Sunday, June 30, 2024


Amelia Earhart (1897–1937)
From Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight

Louis “Slim” Gordon (left), the mechanic and copilot of the Friendship, and Wilmer (Bill) Stultz, the plane’s pilot, pose with Amelia Earhart on the SS President Roosevelt during their return trip from England after their successful transatlantic flight in June 1928. Earhart referred to the steamship crossing as “our first ocean voyage” because “it was then that we came to realize how much water we had passed over in the Friendship. Eastbound the mileage had been measured over clouds, not water. There never had been adequate comprehension of the Atlantic below us.” The photo appears as the frontispiece of Earhart’s first book, 20 Hrs., 40 Mins. (1928).
Few American pilots are better known than Amelia Earhart, although her flying career lasted barely fifteen years. After graduating from high school in 1916 she tried nursing, college, medical studies, and photography, among other things, before an airplane trip inspired her to become an aviator. She began flying lessons in 1921 and the following year set the first of many records, a woman’s altitude record. In 1928 she was offered an opportunity that altered her life.

Amy Phipps Guest, an heir to a fortune but not a pilot, had bought a plane hoping to become the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air, but ultimately she decided the venture was too perilous. Publisher George P. Putnam, who had been associated with Guest’s plan, interviewed replacement candidates and Amelia Earhart was chosen. Although she already had accumulated over 500 hours as a pilot, it was not her flying skills but rather her personality and appearance that got her the position. Tall, lanky, and clean-cut, she looked very much like a female version of the newly famous Charles Lindbergh. After her flight the press jumped on that resemblance and dubbed her “Lady Lindy.” Although Earhart never touched the controls of the large, tri-motor plane, Friendship—“I was just baggage,” she said, “like a sack of potatoes”—her feat was hailed around the world. Putnam aggressively promoted the new celebrity, arranging extensive lecture tours and endorsement deals and publishing her book about the flight, 20 Hrs., 40 Mins.. He also fell in love with Earhart and eventually persuaded the pilot to marry him, although not without her reserving the right to leave the marriage if she didn’t find it comfortable.

Four years later Earhart would emulate Lindbergh’s feat and fly the Atlantic alone, and in 1935 she flew solo from Oakland, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii. But her name is most remembered today for her 1937 attempted flight around the world. On the last leg of that flight, a long hop from New Guinea to tiny Howland Island in the Central Pacific, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared. The U.S. Navy mounted an exhaustive search for the two flyers but found nothing. Three quarters of a century later, her disappearance still energizes conspiracy theorists and those intrigued by the mystery.

But there is little mystery regarding Earhart’s legacy: as a commentator wrote after her death, she “made flying thinkable to so many people.” In the 1920s and 1930s Americans were fascinated by developments in aviation but most were still afraid to fly; they would go up in a plane only if, as one wag famously put it, they could keep one foot on the ground. Earhart helped convince people that flying required neither superhuman strength nor death-defying courage. “Nothing impresses the safety of aviation on the public quite so much as to see a woman flying an airplane,” observed Earhart’s pilot friend, Louise Thaden; if a woman can handle it, “the public thinks it must be duck soup for men.” Earhart strongly rejected the bias inherent in such thinking and opened many doors by her example.

The above introduction is the headnote for this selection in Into the Blue: American Writing on Aviation and Spaceflight, edited by Joseph J. Corn. In “Across,” a chapter from 20 Hrs., 40 Mins. reprinted below, Earhart recounts the 1928 journey by alternating her log book entries with her post-trip thoughts and recollections.

Notes: Lord Dunsany was the Anglo-Irish author of more than ninety books, including the fantasy classic The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924). Skippy was a cartoon character created for Life magazine by Percy Crosby and eventually featured in a syndicated comic strip; in one strip, Skippy quips that Earhart flew in a plane because she was afraid of getting seasick. Earhart’s fur-lined coat for the trip was lent to her in Boston by Major Charles H. Woolley, an Air National Guard pilot “who [Earhart wrote] had no idea when he lent it what it was to be used for.” The three lines of French poetry quoted (and slightly altered) by Earhart are from “Je Vis” [“I Live”], from Les Clartés Humaines (1904) by Fernand Gregh: “J’aurai miré dans ma prunelle, / Petite minute éblouie, / La grande lumière éternelle.” In Ludwig Lewisohn’s translation: “I shall have mirrored in my eye, A brief and dazzling minute, The great eternal light.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the selection, in its entirety, below.
You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.


Log Book:
Sunday—At the present time we have been out an hour. Land has gone in the haze and we are almost into the fog bank which hangs always off the coast of Newfoundland. We have 1500 ft. and both boys are in the cockpit. Me, I am holding down a pile of flying suits, as we left every ounce we could spare at Trepassey and the three cushions were among the things discarded.
        We made three tries before we got off and went up from a heavy sea with one motor so wet it has just come in full recently. We had to throw out all our canned gas. We have only 700 gals. with us now.

That was the first entry in the log book following the actual take-off from Trepassey. We left the harbor about 11:15 in the morning, having waited until then for final weather reports. The villagers had seen us “start” so often they had lost faith, so there were only a few on shore to see the Friendship take the air.

I had left a telegram to be sent half an hour after we had gone.

“Violet. Cheerio.
“A. E.”

That was the message. The code word “Violet” meant “We are just hopping off.” That was our official good-bye to America.

Log Book:
A motion picture camera and the boys’ thermos bottle left. We have only the small thermos filled with coffee for the boys. I shan’t drink anything probably unless we come down.

By the way, our rations might be considered eccentric. About half of the five gallons of mineral water put on at Boston remained. There were three elephantine egg sandwiches. (Trepassey bread is home-­made in round loaves.) Eight or nine oranges survived from the original supply. A couple of tins of Drake’s oatmeal cookies were luxury. For emergency ration, we had a few tins of pemmican, a bottle of Horlick’s Malted Milk tablets, and some Hershey’s chocolate. And that, I think, completed the larder.

This ship takes off better in a fairly smooth sea, it seems. I have learned a lot and designers of pontoons have something to learn too.
        We are skimming the fluffy top of the fog now, having wobbled through to 2500 feet. Bill is at the controls until we get out of it. He thinks we shall pass through alternate storm areas and clears the whole distance. Wisps of cloud flit past the windows of the cabin. Sometimes the fog obscures everything.
        We are climbing fast to crawl over now. Almost 3000 ft.!
        There is very blue sky above and when last I saw H2O it was also brilliant.
        As we left Newfoundland we flew about 1000 ft. over the land. I watch the shapes of the many lakes, large and small, which cover the terrain. Two are gigantic footprints; another a buffalo—another a prehistoric animal.
        There were many “things” depicted with lumpy paws and flat head and the usual accumulation of abnormalities belonging to the genus Thing. 3300 ft. Over an extensive cushion of fleecy fog.
        Bill has been at radio and writes CEV to me. I grab call book and find SS. Elmworth is calling.
        Soon Cape Race asks how things are going.
        We are at 5000 now getting out of fog, but into a storm. A flurry of snow just passed below. I can see clear weather to right, but not ahead. Temperature back here 42 degrees. I am not cold, as I got used to cold in Trepassey.
        Speaking of Fog again, I know Dunsany would like to see the world above the earth. Irish fogs have been described in detail, and their bilious effect, and their fairies and their little people. But no one has written of a bird’s-eye view of one from an imaginative eye.
        I may not be cold, but my coat will make me more comfortable.
        4000 ft. More than three tons of us hurtling through the air. We are in the storm now. 3 tons is shaken considerably.

People are so likely to think of planes as frail craft that I draw attention to this entry. Friendship weighs 6000 pounds empty, and on the flight she carried about her own weight again.

Log Book:
Bill is nosing her down, all motors wide.
        We are bucking a head wind and rain. Heaviest storm I have ever been in, in the air, and had to go through. The sea below looks fairly placid, but of course the surface appears flat from 3000.

A surprising element of flying, at first, is the flatness of the earth’s contours as seen from above—even sizeable hills dwarf. This tendency gives one a feeling of security and a comfortable belief that a safe landing can be made almost anywhere.

“The higher the safer” is a good adage. The air itself isn’t dangerous, as I have said before. The greater the altitude, the larger the pilot’s choice in picking and being able to reach a landing field in an emergency.

Don’t ask a pilot to stay close to the ground, unless he is flying over geographical billiard tables.

Log Book:
I see some clear sea ahead and the air is getting bumpy, as one would expect between areas of cloud and sun. Slim comes back to say snow is in the air. I know it.
        I have just come back from sitting up front. Slim at the controls with Bill advising him. Bill has homing pigeon sense of direction. . .  . He tells Slim to keep at 106.
        We have been out of snow a long while now and the sun is shining and the water blue as far as one can see. There are some clouds ahead—what, I don’t know. They look high and white.

Those clouds ahead continued from there on. Not again on the flight did we see the ocean. Skippy was right—it was no sea voyage.

Log Book:
140 m.p.h. now. Wonderful time. Temp. 52. The heater from cockpit warms the cabin too.
        Bill says radio is cuckoo. He is calling now.
        There is so much to write. I wonder whether ol’ diary will hold out.
        I see clouds coming. They lie on the horizon like a long shore line.
        I have just uncurled from lying on Major Woolley’s suit for half an hour. I came off this morn with such a headache that I could hardly see. I thought if I put it to sleep it might get lost in the billows of fog we are flying over.
        There is nothing to see but churned mist, very white in the afternoon sun. I can’t see an end to it. 3600 ft. temp. 52, 45 degrees outside. I have et a orange, one of the originals. At T. our infrequent oranges came from Spain, under-nourished little bloods.

Very “original” those oranges, almost historic! They were purchased in Boston in the dark ages of the Friendship’s take-offs. In the three unsuccessful efforts during that fortnight of disappointments, they went out to the ship with us each morning and came back again to the hotel. But sturdy oranges they proved to be, and nearly a month later were still in good form when they finally found a place on our mid-Atlantic menu.

On the trans-Atlantic flight three oranges, appropriately from California, comprised my full bill-of-fare with the exception of probably a dozen malted milk tablets. The sandwiches and the coffee I left to the boys. Somehow I wasn’t hungry and, curiously, at the end of the trip there still wasn’t any particular desire for food.

Log Book:
4:15. Bill has just opened the motor to climb over this fog. We are 3800 and climbing.
        Creatures of fog rear their heads above the surroundings. And what a wallop we get as we go through them.
        Bill has just picked up XHY British Ship Rexmore, which gives us bearing. 48 no. 39 west 20:45 GMT. The fog is growing patchy and great holes of ocean can be seen. XHY will inform NY of our position.
        As I look out of the window I see a true rainbow—I mean the famous circle. It is of course moving at our speed and is on our right, sun being to port a trifle. I have heard of color circles in Hawaii.
        The sun is sinking behind a limitless sea of fog and we have a bright rainbow, a fainter ring and, if I am not seeing things, a third suggestion on the edge. The middle is predominately yellow with a round grey shadow in the center. Is it caused from us or our props?

This is not an unknown phenomenon. Subsequently I learned the rainbows were caused by our propellers.

Log Book:
I do believe we are getting out of fog. Marvellous shapes in white stand out, some trailing shimmering veils. The clouds look like icebergs in the distance. It seemed almost impossible to believe that one couldn’t bounce forever on the packed fog we are leaving. The highest peaks of the fog mountains, (oh, we didn’t get out) are tinted pink, with the setting sun. The hollows are grey and shadowy. Bill just got the time. O.K. sez he. 10:20 London time my watch. Pemmican is being passed or just has been. What stuff!
        The pink vastness reminds me of the Mojave Desert. Also:

        J’ai miré dans ma prunel
        Petite minute éblouie
        La grande lumière éternele.

(Bill gets position. We are out 1096 miles at 10:30 London time,)—and having done so he is content to die. I wish I had that poem here.
        One of the greatest sights is the sun splashing to oblivion behind the fog, but showing pink glows through apertures in the fog. I wish the sun would linger longer. We shall soon be grey-sheathed.
        We are sinking in the fog.
        4000 ft.
        The light of the exhausts is beginning to show as pink as the last glow of the sky. Endless foggies. The view is too vast and lovely for words. I think I am happy—sad admission of scant intellectual equipment.
        I am getting housemaid’s knee kneeling here at the table gulping beauty.

I was kneeling beside the chart table, which was in front of the window on the port side. Through it I looked northward. It was at this time that I took several photographs.

On the starboard side of the plane was another window. The table itself, a folding device, was Bill’s chart table on which he made his calculations. Close by was the radio. Even though one could stand up in the cabin, the height of the table was such that to see out of the window one had to lean on the table or kneel beside it. There was nothing to sit on, as sitting equipment had been jettisoned to save weight.

Log Book:
The sea for a space. Hooray. Slim has just hung a flashlight up for illuminating the compass. This light makes the radium impossible to see. Soon it will be dark enough without the flash.

The faint light of the radium instruments is almost impossible to see in dawn or twilight, when it is neither dark enough for the contrast of the radium to show nor light enough to see the numerals themselves.

Log Book:
It is about 10. I write without light. Readable?

Have you tried to write in the dark? I remember sitting up in bed at school composing themes after lights. During those night hours on the Friendship the log was written with the help of my good left thumb. I would not turn on the electric light in the after cabin lest it blind Bill at the controls. And so I pencilled my way across the page of the diary thankful for that early training with those better-late-than-never themes. The thumb of my left hand was used to mark the starting point of one line. The problem of this kind of blind stenography is knowing where to start the next line. It didn’t always work. Too often lines piled up one on the other and legibility suffered.

Log Book:
The sea was only a respite. Fog has followed us since. We are above it now. A night of stars. North the horizon is clear cut. To the south it is a smudge.
        The exhausts send out glowing meteors.
        How marvellous is a machine and the mind that made it. I am thoroughly occidental in this worship.
        Bill sits up alone. Every muscle and nerve alert. Many hours to go. Marvellous also. I’ve driven all day and all night and know what staying alert means.
        We have to climb to get over fog and roughness.
        Bill gives her all she has. 5000 ft. Golly how we climb. A mountain of fog. The north star on our wing tip. My watch says 3:15. I can see dawn to the left and still a sea of fog. We are 6000 ft. high and more. Can’t read dial.
        Slim and I exchange places for a while. All the dragons and sea serpents and monstrosities are silhouetted against the dawn.
        9000 ft. to get over them.
        The two outboard motors picked up some water a while ago. Much fuss.
        At least 10,000 ft. 13 hrs. 15 min. on way.
I lose this book in Major Woolley’s pockets. There are too many.

Big enough, that suit, to lose myself in it. Size 40, and fur lined. It is returned now, appropriately autographed. The Major has threatened to stuff and place it in a museum

Log Book:
Still climbing. I wish the sun would climb up and melt these homogeneous teddy-­bears.

Beside these grotesques in the fog, which we all remarked, there were recurrent mountains and valleys and countless landscapes amazingly realistic. Actually when land itself did appear we could not be sure that it was not an illusion too. It really took some moments to become convinced that it was reality.

Log Book:
Slim has just changed bats in the flashlight hanging over the compass.

The compass was hung rather low, so far from Bill’s eye that it was difficult to read its illuminated face. So Slim arranged a flash light focussed on it.

Log Book:
We are going down. Probably Bill is going through. Fog is lower here too. Haven’t hit it yet, but soon will so far as I can see from back window. . . . Everything shut out.
        Instrument flying. Slow descent, first. Going down fast. It takes a lot to make my ears hurt. 5000 now. Awfully wet. Water dripping in window. Port motor coughing. Sounds as if all motors were cutting. Bill opens her wide to try to clear. Sounds rotten on the right.
        3000 ft. Ears not so painful. Fog awful.
        Motors better, but not so good.
        It is getting lighter and lighter as day dawns. We are not seeing it dawn, however. I wish I knew radio. I could help a lot.
        We are over * stratum now. At 3000. Bill comes back to radio to find it on the blink.
        We are running between the clouds still, but they are coming together. Many clouds all about . . . shouldn’t bother. Port motor coughing a bit. Sounds like water. We are going to go into, under or over a storm. I don’t like to, with one motor acting the way it is.
        How grey it is before; and behind, the mass of soggy cloud we came through, is pink with dawn. Dawn “the rosy fingered,” as the Odyssey has it.
        Himmel! The sea! We are 3000. Patchy clouds. We have been jazzing from 1000 to 5000 where we now are, to get out of clouds. At present there are sights of blue and sunshine, but everlasting clouds always in the offing. The radio is dead.
        The sea for a while. Clouds ahead. We ought to be coming somewhat in the range of our destination if we are on the course. Port motor off again. 3000 ft. 7 o’clock London.
        Can’t use radio at all. Coming down now in a rather clear spot. 2500 ft. Everything sliding forward.
        8:50. 2 Boats!!!!
        Trans steamer.
        Try to get bearing. Radio won’t. One hr’s gas. Mess. All craft cutting our course. Why?

So the log ends.

Its last page records that we had but one hour’s supply of gas left; that the time for reaching Ireland had passed; that the course of the vessel sighted perplexed us; that our radio was useless.

Where were we? Should we keep faith with our course and continue?

“Mess” epitomized the blackness of the moment. Were we beaten?

We all favored sticking to the course. We had to. With faith lost in that, it was hopeless to carry on. Besides, when last we checked it, before the radio went dead, the plane had been holding true.

We circled the America, although having no idea of her identity at the time. With the radio crippled, in an effort to get our position, Bill scribbled a note. The note and an orange to weight it, I tied in a bag with an absurd piece of silver cord. As we circled the America, the bag was dropped through the hatch. But the combination of our speed, the movement of the vessel, the wind and the lightness of the missile was too much for our marksmanship. We tried another shot, using our remaining orange. No luck.

Should we seek safety and try to come down beside the steamer? Perhaps one reason the attempt was never attempted was the roughness of the sea which not only made a landing difficult but a take-­off impossible.

Bill leaped to the radio with the hope of at least receiving a message. At some moment in the excitement, before I closed the hatch which opens in the bottom of the fuselage I lay flat and took a photograph. This, I am told, is the first one made of a vessel at sea from a plane in trans-Atlantic flight.

Then we turned back to the original course, retracing the twelve mile detour made to circle the steamer. In a way we were pooling all our chances and placing everything in a final wager on our original judgment.

Quaintly, it was this moment of lowest ebb that Slim chose to breakfast. Nonchalantly he hauled forth a sandwich.

We could see only a few miles of water, which melted into the greyness on all sides. The ceiling was so low we could fly at an altitude of only 500 feet. As we moved, our miniature world of visibility, bounded by its walls of mist, moved with us. Half an hour later into it suddenly swam a fishing vessel. In a matter of minutes a fleet of small craft, probably fishing vessels, were almost below us. Happily their course paralleled ours. Although the gasoline in the tanks was vanishing fast, we began to feel land—some land—must be near. It might not be Ireland, but any land would do just then.

Bill, of course, was at the controls. Slim, gnawing a sandwich, sat beside him, when out of the mists there grew a blue shadow, in appearance no more solid than hundreds of other nebulous “landscapes” we had sighted before. For a while Slim studied it, then turned and called Bill’s attention to it.

It was land!

I think Slim yelled. I know the sandwich went flying out the window. Bill permitted himself a smile.

Soon several islands came into view, and then a coast line. From it we could not determine our position, the visibility was so poor. For some time we cruised along the edge of what we thought was typical English countryside.

With the gas remaining, we worked along as far as safety allowed. Bill decided to land. After circling a factory town he picked out the likeliest looking stretch and brought the Friendship down in it. The only thing to tie to was a buoy some distance away and to it we taxied.
* That is the way it is written in the log book. So far no one can make out that word before “stratum.” Can you?
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