For all intents and purposes, Joan Merriam Smith should be a household name across the United States of America. Instead, her incredible personal story and amazing accomplishment of becoming the first person to fly solo around the world at the equator, as well as the first person to successfully complete the Amelia Earhart route (at the age of 27 nonetheless), has gone largely untold, until now. Why?
For my entire life I have known about the name Joan Merriam Smith, but not for the reasons you might expect. That’s because on February 17, 1965, Joan died in a plane crash over the mountains of Los Angeles together with my grandmother, Trixie Ann Schubert. As a child, I often heard about the day that my mother learned about her own mother’s death: she was abruptly pulled out of her elementary school classroom, only to be matter-of-factly informed that there had been a tragic accident.
About 10 years ago, for the first time I felt compelled to Google Joan’s name. Not surprisingly, the search results essentially turned up nothing. At the time, the only real information I could find about Joan online was a reference to her fatal plane crash from a 1965 Associated Press news article. Literally, this was the extent of what I was able to locate:
The article states:
“Los Angeles (AP) — The first woman to fly the equatorial route around the world is believed to have piloted a small plane that crashed in the San Gabriel Mountains Wednesday, killing the two women aboard. Although the coroner’s office declined official identification until her husband views the badly burned bodies, the husband said he had no doubt his wife, JOAN MERRIAM SMITH, 28, is dead. Authorities believe the other woman was TRIXIE ANN SCHUBERT, 42, of Los Angeles, who was writing JOAN’S life story.”
Intrigued, I wanted to learn more about why Joan was considered famous. I had always known that Trixie was working on a book about Joan when she died, but I wanted to know what it was about. How did the two become friends? Why did Trixie want to write a book about her? And of course, why did their plane crash? Ultimately, this led to a blog post I wrote about Trixie back in 2010, which unexpectedly launched a ±10-year journey of discovery with people from across the web to learn more about both Joan and Trixie’s lives.
In the early days of my research, the only articles I could really find about female pilots in the 1960s mentioning Joan Merriam Smith had to do with Geraldine Mock, the official first woman to fly around the world solo in 1964. Of course, I wondered why Mock had received so much publicity, and why there was literally nothing much written about Joan. Even back then, something just did not sit right with me, and I wanted to explore it. After all, if Trixie wanted to tell Joan’s story, I believed that Joan must have had quite some story to tell.
Trixie was known for taking on big projects. At the time of their deaths, she had just returned from reporting behind the Iron Curtain in Russia as an Associated Press foreign news correspondent. In 1963, she published a book about the adventurous navy veteran and American goodwill ambassador Aloysius Eugene Francis Patrick Mozier. As it turns out, the more the dug into Joan and Trixie’s story, the more I became enthralled and intrigued by what I was learning.
Fate on a Folded Wing is the culmination of years of research and personal explorations made into better understanding the life and great accomplishments of Joan Merriam Smith. It’s been my great pleasure to research this story, and I look forward to sharing it with you!