of his wife.
"I’m awfully proud of you. You could have tried to dissuade me. You trusted my judgement. You know I won’t attempt anything that I didn’t think I could do", she stretched out her hand tenderly. He pressed it warmly. That was the seal of approval.
Amelia consulted Bernt Balchen, a close friend, who was good at readying an aircraft for such a flight. Balchen reshaped the wings and the cabin to take in more fuel tanks so that the plane could take 1400 litres of fuel and fly a distance of 5100 km without refuelling. The plane was equipped with a drift indicator, and a set of compasses.
Amelia practised flying solely by instruments. She spent hours with a friend learning how best to draw fuel from various tanks so that the weight would remain balanced all through.
On 20 May 1932 (the date is significant. On this date, in 1927, Charles Lindbergh had started on his historic crossing of the Atlantic), she set out from Harbour Grace, New Foundland. The first test of her ability came within an hour. The altimeter failed. That was a major blow. She would never know the height at which she was cruising. Without that knowledge, it was difficult to fly by the instruments.
Within 4 hours came another problem. The exhaust pipe began to rattle. The vibrations made the flight eerie. Amelia peeped back and saw flames around the exhaust. Doubts began to creep in her mind. Should she turn back? She killed that thought, instantly. The plane flew into heavy clouds. To avoid them, Amelia ascended, only to find herself in the grip of icy winds. The plane slowed down, as ice gathered on the wings. Without warning, the plane began to spin.
During the spin, the plane lost about 940 m of height. Amelia recollected later, "How long we spun, I do not know. I do know that I did 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 whitecaps, too close for comfort".
From the icy region, the plane slipped into the clutches of clouds. Lower down lay fog. Each one was an enemy to the plane’s progress. Yet Amelia held on, all through the night.
Dawn came. With it came new problems. She turned on the reserve fuel tank. Then she noticed the leakage in the fuel gauge. Drops of fuel dripped into the cockpit. That was truly scary. The fire raging around the exhaust could ignite the dripping fuel. The plane could go up in flames. The vibration too was severe.
Amelia decided to end her flight as soon as she sighted land. Soon the plane flew over a railway track. After a few passes, she landed in a long sloping meadow. She climbed out of the plane. A farm worker ran to her. She asked him, "Where am I?" He replied, "In Gallegher’s pasture". (This was in Londonderry, Ireland. Paris, her original destination lay far away. However that didn’t matter. Amelia had crossed the Atlantic solo.)
"Have you come from afar?" he asked.
"From America", she replied.
She received a tickertape welcome, wherever she went. In London, she became the toast of the town. Paris spread the red carpet for her. In Belgium, the King and the Queen decorated Amelia with the Chevalier of the Order of Leopold. America honoured her with the Distinguished Flying Cross.
No longer could anyone twit her as a ‘passenger’. She had truly lived up to the name, ‘Lady Lindy’. She was the first woman (and the second person) to fly solo over the Atlantic.
"I admire your courage", an admirer told her.
"How can Life grant us the boon of living… unless we dare the soul’s dominion? Each time we make a choice, we pay with courage to behold the restless day, and count it fair", she noted.
Amelia could not sit on her laurels. There were new fields to be explored. Five years after her historic flight across the Atlantic, she decided to fly round the world, to take the longest possible route East to West. "Roughly it is from San Francisco to Honolulu; from Honolulu to Tokyo; (or Honolulu to Brisbane); the regular Australia-England route as far west as Karachi; from Karachi to Aden; Aden via Khartoum across Central Africa to Dakar; Dakar to Natal; and thence to New York on the regular Pan American route", she wrote to President Roosevelt.
A Lockheed Electra, a ten-seater aircraft, was chosen for the mission. The seats were removed. About half the cabin was filled with additional fuel tanks. It was equipped with modern gadgets to aid flight and communication. These included a periodic compass, a bubble sextant, a Pioneer Drift indicator, three chronometers, altimeter, air speed indicator, temperature gauge and a Benedix Direction finder as also flares, smoke bombs and special maps prepared to help the flight over regions, so far not clearly charted.
President Roosevelt directed the US Navy to ‘do what we can’. The Navy instructed the coast guard cutter S. S. Itasca, stationed at Howland, to maintain radio communication with the aircraft when it headed toward the narrow strip of land.
Amelia was fully conscious of the risks. She wrote to her husband, George Putnam, "I know that if I fail or if I am lost, you will be blamed for allowing me to leave on this trip; the backers of the trip would be blamed and everyone connected with it. But it’s my responsibility and mine alone".
On 1 June 1937, she set out from Miami, on the Electra. Fred J. Noonan was her navigator. The flight progressed, as per schedule. They reached Lae airport at Papua New Guinea, covering 35,000 km. There were two more laps, from Lae to Howland and Howland to Hawaii, a distance of 11,000 km to go.
On 2 July the plane took off from Lae Airport of Papua New Guinea for Howland Island, 4,200 km away. The time was 10 a. m. local time (12.30 p. m., 1 July, Howland time). The plane was expected to reach Howland Island in about 18 hours.
Howland is a narrow strip of land, about 32 km long and 1.2 km wide. Its greatest height above sea level is 4.5 m. It remains a speck in the ocean. The Naval ship S. S. Itasca waited at Howland. It remained in constant radio communication with the aircraft.
At 7.40 a. m. (Howland time) the aircraft contacted the ship. "Gas running low. We are flying at an altitude of 1,000 feet (300 m)". At 8.45 a. m. came the last message. "We are in line of position 157-337. We are listening on 3210 kilocycles".
That was the last message from the plane. Then it vanished into thin air.
What happened? Had the plane overshot the mark and crashed? If so, why was the wreckage of the plane not found around Howland, where a combing operation was organised? Or was there something more to it? Nobody knows. All that remains are the memories of the triumphs of Lady Lindy, the first lady of aviation.