The Other Amelia Earhart Mystery – Part 2

In 1928, Amelia Earhart was plucked from obscurity by publisher George Putnam and made famous. Her fame was based on her being a passenger on the Friendship Flight across the Atlantic Ocean. In making the flight, she became the first woman to fly the Atlantic. Putnam had already recognised the media potential of Amelia Earhart, and had been promoting her heavily as a female Charles Lindbergh. He also had her under contract, and on her return to America sent her on an exhausting tour to promote her upcoming book. The book was titled ‘20 Hrs. 40 Min,’ which was the elapsed time of the flight. The sub-title was ‘The American Girl, First Across the Atlantic by Air, Tells Her Story.’

Amelia Earhart Becomes Famous

After the publication of the book, Putnam increased Amelia’s public appearances to ensure she sold enough copies to justify his investment. At the same time, Amelia realised her new income meant that her family members became an instant financial drain. Her father, a long-time alcoholic, was continually looking for money. Her mother (who by now had divorced her father) had come from a wealthy family, but had managed to squander both her own, and Amelia’s inheritance. She also continually asked Amelia for money. Amelia’s sister Muriel was trapped in an abusive marriage. In addition to constantly sending her parents money, Amelia also found her sister constantly needing money.

Throughout the remainder of 1928, and throughout 1929, Amelia toured and spoke continuously to promote the book George Putnam had published.

Meanwhile, George Putnam saw his future was with the popular American hero he had created, so he divorced his wife in 1929. He immediately proposed to Amelia, but she rejected him.

Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Vega in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

While Amelia continued to work hard promoting herself as a pioneering woman aviator—an image cultivated by Putnam—in private she felt unworthy of the adulation she was receiving. When she had flown across the Atlantic, she had never touched the controls of the plane. She considered herself just a passenger. So to prove to the public that she was a good pilot, she continually made flights around America, setting records as the first woman to fly from a certain place to another. Or the woman to make a flight in the quickest time.

After the stock market crash at the end of 1929, which led to the Great Depression, earning an income from giving talks became increasingly difficult. By 1930, Amelia Earhart was working harder, for less money, and supporting her father, mother and her sister. George Putnam also kept proposing and she kept saying ‘no.’

In September 1930, Amelia Earhart’s father died. Her correspondence of the time reveals that she was both relieved and personally devastated. It was an emotionally difficult time for her. When George Putnam, who was wealthy, proposed for the sixth time, Amelia finally accepted. In a letter that has become famous as an early version of a marriage ‘pre-nup’ Amelia stated she would not be bound by the traditional rules of marriage. The two of them would always leave each other alone to pursue their careers independently.

A couple of months before the marriage, George’s uncle had died and left the family publishing firm to George’s cousin. His cousin immediately wanted to buy out George’s interest in the company. George accepted a promise of $100,000 (a small fortune in 1930) and left the publishing company. Knowing he had money coming, he decided to concentrate on promoting Amelia’s career.

In 1931, Amelia worked hard trying to set flying records. She even set an altitude record in an early form of helicopter called an autogiro. But in a world suffering under the Great Depression, she failed to draw the crowds she once had. And the belief that her fame was still based on the flight across the North Atlantic, during which she never flew the plane, continued to gnaw at her.

She decided she would fly the Atlantic Ocean solo. No women had done that. In fact, no one had flown the Atlantic non-stop since Charles Lindbergh had done it four years earlier.

Amelia Earhart with her Lockheed Vega
Amelia Earhart with her Lockheed Vega

Amelia Earhart purchased a Lockheed Vega, which was a light fast single-engine monoplane. The Lockheed Vega was a revolutionary design. Sir Hubert Wilkins had made the first airplane flight across the Arctic Ocean in a Vega in 1928, and two years later, Wiley Post had flown one around the world.

Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega

After Amelia had bought the Vega, she learnt to navigate on instruments. In the early 1930s, while flying over land, pilots usually flew in the daylight and followed visible landmarks. It was still common for them to follow railway lines. Railways companies would paint the name of a town in large letters on the roof, so that pilots could fly low and read it to know where they were.

Flying on instruments meant navigating using a compass, knowing the plane’s air speed, and knowing the elapsed time of the flight. Working out how long they had travelled in a certain direction at a certain speed, meant the pilot or navigator could look at a map work out where they were. Elapsed time was simple to calculate with a stopwatch. Air speed could vary depending on whether the plane had a head wind or a tail wind. A cross wind meant the plane could be drifting off its compass bearing. There were various methods of measuring the drift of a plane while flying. And there were other methods of measuring the plane’s actual speed through the air with either a head or tail wind. Navigating by this method is known as dead reckoning. Before the days of sophisticated radio transmissions and GPS, it was the only way a lone pilot could cross an ocean without landmarks.

In the 1930s a more sophisticated way of navigating was celestial navigation. This involved measuring the angle of the sun in the day or stars at night, then making a series of calculations to work out where you were. The complicated and time-consuming work involved meant it wasn’t possible for a person flying solo to make the calculations. Celestial navigation needed a dedicated navigator in the plane.

So in May 1932, when Amelia Earhart flew solo from North America to Ireland, she used dead reckoning. That is, she followed a compass course, while measuring her speed and elapsed time.

The successful flight made her famous again. George Putnam immediately sailed to Europe to tour with his wife and promote her. When they returned to America they continued to tour.

Amelia Earhart lands in Ireland after her non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean
Amelia Earhart lands in Ireland after her non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean

After her Atlantic solo flight, Amelia’s sister Muriel wrote: “Amelia’s position at the pinnacle of aviation fame demanded that she follow one of two courses: either vanish into semi-retirement…or else accept the challenge of making more pioneering flights in the as-yet-unexplored skyways. Amelia, if not actually urged by George Putnam, certainly abetted by him, chose the latter course.”

In choosing, or being urged into the latter course by Putnam, Amelia kept flying. And she kept sending money to her mother and her sister. At the same time rumours began to circulate that her marriage was a sham one.

By 1934, Amelia had been out of the headlines for two years. She needed to make another record-breaking flight. She replaced her Lockheed Vega with a newer model and decided to fly solo from Hawaii to the American mainland. She chose to fly from the tiny islands in the Pacific to America, rather than the other way around. It would be impossible to miss the coast of California. Had she flown towards Hawaii, navigating 2,500 miles using dead reckoning to hit a tiny target, would have been extremely difficult. Had she drifted off course just a little, and missed Hawaii, she would have run out of fuel somewhere in the wide Pacific.

Amelia Earhart shipped her plane to Hawaii and flew back to the coast of California. She made the flight on 11 January 1935.

George Putnam immediately despatched her on a gruelling speaking tour to earn money. This was forced by Putnam desperately needing money himself. When his cousin had bought Putnam’s interest in the family publishing business, he had agreed to pay George $100,000. But the cousin had made a mess of it as a publisher, and declared himself bankrupt. George would not receive the money he was owed. To earn an income, Putnam got a job with Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, and began living from payday to payday. It was a huge comedown for the man who had once been a giant in the publishing industry in New York. His one last area of prestige was that he was married to Amelia Earhart.

But again, the headlines soon began to fade from memory, and the crowds that paid to hear Amelia speak grew smaller. By 1936, George Putnam was working in Hollywood and Amelia was continuing to tour and talk. Now, in addition constantly giving money to her mother and her sister, she was also helping to support her husband.

By 1936, Amelia needed a great flight. Something that would once again thrust her name into the headlines. Something that would bring the crowds again, and make world leaders and royalty line up to meet her.

What flight could she make that would focus the spotlight of fame on her once more? People had flown to the North Pole and the South Pole. They had flown over Mount Everest. They had crossed every ocean and every continent. And they had flown around the world—except the flights around the world had followed the major landmasses. Previously when faced with the wide Pacific Ocean, pilots (and their navigators) had flown north, to cross from Asia to the Americas at the point where the two land masses almost touched.

Amelia Earhart and George Putnam came up with a plan. Amelia would not only be the first female pilot to fly around the world, but she would do it by flying as close to the Equator as possible.

In 1936, no plane was capable of crossing the Pacific Ocean at or near the Equator without refuelling at least twice. The only way to do it was in smaller ‘hops,’ landing on tiny Pacific islands such as Hawaii and Fiji.

Amelia would need a larger plane to carry enough fuel and a navigator to reach the islands in the Pacific.

Amelia studied the maps and began to plan the flight that she hoped would make her so famous and so rich, that she could finally be free of her needy husband and family.

As it turned out, the flight would cement her fame as an American icon. But she did not get to share the riches.

In Part 3, I explain the world flight, what when wrong, and why.


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