We all know about the legend of Amelia Mary Earhart, the world famous flyer of the 1920s and 30s. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, shortly after Lindberg. In June of 1937, she started a flight around the world with her navigator Fred Noonan. We all know how that ended, with both of them lost in the South Pacific without a trace.
But in 1983 a couple in California, who also had the last name of Earhart, had a baby girl and decided to name her after Amelia I. Thus we got Amelia Rose Earhart. By 2012 Amelia II was working as a TV traffic and weather reporter for NBC Channel 9 in Denver, Colorado. By this time she had a private pilot’s license and had even earned an instrument rating. Because of her unique name and her flying experience, she decided to retrace and complete Amelia I’s flight around the world, and she did so in 2014.
But Amelia II had a much easier task than Amelia I because of all the great technological advances that have taken place between 1937 and 2014, and especially since 1990. By comparing these two women, and these two flights, we can see just how dramatic those advances have been.
Amelia I flew a Lockheed Electra aircraft, built in the mid-1930s, which was all aluminum with twin radial engines. It was a solid airplane, with fairly dependable piston engines, but radial engines had hundreds of moving parts, and if just one part fails, you can easily lose an engine. Losing an engine on that plane, especially over water, would have doomed her flight, and probably would have killed her. But on the 1937 flight, the Electra performed well. But she had other tech problems. Navigation in those days was a challenge. Radio navigation was just starting to develop in the United States, but was not dependable, and did not exist in most of the world. So air crews were left with maps, dead reckoning, and celestial navigation. Amelia had the best navigator in the world, Fred Noonan, who had navigated large Pan Am flying boats all over the Pacific. But still, navigating over open oceans was always very challenging. Radio communication was also in early development and was undeveloped outside the USA and Europe. So Amelia I and Fred Noonan had taken on a scary challenge with their flight around the world. And if they had trouble, help was hard to reach, and usually very far away. No wonder, then, that as they were flying east and trying to find Howland Island in the South Pacific, they had so much trouble. They knew they were very close but just could not make visual contact. There was a US Navy ship stationed close to Howland to help guide Amelia and Noonan in, but the pair had left a valuable antenna behind at their last stop to save weight, a very costly mistake. When they tried to make contact with the Navy ship, signals were weak and very hard to hear. As a result, they never found Howland Island, ran out of gas, no doubt crashed the Electra and have never been seen or heard from since.
Compared to Amelia I, Amelia II during her flight in 2014 had what might be called a “cake walk”, and all due to the great technology developed after 1937, and especially since about 1990.
First of all, Amelia II had an exceedingly dependable airplane, an all-weather Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprop. This plane was designed for business, and could carry up to about 8 passengers and a crew of two. Fitted with larger fuel tanks for extended flying, it had a really long range. The biggest advantage on this plane was the very dependable and strong single turboprop engine. Turbos are so dependable these days that some pilots with thousands and thousands of flying hours have never even experienced an “engine-out” event, and starting several years ago, because of this great dependability, the FAA now allows the building of both private single engine jets and turboprops. And with that kind of power, of course, the Pilatus PC-12 flies much much higher and faster than the 1937 Lockheed Electra.
Amelia II’s biggest advantage was no doubt navigation. She navigated via GPS and knew exactly where she was at all times. The Pilatus had an autopilot, so navigation doesn’t get any easier than that. Also, aircraft radio communication here in the 21 st century is well-developed all over the world, so she was always in contact with the ground, and could get help anytime she might need it. And due to modern weather radar, Amelia II always knew where weather problems were, and could easily avoid them.
Amelia II’s flight around the world started on June 26 and ended on July 11, 2014, and was basically uneventful, with no serious problems along the route. No wonder, when you consider all the high-tech advantages she had. Still, Amelia II’s flight was a real achievement. But there is a strange paradox to this story. Sooner or later, some of this new technology will probably help us find Amelia I, and her lost Electra, somewhere around Howland Island. Truly, technology can do amazing things. Written by: Gordon P. Peterson
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