- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 27, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

AMELIA EARHART: THE TURBULENT LIFE OF AN AMERICAN ICON
By Kathleen C. Winters
Palgrave/Macmillan, $25, 242 pages, illustrated

From certain camera angles, Amelia Earhart - a tall, slender, blonde who tousled her short hair and wore masculine flying clothes - looked like a feminine version of Charles Lindbergh. It was because of this resemblance that, in 1928, as the first anniversary of Lindbergh’s solo flight approached, this likable young social worker who “loved to fly” was plucked from obscurity to be a passenger on another trans-Atlantic flight. She had hoped to take a turn at the controls but never got the chance.

Nonetheless, when the plane landed safely in Wales, the crew was more or less ignored while Earhart was hailed as the “first woman to fly the Atlantic.” (To her credit, she claimed to be embarrassed about the hype, telling her promoters, “I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes.”)

Four years later - 1932 was the high point of her career - she actually became the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo and, subsequently, the first person to fly it twice, for which Congress awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross. Now, of course, she is best remembered for having disappeared over the Pacific in a vain attempt to circumnavigate the globe.

Three years ago, Kathleen C. Winters, a licensed pilot and aviation historian who died just months before this book was published, wrote a slim book about Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s often harrowing adventures in the early years of flight, mostly as navigator, radio operator and relief pilot on trips with her famous husband.

This similarly slim and equally absorbing book tackles questions that Ms. Winters‘ book-tour audiences kept raising about the ever-fascinating Amelia Earhart: “How did she die? Was she an incompetent pilot who tempted fate one too many times? Exactly what role did Earhart’s husband, George Palmer Putnam, play in molding her into America’s best-known female pilot? Had Putnam pushed his wife into making her world flight attempt?”

Some answers remain opaque, but Ms. Winters puts her own aviation experience to good use in interpreting the Earhart story. No one is sure how she died, but the author agrees with the conventional wisdom that she probably ran out of fuel in her futile attempt to find Howland Island, a speck in the Pacific that the U.S. government had expressly prepared for her as a refueling stop between New Guinea and Hawaii.

Ms. Winters points out that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, may have been looking in the wrong place: The charts they were using showed Howland six miles east of its true location. Moreover, she was trying to communicate by voice, and only once was she able to receive transmissions from her prospective rescuers. Despite the largest rescue effort ever to that date - she had cultivated friendships in high places, including both Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt - no trace of her or Noonan was ever found.

How competent a flier was she? According to Ms. Winters, “She was not the world’s most skilled woman pilot in her day, by any means, nor even the best in America.” She was not a “natural stick” - she struggled with training and spent far fewer hours in the air than her publicists claimed. She never liked detail, didn’t attempt to learn Morse code and never applied herself enough to master radio communication. She crash-landed far more planes than her contemporaries, and yet walked away.

Authorities bent the rules for her: For example, when she applied for her instrument rating, which was required for her round-the-world trip, she was permitted to skip the first two of the three requirements: the written test, the demonstration of proficiency with radio navigation aids, and a flight performed entirely on instruments.

On her initial attempt to circumnavigate the globe, she lost control of her plane on takeoff from Hawaii, badly damaging it. The accident prompted the radio-proficient Harry Manning to decline to accompany her again and left her at the mercy of Noonan’s celestial-navigation skills. Years later, Manning commented that Earhart “gave the impression of being humble and shy; but she really had an ego, and could be tough as nails when the occasion required it. I got very fed up with her bull-headedness several times.”

As for the role of Earhart’s publisher husband in her career, Putnam seems to have had little idea of what skills were necessary to fly the planes of the 1920s and ‘30s and always made excuses for her crashes. He may have subtly encouraged his wife to take chances in order to maintain the lucrative schedule of appearances he arranged for her. But Earhart pushed herself, too, and immediately after the accident in Hawaii, she said she felt she had to “redeem” herself by going through with a second attempt to fly around the world.

Ms. Winters says that in separating myth from fact, she was “startled by the enormous help politicians and the military extended to Earhart in her quest for records; by the demands placed upon her by her endless public appearances and publicity stunts; and by her lack of focus and disregard to fundamental details in preparing for record flight attempts.”

After confessing how she ultimately lost her good opinion of Earhart as a pilot, the author takes pains to chronicle some of Earhart’s less-heralded deeds: She supported both of her divorced parents (“an irascible mother and an indigent father”), encouraged youngsters seeking advice on aviation careers, and encouraged women to fly.

Amelia Earhart, Ms. Winters says, tried to emphasize that gender didn’t matter in the cockpit, but “the reality is that she was, and is today, usually viewed in the context of women in aviation.” The author never quite answers one question she raises at the beginning: Why didn’t Earhart practice more? “Was it because of the demands of upholding her image, or was it something more fundamental to her character?” The answer may be: both.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.

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