BOOK REVIEW – April 2024


Reviewed by Kathryn Grimshaw

“Like many young girls looking for a role model I became interested in Amelia Earhart at an early age. After all, she was so appealing. She was courageous, glamorous, and mysterious,” writes Susan Butler, author of East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart. Susan Butler’s mother, Grace Liebman, was one of the few female pilots in the 1930s, and was a member of the “Ninety-Nines,” the women’s flying organization founded by Earhart. Butler writes that she spent ten years researching the book and several years in the writing. The result is a thoroughly researched effort, relying almost entirely on primary materials: interviews, diaries, letters, and manuscript collections, as well as two books written by Earhart’s husband, George Palmer Putnam, Soaring Wings in 1939, and Wide Margins in 1942. Butler’s research and writing were clearly a labor of love, as the book is comprehensive, authoritative, and very subtly drawn, with psychological insight into an exceptionally complex subject. Amelia Earhart was a woman of many mysteries. Perceptively, Susan Butler has done her justice.

Amelia Earhart was easily the greatest female pilot of her time. Her career lasted a brief ten years from 1927-1937 (the interwar years), but it was spectacular. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932, five years after Charles Lindbergh’s groundbreaking flight in 1927. And no one did it successfully after Lindbergh, neither man nor woman, until Earhart succeeded in 1932. Many tried, some giving their lives in the attempt. It was dangerous.

Subsequently, she set many flying records in a very new aviation industry. New records raced to keep up with new technology in the aircraft business, which kept building better and faster planes on a yearly basis. As the planes improved in design and safety, so did the pilots improve in their ability to manage these aircraft. And the pilots happily took very great risks. It was a man’s world, except for a very few brave women. Earhart was fearless—absolutely without fear—but careful and deliberate. Her risks were calculated. She was a feminist and an adventurer. Luck and skill rode with her until the end when luck massively deserted her.

At the end—in 1937—with her global flight, Amelia Earhart attempted something more ambitious than anything she had tried before. She admitted to a fear of growing old and felt her greatest achievements must be completed now. She was almost 40, not old to be sure, but no longer young. Her appearance and stamina were youthful, as was her outlook on life, and so was her comfortable relationships with young college women. She related to them easily and felt their challenges to be her won, telling them sincerely that they could do anything they wanted to do, with study and application. After all, she had. It was for her own ambition, which was profound, and for her deeply-felt mission to be a role-model for women, that she undertook the spectacular challenge of flying around the world in May 1937. She and one navigator.

  Perhaps no other individual flyer of her time received the same amount of technical assistance and professional advice from a wide variety of sources: the aviation industry, fellow fliers, government departments, Army, Navy and Coast Guard support, meteorological bureaus, corporate funding, and even the White House swept away troublesome restrictions, when asked. Her husband and manager, George Putnam, was a masterful administrator on a national scale, and a promoter and public relations expert of remarkable skill. Her love, Gene Vial, was a Washington insider who secured her necessary State Department approvals and eased her path in countless ways. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a close friend, eager to help. President Franklin Roosevelt acquiesced to more than one personal request made by Amelia. And the public loved her. They could not get enough of her.

All of this created a vast momentum and carried her forward in her plan to circumnavigate the globe. Also perhaps it created a “monster” machine—too large to stop, too expensive, too embarrassing to admit second thoughts. Once underway on May 21, 1937, the pressure of demands made upon her, in addition to her flying, became oppressive. Flights of 18-22 hours over jungle and ocean with minimum recovery time between legs of the journey were exhausting, mentally and physically. She was always hurrying toward the next phase.

And the greatest challenge of all, then, was the last dreaded leg of the journey from Lae, New Guinea to the tiny Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean, only one and one-half miles long and one-half mile wide. It was a trip of 2,556 miles and 22 flying hours, without respite. And it came at the very end of her five-week long odyssey, on her way to Honolulu, then San Francisco, and finally home.

Two weeks before departing on May 21, 1937, she had been told by a skilled flier friend, when Amelia asked, what were her chances of success. They probably were less than50-50. Earhart responded that she thought they were less than that. So did most people in the industry.

Sadly, as we know, Earhart did not make it. Susan Butler, in this excellent and richly detailed book, assessed the probable reasons for the plane’s disappearance over the Pacific on July 2, 1937. They were two-fold: One was a known and reoccurring fault in the plane’s electrical wiring system, causing her radio communications on all kilocycles to fail on this leg of the journey to Howland Island. The second reason was that Earhart and her very experienced navigator, Fred Noonan, had lost their bearings as they neared Howland. Gas would have been running low after a 20-hourflight.

Susan Butler’s remarkable research revealed that Fred Noonan, the navigator, had been forced early on to set their course over the Pacific by the sun and the stars. Northing cast doubt that this Pan-Am trained navigator would be able to meet this challenge. He would be plotting longitude and latitude, speed wind direction and drift. When navigating by the sun and stars, in computing longitude, a navigator must factor in the times exactly. Each minute of error in time would result in a 15-mile miscalculation in distance. Accuracy was essential.

The plane left Lae, New Guinea, loaded with 1,200 gallon of gasoline, its maximum, on its way to Howland Island 2,556 miles in distance. No one, certainly not Noonan’s peers, expected that he would have trouble finding the island. The navigation materials he was using were state of the art and accurate. A strong headwind slowed their speed to only 107 nautical miles per hour. This meant more than 21 flying hours, non-stop. A very long way, indeed. One pilot and one navigator.

Noonan was a fine navigator, by all accounts. He was the chief navigation instructor for Pan Am Airlines. But on the “Electra” twin-engine plane of Earhart’s, he was missing navigation aids he had become accustomed to using on the Pan Am “clipper” flights he had made in the past—namely, the radio bearings beamed to the clippers by Pan Am, and the ability to communicate with ships at sea to get directional bearings. Noonan was not trained to send or receive messages in Morse Code, necessary to communicate with ships at sea. And Howland Island was not reachable by Pan Am radio, because it was too far from Pan Am’s route.

In the event, something went wrong with the very sophisticated navigation needed to find the island. Radio communication was lost on all channels, with one brief exception, due to the plane’s electrical problem. 20 hours and 14 minutes into the flight, they were lost. They missed Howland Island. It is believed that they were nowhere close. They were never heard from again. Earhart knew there was no radio signal capacity on Howland Island to home in on. They might have survived the loss of radio communication for a period of time. But not the loss of their navigational bearings over the Pacific Ocean, with gasoline low. How this happened is a mystery.  The answer is unknown.

Urgently, a very thorough search was begun. It continued for months. When not a scrap of the plane turned up after more than a year, George Putnam finally, reluctantly, came to the conclusion that Amelia had died. It was hard to let go. Only questions remained.

Two years earlier, Amelia had written an epitaph following the death of her good friend, Wiley Post, in a flying accident in Alaska in 1935. Will Rogers was killed in the same accident. Amelia wrote, “So close was he to his profession that he could not know the sheen on his own wings.”

And surely as much could be said of Amelia Earhart, 1897-1937. She was a restless soul, too fully committed to her fledgling occupation to contemplate the sheen on her own wings. It was not in her nature to do so. She was an extraordinary woman, born into an age that gave her full opportunity to show her mettle, and then whole-heartedly applauded her efforts. It was a rare match of skill, timing, and good luck. One wonders what more could she have accomplished, had she survived. She was 39—and an inspiration to millions of Americans. She still fascinates us.~