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Check It Out

Courier & Press Article by Carol Cariens
Sunday, March 20, 2011

Biography of Aviator Packed with Mystery, Tension

Biographies have always been alive and well in the field of youth literature but the past two years have seen some outstanding examples in this genre. However, here is (IMHO) the best juvenile biography-bar none-that I have read in a long, long time.

One of the great unsolved mysteries of modern times is the focus of author Candace Fleming's newest book: Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Told in alternating chapters, Fleming pairs the story of Amelia's early life and rise as America's premier aviatrix during the 1930s with a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat account of the efforts to maintain radio contact with Amelia and her navigator Fred Noonan during the last hours of their record-breaking flight in July, 1937 and the futile attempts at their rescue by the Coast Guard and U.S. Navy.

How did it all start? Raised in a family of respectable means in the mid-West, Amelia and her younger sister Muriel saw their comfortable lifestyle disintegrate when their father lost his cushy position with the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific railroad because of his addiction to alcohol. (The family at one time had their own private railroad car and chef!) As a young woman, Amelia yearned for a life beyond what was then the accepted norm for women (marriage and motherhood). She kept a scrapbook filled with clippings telling of women who had exciting, unusual careers. Little did she know that she herself would someday be the subject of many newspaper and magazine articles.

While working as a nurse's aide in Canada during World War I, Amelia watched the air force planes perform take-offs and landings and felt "[the] first urge to fly." Her first flying lessons enthralled Amelia with the freedom of the air. As she continued to log hours in the air and her skill as a pilot increased, Amelia purchased several planes, each bigger and better than its predecessor. When "Lucky Lindy" (Charles Lindbergh) flew solo nonstop across the North Atlantic in 1927 the race was on for men and women aviators to attempt new aerial feats, try new routes, and gain fame and fortune. That meant Amelia, too, as she was now an accomplished pilot. In 1928 five different women tried to repeat Lindbergh's famous flight-some with disastrous results. Could Amelia become the first women to fly nonstop over the Atlantic? She could-and she did-just not solo. Public sentiment was squeamish about a woman flying that distance alone. About this time George Putnam, a successful publisher, became Amelia's promoter and arranged publicity tours, photo shoots, and helped plan the flight across the Atlantic. Amelia would captain the flight, meaning she made the decisions but Bill Stultz was to pilot the plane and Lou Gordon was hired to be the mechanic. Despite adverse weather conditions Amelia and her crew reached Burry Port, Wales, in "twenty hours and forty minutes" with less than one hour's fuel left! Amelia was now uber-famous and the darling of America. George also began a campaign of his own to woo and wed Amelia--which he did-but only after several years and several marriage proposals.

Amelia and George became friends with many of America's "movers and shakers" of the time period-including President and Mrs. Roosevelt. A charming account in Fleming's book tells of Amelia and Eleanor's flight over Washington, D. C. one night after a White House dinner. Amelia and George's friendship with the Roosevelts would have an impact later during her pre-flight plans in 1936.

One "prize" remained for Amelia: a round-the-world flight. No woman had achieved that-yet. Using George's considerable wealth, Amelia and her husband plotted and planned this dangerous undertaking, a 27,000 mile journey around the equator. Funds were secured for a special plane especially designed for longer flights. A Lockheed Electra was purchased for about $80,000 (about one million in today's money, according to Fleming). Amelia wrote that "[she] could write poetry about that ship".

Permission had to be secured for Amelia "to fly over or land in every country along her route." Gasoline and oil would be needed at over thirty points along the route, not to mention the stops where the plane could be overhauled before continuing on to the next stop. And here is where President Roosevelt entered the picture, agreeing to "do what we can" to expedite such matters.

The original flight plan was for Amelia and her crew (Harry Manning, navigator, and Fred Noonan, a pilot and navigator who had experience with celestial navigation) to fly east to west around the equator. However, less than 3 days into the journey there was an accident during take-off and the plane was heavily damaged. All three emerged safe but the plane would have to be thoroughly repaired. This delay cost them several months' time and Harry Manning, as he had to return to his regular job. It also meant that the flight plan would have to be altered due to changing weather patterns (storms and winds). They would now have to fly west to east. However, this new voyage proved glorious-the sights, the adventures. Everything went smoothly until early July, 1937. Amelia is quoted as saying, "my Electra now rests on the edge of the Pacific...somewhere beyond the horizon lies home and California...7,000 miles to go." And so, Amelia and Fred took off from Lae, New Guinea for a tiny speck of an island called Howland...

The account of those last few hours of the flight is better read by yourselves, dear readers. I could not possibly do it justice here. You have to feel the tension and hopelessness aboard the Coast Guard cutter Itasca as the crew (especially Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts) strained to hear any radio contact from Amelia and then as hours passed, agonized when only the static remained. You know the outcome but Fleming's riveting narrative transports you back in time to 1937. You are there, aboard the Itasca-waiting...