The stage was set. The whole world was a spectator, watching eagerly at this one of a kind feat, beyond everyone’s comprehension. A four member team was about to attempt to circumnavigate the world by flying a plane around it. Allow me to introduce you to them: first navigator – Captain Harry Manning, who had been a captain to the President Roosevelt; Noonan, a second navigator who had a vast experience both in marine and flight navigation; Mantz, a Hollywood stuntz pilot, who had been serving as a technical advisor and lastly and most importantly, our very own Amelia Earhart, the lady responsible for this daring venture. Amelia was planning to do something that took eight US army service pilots and four planes, with just half the crew, one plane and an insurmountable tank of burning desire to be the first woman to achieve this feat. She managed to purchase a Lockheed Electra L-10E, one of the best in those times.
Amelia and her crew had a simple plan: take off from California and glide to the west to Hawaii. From Hawaii they would then cross the mighty Pacific which was not a task for the faint hearted. Very few people had done a solo trip crossing the entire Pacific at that time, Amelia being one of them. They would stop over at Australia from where they would go on to Africa by flying over India and then finally on to one more stop in Florida before returning to California.
Taking off on 17th March, 1937 from California, they flew over to Hawaii where they landed on the Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. They carried out some repairs and then set off within three days towards their next leg. No sooner did they take off, did Amelia lose control and looped the plane on the runway.
Some witnesses said that they saw the tire explode while some including Paul Mantz blamed this event to Pilot error. This was a major blow to their operation. Everyone was safe but the plane took a heavy pounding. The plane was shipped back for extensive repairs. There was no way they could fly back that plane even after it was repaired which would again mean a time lag of nothing less than a year. They had to arrange a plane and they had to do it fast.
Amelia somehow managed to secure additional funding to purchase another Lockheed Electra. But by the time they managed to do so, the dynamics had now changed by leaps and bounds. The original plan was designed taking into account the weather conditions and wind patterns around the month of Mar’1937. They were now tailing towards the end of May’1937. Everything changed. And if they intended to carry on their operations, they had to now travel east which was totally reverse to their original plan. If that wasn’t a big change enough, Captain Harry Manning and Paul Mantz had to drop out due to previous commitments. Were these set of events enough to put a dent to Amelia’s aspirations? Didn’t seem so!
Amelia was hell bent on still pursuing this feat, but this time with just Fred Noonan and the Electra. The world now started declaring this venture as suicide. The odds were heavily stacked against her. If she manages to pull this off, she would be hailed for generations to come. If not, it could ….
Without any further ado, she & Noonan hopped into the Electra and flew towards South America. Crossing the vast Atlantic in a single breath, they flew for around 5000 miles before reaching Africa. With each passing mile, they appeared more confident. They then set themselves off to cross another water body – the Indian Ocean, before finally touching down at Lae in New Guinea on June 29, 1937. Crossing the Indian Ocean was barely a challenge after having crossed the Atlantic. Distance check: Crossed 22,000 miles; 7,000 miles left. With just 2 crew members on board, they covered 75% of the Globe. Should they begin to celebrate? Amelia didn’t think so. She was not really worried about the miles she covered till now because they were not really a challenge. Amelia has reserved all her worries and prayers for what laid ahead of them now. The team knew that once they embarked again, they would stop only after covering the entire stretch and not in between. But what could be so worrisome after covering 22k miles. Still scratching your head and wondering who this final nemesis is? It’s the MOTHER of all oceans: the PACIFIC!
Before she could even venture into her final ordeal, she had contracted dysentery. It took her several days to recuperate, however, while she was at it, she had to make a couple of adjustments so that she didn’t waste any more time once she recovered. Amelia needed a good amount of fuel. Every unnecessary item was removed off the plane in order to make space for the fuel. Parachutes were removed as they had very little utility. She made an elaborate plan with Noonan. They would head over to Howland island. But locating this island from their altitude was a challenge as Howland was barely 6,500 feet long, 1,600 feet wide and no more than 20 feet above the ocean waves. Would they succeed?
To overcome this, they were equipped with celestial navigation, a kind of navigation that helps someone to make an educated guess of their location, based on the distance of the celestial body like Sun, moon etc. from them. In case celestial navigation also doesn’t help, they had the radio communication with a US coast guard vessel, Itasca, stationed off their destined island. After aligning themselves with the island’s correct latitude, they would then run north and south for the island and wait for the smoke plumes to be sent off by Itasca. That way by locating the smoke plumes, they would know exactly where to land. They were ready to begin the last leg of this operation. From here what really happened, no one had a complete journal of the same. Because if they did, Amelia would not have been a mystery. Though what we know for now, are bits and pieces.
July 2, 1937; 12.30AM – Amelia and Noonan decided to fly from Lae. After almost 7 hours, Itasca received a message around 7.42 AM from the Electra crew, “We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.” The situation was worrisome, as Itasca was unable to spot the plane. They sent a communication back to Earhart, but with no response. Oil burners were released by Itasca in a last attempt to help them locate the vessel from a distance. But their attempts were in vain.
A 4-million-dollar rescue was authorized by President Roosevelt that involved 66 aircrafts and nine ships. After almost a 6-month long search, on January 5th, 1939, Earhart was declared legally dead by the Superior Court in Los Angeles. But did she really die that day? May be, may be not, but her mystery continues to live!