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Amelia Earhart
Newfoundland's First Female Aviator Pioneer

There is little doubt that Newfoundland's unique geographic proximity to Europe (3025 km or 1880 mi) was the primary reason that it frequently functioned as the land and sea base for aviation endeavors and was thus propelled to the forefront of aviation history. Likely than not, when such an historical event occurred, the setting was a small community located in Conception Bay North called Harbour Grace. In fact, from 1927 to 1936, this community figured prominently in the history of dozens of successful and not so successful attempts by aviators of several nationalities to tame the skies. It was against such a backdrop of several aviation firsts that Amelia Earhart - Putnam's daring exploit on May 20, 1932, took place.

Born in Atchison, Kansas on July 24, 1898, the origins of her obsession to fly solo across the Atlantic may be traced to her childhood passionate interest in aviation and her practice of keeping a scrapbook of the unique accomplishments of women.

Aware that history was about to be made, onlookers were anxious to touch the plane or get close enough to Amelia to speak to her. Indeed, expectations ran high around the world, for Amelia had already demonstrated on numerous occasions that she was an accomplished pilot. One of these accomplishments took place in Newfoundland. In 1928, she accompanied William S. Stultz and Lew Cordon when they took off from Trepassey, Newfoundland, in their bid to cross the Atlantic non-stop by hydroplane. On that occasion, she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic by plane. Now her goal was to be the first woman pilot a plane solo across the Atlantic.

At 7:30 pm Amelia lifted off to the sound of cheering crowds from Harbour Grace and neighboring towns. Despite the weight of extra fuel, her single Pratt and Whitney Wasp engine enabled her red and gold Lockheed Vega monoplane to lift off with ease, head straight out over the harbour, and fly into the sunset. She landed safely in a cow pasture at Culmore near Londonderry, Northern Ireland, having travelled 2,026 miles in 14 hours and 54 minutes. Although she had not reached her intended destination of Paris, France she had accomplished her goal of crossing the Atlantic. This earned her the distinction of being the third person in history to make this trip alone and warranted a place in her scrap book of outstanding achievements for being the first woman to fly solo and non-stop across the Atlantic from West to East. She also claimed the honour of being the first woman to fly a plane in Newfoundland.

Amelia and her crew of two, Bernt Balchen and Eddie Gorski, who accompanied her on the. New Jersey - Newfoundland leg of the trip, arrived in Harbour Grace at 2 pm that day. While her crew completed the final mechanical check, Amelia retired to a local establishment called Archibald's Hotel for a brief rest, returning to her plane at 6:30 with a thermos of Rose Archibald's soup.

At lift off, the weather was fair. For several hours, her flight was routine. She cruised in the moonlight at twelve thousand feet, no doubt looking forward to success. After four hours, however, her serenity was shattered by rain, lightning, and strong variable winds. Suddenly the plane's engine exhaust manifold broke. For the next ten hours, the flames from the vent constantly evoked fear that the Vega might catch fire. Amelia knew that if she were forced to ditch her plane in the ocean, there would be little hope of rescue. To make matters worse, several hundred miles from the coast of Ireland, the plane's altimeter broke. Now she had no way to know the true altitude.

In an attempt to escape the worsening weather and poor visibility, as well as to make certain that she was flying high enough, she would spend the next half hour gaining altitude. Unfortunately, however, she did not notice quickly enough that the plane was icing up as she gained height. The plane went into a spin and was only able to regain control when the warmth of the lower altitude melted the ice. The barograph showed that she had fallen three thousand feet. Fortunately she was able to regain sufficient altitude to enable her to continue her crossing of the Atlantic.

Although the condition of her plane and her physical fatigue dictated that she land in Ireland instead of her intended destination of Paris, France, Amelia's accomplishment elicited both fame and glory. No woman before her had ever achieved such a victory. The response of the world to her success was similar to that which Charles Lindbergh received when he landed in Paris five years earlier after completing the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic. She was praised by the heads of state from around the world. Upon her return to the US, she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour.

Amelia of course was not content to hang up her goggles and retire. By 1937, she had completed plans to fly across the Pacific in a bid to circle the globe from west to east. Accompanied by navigator Frederick J. Noonan, they took off from Oakland, California in the United States. They flew over the South Atlantic, Africa, and the Indian ocean before reaching New Guinea to begin the Pacific leg of the trip. However, before reaching tiny Howland island, their next planned stop-over, they disappeared. Despite the fact that the United States Government, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, mounted a $4 million, sixteen day sea and air rescue mission involving four thousand men, ten ships and sixty-five planes combing two hundred and fifty thousand square miles of the Pacific, no trace of the crew or plane was found.

Several theories eventually emerged to explain their disappearance. The official explanation was that they ran out of fuel, crashed into the ocean and broke up on impact. Another theory suggested that they had not died but had been captured by the Japanese and held as spies. The Japanese claimed that Amelia's true mission had been to fly over the then Japanese held Marshall islands and gather information on its future war plans.

When the war ended, the theory continues, they were released and an embarrassed U.S. Government secretly transported them home, provided them with new identities and homes in New Jersey. A deputy examiner of foreign service applicants lent credence to this theory when she reported that she discovered an unsigned telegram in the National Archives sent at the end of the Second World War from a Japanese prisoner of war camp in China. It was addressed to Amelia's husband, George Putnam and said: "Camp Liberated. All Well. Volumes to Tell. Love to Mother."

A variation of this theory held that they were executed by the Japanese because of their U2-style spy mission. This version drew support from the account of an eleven year old girl who claimed to have seen an American woman and man in Saipan in 1937 being led away by soldiers. She reported that she heard shots and saw the soldiers return alone.

Despite the fact that no definitive proof was ever presented to support the official explanation for the crash, Amelia's sister declared that the spy hypothesis was ridiculous. Aviation historian Carol Osborne has also stated that all documentation shows that Amelia was merely someone striving to set a record and simply ran out of fuel and crashed. President Roosevelt also denied the spy assertion.

It is unfortunate that the saga of Amelia Earhart-Putnam ended in her premature death in July 2, 1937, as she attempted to fly around the world. However, one may take comfort in the words she penned to her mother in a note written in June, 1928, before that first flight out of Newfoundland with William Stultz and Lou Gordon. "My life has been happy and I don't mind contemplating its end in the midst of it."

If we were to harbour any regrets for Amelia, it would be that she did not live to see the tremendous heights to which her first great love would soar in such a few short years. If she were here today, she would surely marvel at how her accomplishments and those of Charles Lindbergh, Herman Keohl , Willy Post, Harold Gatty, William Stulta, Alcock and Brown and other aviation pioneers laid the groundwork for jets, concords, and flights to the moon. She would no doubt be eagerly anticipating even greater aviation triumphs in space as she diligently added to her scrapbook more stories of the unique accomplishments of women.

For more Newfoundland History


©All Rights Reserved. Story submitted by George Corbett
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