Flanked by the S.S. Kyle and Otterbury Schoolhouse, just off the Harvey Street intersection, stands a monument to Amelia Earhart, undoubtedly the spirit of Harbour Grace aviation history. The first woman to complete a solo transatlantic flight, best-selling author, and social worker was born in Kansas and aspired to the airborne feat from her early twenties. She was a passenger on a flight with Frank Hawks, a famous air-racer, and was captured by destiny. She emerged from that flight in late 1920 determined to be a pilot. In 1922, she became just the 16th woman in the United States to be issued a pilots’ license.
In 1928 Mrs. Frederick Guest of London, the American wife of an Englishman who was Secretary of State for Air under Prime Minister Lloyd George, contemplated the glorious title of first woman to cross the Atlantic. She hastily purchased a tri-motored Ford plane and began the intensive preparations for a transatlantic flight. Her children, sensing to their surprise that she was serious about the treacherous flight, pleaded with her to abandon it. Reluctantly, Guest agreed, however the flight, designed to foster amicable relations between the United States and Britain, was going to continue despite her concerns, another American woman had to be found quickly! On recommendation from retired Rear Admiral Reginald Belknap, who had met her years earlier, Amelia Earhart was called on an aluminium dial-up phone and asked a question most aviators at the time could only dream of. “Would you like to fly the Atlantic?”
It was early June 1928, when Earhart arrived in Trepassey as a passenger in the “Friendship” hydroplane with pilot William Stultz and mechanic Lou Gordon. The three were quickly introduced to Newfoundland’s unpredictable climate, attempting three times to begin the transatlantic flight over two weeks, only to be stymied by the pelting rain and seemingly impenetrable walls of fog. They successfully departed on June 17, 1928. Earhart was reportedly calm and confident during her time in Trepassey, unaware that a mere 170 kilometres away the “Queen of Diamonds,” Broadway actress Mabel Boll sought to depart Harbour Grace and become the first woman to cross the Atlantic. Unfortunately for Boll, in the early morning hours of June 18 Earhart and the “Friendship” crew landed in Burry Port, Wales. At 29, Earhart was the first woman to aerially cross the Atlantic. Unlike Stultz and Gordon, who were ecstatic to reach the annals of history with their successful transatlantic flight, Earhart seemed disheartened. The historic flight and bravery it took to complete were lost to Earhart, as in her own words, she felt like “baggage on the trip.” Visibly disappointed with having the mundane task of “lying on her stomach and taking pictures” during the flight, she asserted that day, on the field in Burry Port, that someday she would “try it alone.”
May 20, 1932 was Earhart’s opportunity. She had contacted famous pilot Bernt Balchen and her mechanic Eddie Gorski after securing a single-engine Lockheed Vega monoplane totally equipped for a transatlantic flight. The three arrived in Harbour Grace from New Jersey, with a rest stopover in Saint John, New Brunswick, at 2:00pm on May 20. Balchen had flown the distance to this point, so Earhart could save her energy for the ever-daunting transatlantic flight. Reinforcing this desire, she was taken by enthusiastic town officials to Archibald’s Hotel, formerly Cochrane House, to rest before the flight, which was planned for that evening. Like numerous trailblazers before her, Earhart was well accommodated during her stay at Archibald’s Hotel, even getting a themos full of Rose Archibald’s delicious beef and veggie soup for the journey. At 7:20pm, waving to Balchen, Gorski, and crowds of inspired residents including young girls beaming with pride for this heroic woman, Earhart opened the engine of the red and gold monoplane, gliding into the sunset.
This is the riveting description of the nearly 15-hour flight across the Atlantic in Amelia Earhart’s own words:
“For the first four hours everything was lovely. Then suddenly, I ran into rain squalls and heavy wind. Then my exhaust manifold burnt out and bright red flames began shooting out the side. I was not frightened, but it is not any fun to have those flames so near you. Then my altimeter went wrong. There was nothing for me to do but start climbing. Then I discovered my tachometer had frozen, so I knew I was high enough. Ice formation on my wings made me drop lower. It was only twice after that I caught a glimpse of the ocean. When the morning of Saturday came, I was flying between two layers of clouds. The one below me was composed of little white woolly ones. After a while they all joined and formed a great white blanket like a snowfall stretching in every direction. When the sun broke through the blanket above me it was so blinding that, even with my smoked glasses, I had to come down and fly in the clouds for a while so I could see again. When I got into the squalls, I suppose I was to the south and kept correcting to the north. I had plenty of fuel and could have kept right on to Paris, maybe further, but my motor was straining so after sighting land, which I knew must be Ireland, I decided to come down. I could see peat bogs and thatched huts beneath me. I headed North along the railway track and after a while flew over Londonderry. Fifteen minutes later I had landed.”
The international reaction to Earhart’s landing in Londonderry was raucous. The British Prime Minister welcomed her and commended her courage, she received medals of gallantry from the King of Belgium and the government of France, and she was scheduled upon her return to the United States to receive the Congressional Medal of Honour. The financial support to continue her flying career poured in from all corners of the globe while the typewriters in New York furiously churned out glowing articles about the ace airwoman. Most people would probably accept the fame and retire from the dangerous hobby that was early aviation, but Amelia resolved to establish more “firsts for women” as she called her record-making flights. Over the next five years Earhart set three additional records, fastest flight from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey, for a woman pilot, first person to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii to the mainland United States, and first person to fly from LA to Mexico City to Newark. Her ambitions did not stop there.
Having been gifted a twin-engine Lockheed 10 E Electra plane from Purdue University, the most advanced civilian aircraft at the time, Earhart departed California on May 30, 1937 to become the first person to circle the world flying along the equator. Navigator Fred Noonan accompanied her as she soared through Arizona, Florida, Puerto Rico, South America, Africa, the Middle East, India, Thailand, Singapore and Australia. Upon arriving in New Guinea, the expansive Pacific faced Earhart down as the second last leg of her endeavour. Over Howland Island in the South Pacific, Earhart radioed to ships below “we are on a line of position 157 (degrees) to 337 (degrees). We are running north and south.” These were the last words ever heard from Amelia Earhart.
While there are numerous theories as to what happened to Amelia Earhart, her legacy is unchallenged in the history of aviation and of women’s advancement. The monument that stands near the entrance of Harbour Grace is not only a tribute to the woman who flew across the Atlantic solo but represents higher ideals. Earhart represents striving towards achievement, the necessity of self-sacrifice, and the spirit of trailblazing bravery. The pilot’s goggles and flight suit were never hung up during Earhart’s life, and undoubtedly would never have been discarded as long as there were boundaries to conquer and people to inspire.
Authored By: Francis Finlayson
Memorial University Digital Archives Initiative
Parsons, B. and B. Bowman 1983 “The Challenge of the Atlantic: A Photo-Illustrated History of Early Aviation in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland.” Robinson-Blackmore Book Publishers: Newfoundland.