Eighty years ago as Amelia Earhart waited in Lae, New Guinea for weather to clear so she could begin her homeward flight across the vast Pacific, she gave thought to the fact that on this, one of the last legs of her month-long, round-the-world flight, she’d be crossing the International Dateline. “Clocks turn back,” she noted.
As with all errors of judgment, the sweetest idea is the impossible one; turning back the clock and starting afresh – armed with the lesson learned.
As I wrote in my book, The Crash Detectives, Earhart the adventurer and global role model, made several errors in planning her record-setting flight. She saved the most difficult part, a 7,000-mile trans-Pacific flight, for the end when she was certain to be fatigued. And after a month of flying and separation from her husband, George Putnam, she was certain to be tempted with get-there-itis for the upcoming American Independence day holiday.
From Lae, New Guinea, where she would depart on July 2, it was a 2,556 mile, 18-hour journey to a tiny spit of land called Howland Island, just one by two miles. In selecting her navigator, Earhart relied on the experienced but troubled Fred Noonan.
By air and by sea, Noonan was way-finding savant, but he was also an alcoholic. One week before the Pacific crossing, Earhart shared her concern about Noonan with her husband according to an account in Vincent Loomis’ book, Amelia Earhart: The Final Story. Noonan was, “hitting the bottle again, and I don’t even know where he’s getting it!” Earhart said.
Earhart’s third error comes from failing to have a backup plan. While still working out the details of the flight, advisers told the aviatrix her plan was unworkable. In early 1937, navigator, explorer and Harvard professor Brad Washburn spent an evening reviewing the flight’s etails with Earhart. He worried about trying to find Howland Island without radio signals to home in on. Another consultant, Mark Walker, who was assigned by Pan Am to help Earhart and Noonan with the Pacific phase said the challenges were insurmountable. Walker urged Earhart not to risk “such a foolhardy publicity stunt” according to a letter to Shipmate, the alumni magazine of the United States Naval Academy, written by Walker’s cousin Robert Greenwood.
For some or all of these reasons and maybe others we don’t know, Earhart and Noonan failed to arrive at Howland Island. The search for answers as to why, has continued for eight decades.
Few of us take up challenges as daring as Amelia but we all make mistakes that derail our plans. When we look back this American heroine and resolve to learn from her errors and our own, we get as close as possible to turning back the clock.
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