The Adventures of Trixie (Gehrung) Schubert

Each and every day, countless files from around the globe are newly digitized, catalogued, uploaded, organized, shared, or otherwise published to the web. Take for example the online newspaper archive services. Even though the Newspapers.com database (the largest online newspaper archive) currently features 20,700 newspapers from the 1700s–2000s, it is still adding millions of new pages to its archive every month! Similarly, NewspaperArchive.com is currently adding one newspaper page every second, which equates to over 80,000 images a day or 2.5 million pages per month! With this in mind, every now and then I like to search around and see what new items have popped up.

Recently I was able to locate some new articles I’d never seen before about Trixie, related to her work as a journalist. I was delighted to find an October 17, 1943 Milwaukee Journal article entitled “The Adventures of WTMJ’s Trixie,” where the writer provided an overview of a day in the life of Trixie as Wisconsin’s first female radio news writer.

I also learned that Trixie traveled to Hollywood in the 1940s to personally invite movie stars to Milwaukee’s 1946 100th birthday “Centurama” celebration (see article “Throngs Turn Out for ‘Two Guys’ – Stars Arrive for Fliers Meet.”) While on the Warner Bros. lot, she apparently rode around on the handlebars of Bob Hope’s bicycle.

According to the Milwaukee County Historical Society, the Milwaukee Centurama was comprised primarily of a 31-day festival near the current site of the War Memorial on the lakefront. Concerts, food and entertainment made the festival one of Milwaukee’s most memorable.

During this celebration, I also learned that Trixie helped organize a private gathering for 300 private pilots with special guest Tyrone Power (see article “Private Fliers Get Together, 300 at Gathering“). Power was a big movie star in the Golden Age of Hollywood. From the 1930s to the 1950s, he appeared in dozens of films, according to Wikipedia, and was often cast in “swashbuckler roles or romantic leads.” From the above-referenced article, he is quoted as saying: “I’m delighted to be here. I want to thank Trixie Gehrung for inviting me. She’s the reason I’m here tonight.”

For the historical value, below follows the full text of the article about Trixie’s work as a radio news writer. I felt this article not only provided a good description of Trixie’s character, but it also gave a fascinating historical look into the history of journalism and the heyday of radio news.

The Adventure’s of WTMJ’s Trixie
by Bea J. Pepan
Milwaukee Journal | 10/17/47

“Just back from a trip to New York, Beatrice “Trixie” Gehrung, woman news writer at Radio City, is still quietly glowing over the part she played in a television experiment at NBC‘s Radio City.

As the story goes, Trixie was touring the NBC studios, comparing them mentally with Milwaukee’s own Radio City and enjoying her post man’s holiday immensely.

Her tour party came to a studio where a demonstration of television operation had been scheduled. But at the 11th hour a live subject was lacking. Miss Gehrung, with her televisable black and white dress, be so kind as to sit in? Without hesitation, or even a moment to experience the qualms of stage fright, Trixie acquiesced. Her directions were to talk about anything she desired for six minutes.

She was placed before a backdrop of forest scenery, facing one wall on which was placed a small Televisor, comparable to the lens of the camera. Flooding the room and the subject were blinding lights, as on a movie set. Add a signal chicks he began to speak about Milwaukee’s Radio City. From the studio in which she stood, her picture was flashed upon a screen in front of the audience in the adjoining room, just as slides are flashed on any screen. And sitting in the world’s most famous radio center, the party saw and heard a lecture on the Milwaukee facilities of WTMJ, 1000 miles away.

Unusual experiences seem to be Trixie’s lot in life. And traveling? She’s covered a godly mileage and her 20 odd years, living in big towns and small from Coast to Coast. Born in Denver, Colorado, she found herself in Tampa, Florida, at the age of two, and shortly thereafter the family moved to Hollywood. Her father’s profession, acting, accounts for the steady changes in scenes. On the screen he was known as Gene Gehrung; on the stage he was known as Judd Morgan.

Misfortune over took the family in California – the death of Trixie‘s mother. So from the West Coast Trixie and her brother came to the middle west, to Oshkosh, where they went to school. Trixie spent two years in Oshkosh state teachers, but got her degree at Wisconsin University in Madison.

Ambitions? Trixie had many at different stages of her youth, but finally settled on journalism. And she made up her mind to combine newspaper work with radio if possible.

With this in mind she set out for Tomahawk, Wisconsin. After graduation from Wisconsin, she picked up all around newspaper experience editing the Tomahawk leader. Then Trixie took a job as announcer and news writer for station WSAU, Wausau, Wisconsin. Still climbing the ladder she moved onto Radio City, Becoming WTMJ’s first woman news writer.

Here is the radio news riders daily routine: Trixie’s day starts at 5 AM, continuing through until 2 PM, which means rolling out at 4:30 AM daily, dressing in 10 minutes flat, whizzing through breakfast, mounting her bicycle and arriving at Radio City at 5 o’clock promptly. Bicycling in Trixie’s case is not only a convenience but a necessity. Bus service has a tendency to be erratic at that hour.

Trixie’s first duty each morning is to clear the teletype machines of all associated press copy sorting it in piles on her desk according to Washington news, London news, War base news, news from Southwest Pacific, miscellaneous matters, human interest stories, feature stories, local news, etc. That takes about half an hour. As she sorts all this she’s planning her first broadcast, five minutes long, at 6:05 AM. A sustaining program, meaning a broadcast without commercial announcements, generally takes about 75 lines. Sponsored news broadcasts take less depending upon how much time is given over to “plugs.”

All copy news writers hand to announcers must be practically letter perfect. Each WTMJ-W55M announcer spiels at a different rate of speed. Don Stanley usually covers about 55 lines of copy in five minutes. Bob Shannon takes about 48. Words and sentences for news broadcasts must be brief and concise, which naturally throws out those lovely nine and 10 letter words like “diaphanous,” which look good in print but are devilish pitfalls for fluffs.

So it goes throughout the day, the machines pounding out a study ream of AP copy and Trixie writing news broadcasts for 6:30, 7, 7:30, 7:55, etc. … until 2 o’clock, when Jack Kruger takes over.

Trixie says her work doesn’t get dull. She’ll never forget the day when, wearing a very precarious pair of French sandals, she tore into the studio where one of the announcers was on the air awaiting the late baseball scores she was carrying. Trixie skated and fell just inside the door and it banged behind her. Its incidents like these that can start an announcer off on a laughing jag with disastrous results. Trixie hates to recall the moments she spent sitting on that studio floor, trying desperately to regain her composure and stifle the laughter welling within her.”

Joan & Jerrie’s 1964 Post World Flight Feud

Recently I came across a couple of old newspaper articles documenting the “feud” between Joan and Jerrie following their respective world flights. Because I had not come across these articles before, I thought it would be fun to share them here for anyone interested. (Links to articles follow below.) Reading the full text offers an interesting glimpse into the past.

Article #1 – Jerrie Calls Joan a “Poor Loser,” Wants Guam to Oakland Race
Pacific Stars and Stripes | May 16, 1964
(Note: same text with different headline also ran in the Pasadena Independent on same date.)

The growing feud between America’s two long-distance women pilots leaped into the open Thursday when Mrs. Jerrie Mock charged Mrs. Joan Merriam Smith as “a poor loser.”

Mrs. Mock became the first woman to fly solo around the world April 17 when she landed her single-engine plane here to end a 29-day flight. Mrs. Smith, who left Oakland, Cal., several days before Mrs. Mock left Columbus on her flight, arrived back in California Wednesday in her twin-engined plane.

(Click here to view article)

Article #2 – Aviatrixes Fly at Each Other in World Hops
Long Beach Press-Telegram | May 15, 1964

A feud which had been smoldering for weeks between Long Beach’s Joan Merriam Smith and Mrs. Jerrie Mock of Columbus, Ohio, who both recently completed solo global flights, broke into the open Thursday.

“I think she’s a poor loser,” Mrs. Mock charged in a Columbus interview.

“That’s the most ridiculous statement I have ever heard from a licensed pilot,” Joan snapped back.

Mrs. Mock’s ire apparently had been raised by a comment made by the Long Beach pilot on her arrival at Oakland to complete her flight.

Joan was asked if she considered herself the first or second woman to fly alone around the world.

“I believe if you check any almanac it will say the distance around the world is 25,000 miles,” she answered.

Mrs. Mock flew a 22,800-mile distance to back up her claim. Joan’s route, which followed that planned by Amelia Earhart in 1937, covered 27,750 miles.

(Click here to view article)

Dianna Bixby Planned to Become the 1st Woman to Complete an Official World Solo Flight

Ten years before Joan Merriam Smith and Jerrie Mock successfully completed their solo flights around the world, Dianna Converse Cyrus Bixby planned to become the first woman to complete an official solo flight around the globe. While I had heard of Dianna and knew a little bit about her, it wasn’t until recently that I learned a whole lot more.

While looking for articles that Trixie had written about other female pilots, I came across this gem from a March 1954 edition of The Milwaukee Journal about none other than Dianna Bixby! In the article entitled “Young Mother of 2 Ready to Try to Fly Alone Around the World,” Trixie interviews 31-year old Bixby and reports on her plans to fly around the world in a De Haviland Mosquito Bomber. Back in 1954, no woman had yet completed an official solo flight around the globe.

While there were at least two women who had completed solo flights around the world prior to 1954, neither flight was considered official. For example, both Mary Petre Bruce and Elly Beinhorn flew around the world in 1930 and 1931, respectively. In both cases, their planes had to be shipped across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Dianna was an accomplished pilot with some 5,000 hours of flight time accumulated by age 31. In 1954, she flew produce 3-4 times per week in-between the United States and Mexico. She also flew passengers around the western half of the United States for the U.S. Forest Service. And, she also flew DC-3s for the movie industry, accumulating some 4,000 hours alone as a DC-3 (camera) pilot.

Standing at just 5 foot 2, Dianna’s personality was described as spunky; she was referred to as a “pretty pixie” with an infectious smile. As a child she rode horses bare back in the circus, accumulating a room full of trophies earned through horsemanship. She studied soprano singing and acted in Santa Barbara, California-based theater groups; she also played violin.

Dianna Bixby poses with her converted A-26 bomber, “The Huntress,” in this undated photo (image source)

Dianna had a famous grandmother named Mary Parker Converse, who was the first woman to be commissioned by the United States Merchant Marine. (Click here to read “Running over the waves: Mary Parker Converse” from the Boston, MA website Wicked Local, which offers a wonderful summary about Mary’s life and accomplishments.) With a grandmother like Mary, there’s no doubt that Dianna gleaned much wisdom and inspiration from her. From the above-referenced article, the author writes this about Mary:

“She was a poet, writer, composer, charity leader, and sea captain. She became the first female merchant ship captain in America, receiving her license at age 68. She fought against the stereotypes of time, proving again and again that woman shall not only be housewives. Among her acquaintances were presidents, musicians, writers, mariners, war prisoners and ex-convicts.”

No stranger to tragedy, Dianna lost her first husband Capt. John Volney Cyrus in 1945 when his plane was shot down during the Battle of the Bulge. According to the book Soaring Skyward by Claudine Bennett, Dianna accepted John’s proposal of marriage on the condition that he would teach her to fly. Dianna would continue flying following her husband’s death. Shortly after the loss of her husband, her mother passed away. While flying air freight in 1948, she met and married Robert Bixby, a wartime Air Transport Command pilot. Together they had two children. Her first born, Lillian, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

Dianna’s World Flight Attempts

After the loss of her first husband, Dianna set her sights on becoming the first woman to circle the globe. Seeking out Paul Mantz (who had been Earhart’s technical advisor) for assistance, she got to work and in 1947 she set her first air record, which was a speed record between Denver and Burbank of 2 hours, 19 minutes, and 20 seconds. With Mantz’s prompting, she entered the Cleveland to Los Angeles Bendix Air Race. While she didn’t win the race, she was one of only two women who entered.

Photo caption reads: “GLENDALE, CAL – Mrs. Dianna Cyrus, 25, checks dials and gadgets in cockpit of her converted A-26 bomber, ‘The Huntress,’ in Glendale today (3/1), after announcing she will try for an official round-the-world record this summer in the plane alone.” (Image Source)

In 1950, Dianna and her husband Robert attempted a world flight, but their right engine blew a gasket near Calcutta. Due to the need for major repairs, they were unable to continue. Robert next agreed to let her make the attempt by herself since no one else had yet completed the record. However, it would take them some time to raise the money. The cost of such a flight to Dianna (minus sponsorships, presumably) was estimated to be around $17,000 for fuel plus a $2,500 fee to the aeronautical association, or $190,000 in 2021 dollars. In the early 1950’s, she underwent specialized high altitude training at Lockheed Aviation in Burbank, CA.

Dianna worked long and hard hours in preparation for her world flight attempts. Together with her husband, she ran a business transporting produce known as Bixby’s Airborne Products. It is of interest to note here that Jack Smith, Joan Merriam Smith’s husband, worked for the Bixby’s. A normal day for Dianna would begin at 5 am. After leaving her children in the care of a nurse, she would set off for flying until at least 4:30 p.m.. She is quoted as saying: “In aviation, you’re either in it 24 hours a day or not at all.”

Dianna’s planned route for her 1954 attempt was 20,525 miles, beginning in San Francisco, continuing on to Newark, followed by a 3,642-mile leg over to Paris, then Bashra (Iraq), Karachi, Calcutta, Tokyo, Midway Island, and back to San Francisco. On April 3, 1954 (just a few days after Trixie’s article was published) she was set to make the journey, but power plant troubles with her plane in addition to the prospect of bad weather forced her to cancel. She was determined to try again.

Dianna Cyrus, woman flyer, greeted by Howard I. Stites, City Manager of Burbank (1940’s)
(image source)

In the runup to her next world flight attempt, tragedy again struck when Dianna ran out of gas in inclement weather en route to Mexico. Less than a year following her interview with Trixie, Dianna crashed into the ocean and died. A January 5, 1955 summary from the Pomona Progress Bulletin reads as follows:

Even though Dianna was not able to achieve her dream of becoming the first woman to circle the globe as a solo flier, her efforts were not lost. She was a true pioneer: focused, goal-oriented, and willing to take great risks to achieve her dreams. “The problem human beings face is not that we aim too high and fail, but that we aim too low and succeed.” — Michelangelo

A Tribute to Sheila Scott, Jackie Cochran, Jerrie Cobb, and Jerrie Mock

Recently I had the pleasure of finishing three books about four amazing women who collectively make up a huge chunk of aviation history—Sheila Scott, Jackie Cochran, Jerrie Cobb, and Jerrie Mock. All four of these women lived, flew, and accomplished during the same time period as Joan Merriam Smith. The three books I read include:

Not unlike today, the 1960’s was a period characterized by accelerated change, while at the same time an era filled with promise. Despite the noise and distractions of the day (civil rights marches, JFK’s assassination, the space race, Vietnam, the pervasive threat of nuclear war), rather than becoming too caught up in the drama, these women were instead collectively busy blazing trails, exploring new arenas, living lives filled with adventure and purpose, and generally creating the future that they wanted to live in. For these reasons and more, each of these books offers a real depth of discovery, a reflection about challenges, and a re-imagination of possibilities in times of deep change. In short, they’re simply inspiring.

One of my favorite things about reading books in general is coming across new information, new connections, and new insights. While reading Fighting for Space, for example, I learned that Joan was one of the first few women to be secretly tested by the Lovelace Clinic for the Mercury 13 program! For those who are interested in learning more about the Mercury 13 program, Netflix recently put together a documentary about it. You can watch the trailer here:

While I had suspected that Joan must have been at least considered for this program aimed at getting the first woman up into space (since so few women met the criteria for being tested at the time), this was the first I was able to confirm it. Now if only I could find some more information about her experience there. But first, onto the book reviews!

Barefoot in the Sky by Sheila Scott

Even though I had heard of Sheila Scott and knew she was famous for not only becoming the third woman to fly around the world solo, but for completing a polar flight, as well as breaking over 100 flight records, I really didn’t know anything much about her. Though it took me awhile to actually sit down and read her book, once I cracked it open I simply couldn’t stop! I was surprised to find that her book was extremely poetic, very introspective, and filled with vivid details. This made the experience of reading the book almost as pleasurable and realistic as if you were on the journey together with Sheila herself.

As an actress who originally took a flying lesson on a dare, Sheila soon found flying as her calling and went on to commit to a life of flying and achieving impressive feats. From the book’s epilogue, a particular statement jumped out at me. While reflecting on her experiences after many years of flying, Sheila wrote:

“But why did I have to fly to find happiness? I think it is because in the sky I am able to stretch my brain rather than my legs, and find motivation to satisfy my insatiable curiosity to experience things myself, to be able to understand them, and to find meaning and a sense of man’s superconscious. I must fly over every horizon to see what it is like on the other side!

Flying also gives me a spirit of adventure—which I believe is a necessary thing for future progress, both individually and internationally. Soon computers will install a great deal of knowledge into all men’s mental processes in a very short space of time, much quicker than the old fourteen to eighteen years of present-day scholastic learning periods. But unless man has individuality and some responsibility for his own actions, he will become as a computer himself.”

Sheila Scott, page 211 of Barefoot in the Sky

She goes on to say:

“Through my personal self-evolvement, my flights and what they are teaching me, I am meeting more and more people in other spheres of life who are thinking and striving as I am. Together our experiences may only be particles toward renewed discoveries of the superconscious, but I believe these are of value to man’s higher development. Occasionally I want to switch on my personal autopilot and sit back, for modern life is increasingly automatic, but then I find I am bored, negative, and I become self-destructive. Fortunately, another unexpected idea soon arises and once I have put it into words, I am chasing again, thinking of nothing else until it is done. I must live for the idea totally, completely involved, and know that it is what I have been born for. It is always a flight path of the sky that I am following, but it is not an escape. It is a search, not for fame or riches, but for self and understanding.”

Sheila Scott, page 212 of Barefoot in the Sky

What a profound set of statements! In other words, Sheila’s passion for flying was really about pursuit and progress as much as the thrill of a challenge and the joy of adventure. Her experience is something really anyone can learn from. We could also all take a cue from her bravery, her interpretation of the times, the potential pitfalls, and her commitment to progress.

Another thing that stood out to me about Sheila’s book, among the others I have read in this category, is that she was highly intuitive. She connected very much to the world above the ground, appreciated all that it had to offer, respected the privilege of flying, acknowledged the constant threat of death, and took solace in the idea that she was contributing to the greater good. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand the ups and downs of taking on impressive challenges, or who enjoys philosophy or poetry.

Fighting for Space: Two Pilots and Their Historic Battle for Female Spaceflight by Amy Shira Teitel

In Fighting for Space, Amy Shira Teitel dives into the story of Jackie Cochran and Jerrie Cobb, zeroing in on their unique plights to become the first woman in space. I was impressed with the level of research that the author completed, and her ability to synthesize that research into a captivating, well-structured, and engaging story that lines up with actual facts and events. I particularly appreciated how Amy addressed the nuances of both Jackie and Jerrie’s personal stories and varied recollections in her author’s note. The work that went into bridging the narratives of these two complex characters was by no means an easy task.

Prior to reading this book, I knew nothing about the details of Jackie’s personal life other than she was married to one of the the richest men in the United States, that she headed up the WASPs, and of course broke countless aviation records. This story brought so much more color to the complexity of Jackie’s life, which underscored the depth and nuance of her character. I particularly enjoyed the opening chapters which laid a beautiful groundwork for the book.

Here’s a particular excerpt I enjoyed about Jackie’s experience of breaking the sound barrier for the first time:

“For a brief moment, she felt how small she was in her little jet plane, and felt as though she were teetering precariously on the horizon close to the gates of heaven. For a moment she was entranced, but soon realized she wasn’t there to stargaze. Forcing her focus back into the cockpit, Jackie put the sabre into an S-dive. In an instant, she was losing altitude so fast that the needle on her altimeter was a blur …

Then, without warning, the turbulence stopped. The shock waves disappeared. The rattling was replaced by an unearthly silence. She was through the sound barrier; the turbulent air and shock waves were behind her and the noise couldn’t catch her. For a fleeting moment, Jackie felt a spiritual connection with something greater than herself. She didn’t feel scared just confident and keenly aware of the plane’s every moment.”

Fighting for Space, page 117

As mentioned in Fate on a Folded Wing, Jackie Cochran was both a friend and supporter of Joan’s, and for lack of a better descriptive word she was simply badass (according to one dictionary definition, that is to say “distinctively tough or powerful, or so exceptional as to be intimidating”). Because Jackie was concerned that Joan’s world flight didn’t receive the recognition it deserved, she wrote letters in support of her accomplishment to the National Aeronautical Association.

As for Jerrie Cobb, unbelievably I had never heard of Jerrie Cobb until I read this book. I appreciated the opportunity to learn about Jerrie’s life, how she came to head up the initiative of getting women into space (in an industry that worked against her at a time when women had so much progress yet to make). These times were messy, non-standard, emotional, unprecedented, littered with power plays, punctuated by valiant efforts, and filled with highs and lows. On top of everything, I was saddened to hear that Jerrie only passed away in 2019!

Jerrie Cobb poses next to a Mercury spaceship capsule.
(Image Source: NASA / Public domain)

In short, without giving too much away, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand this period in history, or who enjoys a riveting, real-life story about two dynamic and complex characters who played a glorious role in history’s unfolding.

The Jerrie Mock Story: The First Woman to Fly Solo around the World by Nancy Roe Pimm

While I have read Three-Eight Charlie, originally published in 1970, I also wanted to read Nancy Roe Pimm’s book The Jerrie Mock Story for additional perspective. Since Jerrie flew around the world solo the same year as Joan, it never gets old hearing additional details about the experiences of women pilots in the 1960’s. While this book was written for a young adult audience, it’s actually perfect for adults! The story is well-laid out, easy to follow, and filled with excellent details. The author provides a thorough overview of Jerrie’s life, her personal experiences, the events leading up to her great accomplishment, as well as the adventure of her world flight. From the book, I enjoyed this particular description, as well as many others from Jerrie’s experience of traveling around the globe:

“During her final approach, ‘the last rays of the sun broke through the cumuli and bathed the little seacoast town with its golden radiance. It was an eerie light that often comes after a storm. The white ships in the harbor, the shiny rooftops, and the emerald palms shimmered against the backdrop of a deep purple sky. The rain-swept runway was like a golden finger.’

The Jerrie Mock Story, Page 51

In short, Jerrie is truly an American legend, and her story is 100% worth exploring!

Even though each of these women lived in different locations (Ohio, England, Oklahoma, and two in Southern CA), because of the global nature and strategic importance of what they were involved in, they naturally had many of the same contacts, supporters, and industry connections in cities around the globe. That’s what makes reading all of these books together so entertaining. I hope you can set some time aside to enjoy them too and give these women some more of the credit they deserve by honoring their legacies!

Anniversary of Joan Merriam Smith’s World Flight Honored by “This Day in Aviation”

Bryan R. Swopes from “This Day in Aviation” recently wrote a very detailed and well-researched piece about Joan Merriam Smith and her historic 1964 solo flight around the world. As such, and with Bryan’s permission, I am re-posting his write-up here. To view the original piece, please visit the “This Day in Aviation” website. You can also like his page on Facebook to keep up with all the latest and most fascinating aviation history!

17 March–12 May 1964: Joan Merriam Smith
By: Bryan R. Swopes

Joan Merriam Smith, with her Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P, photographed 23 January 1965. (Los Angeles Public Library, Valley Times Collection)

At 1:00 p.m., 17 March 1964, Joan Merriam Smith departed Oakland International Airport, on California’s San Francisco Bay, on what would be the first leg of an around-the world flight. Her first stop would be Tucson, Arizona, approximately 650 nautical miles (1,200 kilometers) to the east-southeast.

Mrs. Smith intended to follow the easterly route of Amelia Earhart, who had departed from Oakland on both of her attempts at the around-the-world flight. The first try, 17 March 1937, was a westerly route, with a first stop at Hawaii. The second try, 2 June 1937, was an eastbound route.

The two routes were planned to take advantage of seasonal weather patterns.

Mrs. Smith wanted to follow Earhart’s eastbound route, but by leaving in mid-March, she put herself at a disadvantage with respect to the weather she would encounter as she traveled around the Earth.

Unlike Earhart, who had two of the world’s foremost navigators in her flight crew, Mrs. Smith would fly alone, her only companion a small teddy bear. She would navigate by pilotage and ded reckoning, and by using radio aids such as non-directional beacons (NDBs) and VHF omnidirectional ranges (VORs).

Joan Ann Merriam Smith loading a teddy bear into her 1958 Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P. Note the auxiliary fuel tank in the cabin. (Calisphere)

Forecast adverse weather caused her to leave Tucson for her next stop, New Orleans, Louisiana, at 2:00 a.m., 18 March. Dodging the weather, she was forced to make an intermediate fuel stop at Lubbock, Texas. She finally arrived in New Orleans at 4:00 p.m. that afternoon. After another early morning start, she flew on to Miami, Florida, on 19 March.

A detailed story of Joan Merriam Smith’s flight is told in Fate on a Folded Wing, written by Tiffany Ann Brown.¹ Her route followed Earhart’s eastward across the United States; south over the Caribbean Sea to South America; then across the South Atlantic Ocean; Africa, Asia, and finally, to the Pacific Ocean, where Mrs. Smith’s route diverged from Earhart’s.

Smith’s itinerary:  Across the United States from Oakland, California, to Tucson, Arizona; Lubbock, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Miami, Florida. Then over the Caribbean Sea to San Juan, Paramaribo, Natal; east across the South Atlantic to Dakar, Gao, Fort-Lamy, Al-Fashir, Khartoum, Aden. From Africa, Smith headed into South Asia: Karachi, Calcutta, Akyab, Rangoon; and then Southeast Asia: Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta, Surabaya, Kupang; Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia; and Lae, New Guinea. From here, Smith deviated from Earhart’s route across the Pacific Ocean by flying to Guam instead of Howland Island; then Wake Island; Midway Island; Honolulu, Hawaii; and, finally Oakland.

Mrs. Smith’s flight was troubled by adverse weather, leaking fuel tanks, out-of-calibration radio equipment, a recalcitrant autopilot, problems with the hydraulic and electrical systems, and a heater that would not work. And weather. . .

She arrived back at Oakland International at 9:12 a.m., on 12 May 1964, having flown approximately 27,750 miles (44,659 kilometers). The total duration of her journey was 55 days, 20 hours, 12 minutes. She had flown 35 legs on 23 days. Mrs. Smith wrote that the circumnavigation had taken a total of 170 flight hours, with 47 hours on instruments and 26 hours of night time.

Joan Merriam Smith is credited with having made the first solo circumnavigation of the Earth by the Equatorial route, and the longest solo flight.

Joan Merriam Smith with her Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P, “City of Long Beach.” (UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library)

The airplane flown by Joan Merriam Smith was a Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, serial number 23-1196, U.S. registration N3251P, which she had named City of Long Beach. The red and white airplane was manufactured by the Piper Aircraft Corporation at Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, in 1958. It had been purchased by the State of Illinois Department of Aeronautics to use checking state-owned aeronautical facilities. When the the state acquired a faster aircraft, the Apache was sold in November 1963. The Federal Aviation Administration issued a registration certificate to Mrs. Smith on 30 December 1963.

The Piper PA-23-160 Apache E was a 4-place, twin-engine, light airplane with retractable tricycle landing gear. It was 27 feet, 2 inches (8.280 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 0 inches (11.278 meters) and overall height of 10 feet, 1 inch (3.073 meters). The airplane had an empty weight of 2,230 pounds (1,011.5 kilograms) and maximum gross weight of 3,800 pounds (1,723.7 kilograms).

Joan Merriam Smith’s 1958 Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P, “City of Long Beach.” (Les Clark/Photovault.com)

The Apache E was powered by two air-cooled, normally-aspirated, 319.749-cubic-inch-displacement (5.240 liter) Lycoming O-320-B horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder overhead valve (OHV) engines with a compression ratio of 8.5:1. The O-320-B is a direct-drive, right-hand tractor engine, rated at 160 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. The O-320-B is 2 feet, 5.56 inches (0.751 meters) long, 2 feet, 8.24 inches (0.819 meters) wide and 1 foot, 10.99 inches (0.584 meters) high. It weighs 278 pounds (126.1 kilograms). The engines turned two-bladed Hartzell constant-speed propellers.

N3251P’s engines were modified with Rajay Co., Inc., Turbo 200 turbochargers.

Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P. (Detail from image at Fate on a Folded Wing)

The PA-23-160 had a cruise speed of 150 knots (173 miles per hour/278 kilometers per hour) and maximum speed was 159 knots (183 miles per hour/295 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling was 17,000 feet (5,182 meters).

During a flight from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Long Beach, 9 January 1965, the cabin heater in the nose of the Apache caught fire. With the cabin filled with smoke and gasoline fumes, and unable to reach any airport, Mrs. Smith crash-landed the airplane in rocky terrain in the Ord Mountains, southeast of Barstow in the high desert of southern California. After it has slid to a stop, N3251P continued to burn and was largely destroyed. Mrs. Smith and her passenger, Willam Harry Eytchison, were slightly injured.

At the time of the accident, N3251P had just under 3,000 hours total time on the airframe (TTAF), and less than 400 hours on new engines (TSN).

The burned out wreck of Joan Merriam Smith’s Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P. (Image from Fate on a Folded Wing)

Joan Ann Merriam was born 3 August 1936 at Oceanside, Long Island, New York, U.S.A. She was the daughter of Arthur Ray Merriam, Jr., a railroad office stenographer, and Ann Marie Lofgren Merriam. The family relocated to Wayne, Michigan, where Joan attended Jefferson Junior High School and Wayne High School.

Joan A. Merriam, Wayne High School, 1952. (Spectator)

Joan’s father died at the age of 43, New Year’s Day, 1952. She and her mother then moved to Miami, Florida. Flying from Detroit to Miami aboard a Lockheed Constellation, Joan was allowed to visit the flight deck and speak to the crew.

The airline flight sparked an interest in aviation. She began taking lessons at the age of 15. Joan learned to fly at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute, then located at at Tamiami Airport. She first soloed an airplane at the age of 16 years. On 7 November 1953, shortly after her 17th birthday, she was issued private pilot certificate. Special permission was obtained from the FAA for her to take the written exams for commercial pilot before she turned 18.

Joan graduated from Miami Senior High School in 1954.

The prototype Cessna 140, NC77260, circa 1946. (Cessna Aircraft Company)
“JOAN MERRIAM Pretty Pilot” (23 December 1953)

Mrs. Merriam gave Joan a Cessna 140, a single-engine light airplane, making her one of the youngest people in the United States to own an airplane. Joan said that her mother was “the bravest passenger,” as she practiced all of the maneuvers required for a commercial pilot’s license. By the time she was 18, she earned a commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating, and a flight instructor certificate. She began instructing at Tamiami. She flew charters from Florida to Texas, living in that state before moving to Panama City, Florida. On her twenty-third birthday, the earliest that she was eligible, Miss Merriam was issued an airline transport pilot certificate (ATP) by the FAA. She had flown nearly 5,000 hours.

Miss Merriam would later own a Piper Cub modified for aerobatics, a second Cessna 140, and a Cessna 172.

In the fall of 1955, Miss Merriam married Harold MacDonald, a student in aeronautical engineering. She worked as a flight instructor for Avex, Inc., at Tamiami Airport. Mr. and Mrs. MacDonald soon divorced.

Joan Ann Merriam, circa 1958.

In 1960, Miss Merriam was living in Panama City, Florida, where she was employed as a pilot for West Florida Natural Gas Company, one of very few women who flew as corporate pilots at the time. (Contemporary newspapers reported that she was “one of three women corporation pilots in the country.”) Reflecting the sexist attitudes of the time, news features often described her as a “blue-eyed platinum blonde,” and made mention of “her personal aerodynamic attributes.” In an interview, Miss Merriam said that a major reason preventing more women from executive flying were, “executive’s wives, and executive’s secretaries.”

She had met Lieutenant (j.g.) Marvin G. (“Jack”) Smith, Jr., U.S. Navy, in 1958. Lieutenant Smith was executive officer of USS Vital (MSO-474), an Agile-class minesweeper homeported at Panama City. She moved to San Leandro, California, and worked as a contract instrument flight instructor at Oakland International Airport for the Sixth United States Army, which was then based at the Presidio of San Francisco.

Miss Merriam and Lieutenant Smith were married at Monterey, California, 23 September 1960. The couple later moved to Long Beach, where Lieutenant Commander Smith’s next ship, USS Endurance (AM-435), was homeported.

Prototype 1960 Cessna 182D Skylane, c/n 51623, N2323G. This airplane is very similar to that flown by Joan Merriam Smith on 17 February 1965. (Cessna Aircraft Company)

In February 1965, Joan Merriam Smith was flying for Rajay Industries out of Long Beach, California. (Rajay was a turbocharger manufacturer which had supplied the turbos for Mrs. Smith’s Apache.) She had been conducting functional and reliability tests on a modified Cessna 182C Skylane, N8784T. The airplane was owned by the V. E. Kuster Co., of Long Beach, a supplier of oil field equipment.

The flight test plan for 17 February 1965 called for the Cessna to be flown at altitudes between 5,000 and 23,000 feet (1,524–7,010 meters). Mrs. Smith was flying. Also on board was her biographer, Beatrice Ann (“Trixie”) Schubert.

Smith was flying across the San Gabriel Mountains, which divide southern California’s coastal plain from the high desert. The highest peak in the range, Mount San Antonio, which was not far east of her course, rises to 10,046 feet (3,062 meters).

The San Gabriel Mountains of southern California, viewed from the south in winter. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Witnesses said that the airplane had been flying normally, estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000 feet (305–610 meters) above the mountainous terrain, when the right wing folded back along the fuselage. The airplane, with the engine revving, went into a dive and crashed into the north slope of Blue Ridge, a few miles west of Wrightwood, California, 10–12 seconds later. There was an explosion and fire.

Joan Merriam Smith and Trixie Ann Schubert were killed.

Investigators found that both wings had failed outboard of the struts. The outer wing panels, both ailerons and the left elevator were located approximately 1½ miles (2½ kilometers) from the point of impact. Examination showed that the aircraft had suffered severe loads. “There was no evidence of fatigue or failure of the aircraft before the inflight structural failure.”

The Civil Aeronautics Board reported the Probable Cause: “The pilot entered an area of light to moderate turbulence at high speed, during which aerodynamic forces exceeding the structural strength of the aircraft caused in-flight structural failure.” According to the CAB, the Cessna 182 had an airspeed in excess of 190 miles per hour (306 kilometers per hour) when it entered the area of turbulence.

Her remains were interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Cypress, California.

(Scott Wilson/Find a Grave)
Harmon Aviatrix Trophy (NASM)

For her accomplishment, Joan Merriam Smith was posthumously awarded the Harmon Aviatrix Trophy for 1965. At a ceremony held in the Indian Treaty Room of the Executive Office Building, 15 December 1965, the trophy was presented to her husband, Lieutenant Commander Marvin G. Smith, Jr., by Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Mrs. Smith had intended to attempt an altitude record with the turbocharged Skylane. On 20 July 1965, her husband, Marvin G. Smith, set the record at 10,689.6 meters (35,070.9 feet), flying a Cessna 210A Centurion with an IO-470 engine.²

TDiA would like to thank Ms. Tiffany Ann Brown for suggesting this subject, and for her invaluable contribution.

¹ Fate on a Folded Wing: The True Story of Pioneering Solo Pilot Joan Merriam Smith, by Tiffany Ann Brown. Lucky Bat Books, 2019.

² FAI Record File Number 9977 (Class C, Sub-Class C1c: powered airplanes, takeoff weight 1000 to 1750 kg).

© 2020, Bryan R. Swopes

Joan Merriam Smith featured in Long Beach Press Telegram Cover Story

Recently, the Long Beach Press Telegram featured a story about Joan Merriam Smith and the work that G. Pat Macha of Aircraft Wrecks is doing as it pertains to researching historic aircraft wrecks. You can view the full article here.

I first came across Macha while researching all that I could about plane crashes for Fate on a Folded Wing. During that time period, I inadvertently came across a TV show called Aircraft Confidential in which Macha was featured. In that episode, Macha talked about a woman who survived a plane crash caused by clear air turbulence near the top of Mount Whitney in the 1970s, among other topics that piqued my interest. Soon thereafter I found myself reaching out to him over email. I explained that I was working on a book about Joan Merriam Smith: coincidentally—and much to my surprise—he had recalled visiting the area of Joan and Trixie’s fatal crash site back in 1965!

As it turns out, Macha truly was best expert talk to, and it was serendipitous because I came across that television show by complete accident (not much of a television-watcher). Not only has Macha visited over 800 crash sites, but he’s also written a handful of books documenting plane crashes across Southern California. You can visit his website to learn more about his work here. In addition, he’s given countless lectures and has also been featured on many television shows.

To hear more about how he got involved in this line of work, watch the below video:

G. Pat Macha, Aircraft Wreck Historian

What’s so neat about the way that the Long Beach Press Telegram article came together, is that in part due to our correspondence, Macha’s team decided to research, locate, and visit Joan’s first plane crash site in the Southern California desert over 50 years later. In the Press Telegram article, you can read more about how they located the site and what they found along the way.

Prior to connecting with Pat, I had no idea that there were people out there who researched and documented aircraft wrecks. I also didn’t realize that there were teams of volunteers who worked to honor those who have been lost in plane crashes. From the website, Macha writes:

The Project Remembrance Team is a volunteer organization dedicated to facilitate requests of next of kin who wish to learn more about the loss of loved ones in aircraft accidents, including crash site visitations, and the placing of memorials where legal to do so.

In the past twenty-five years the Project Remembrance Team has assisted more than one hundred next of kin fulfill their wishes for accident reports, maps, photographs, and crash site visitations. On one occasion where a crash site could not be safely reached on foot a flyover was arranged. More than a dozen memorial markers have been placed at, or near crash sites, all with the permission of the property owners, be they private, state, or federal.

All missions are completed with respect and admiration for those who have come forth to honor the memory for those whom they have loved and lost. Losses suffered by our first responders, and members of our armed forces receive an appropriate extra measure of attention.

At least for Macha, for myself, and for his counterpart Tom Maloney (also mentioned int he article), it seems as if there’s something simply special about Joan’s story that is truly compelling and completely worth exploring. Like Maloney, I too have had a sense of pull and intrigue with this story from the very beginning. It certainly does provide an invitation for us all to explore! What do you think?

Photo Essay: A Closer Look at Some of the Female Pilots Who Made History in the 1950s and 60s

Recently I had the chance to dig through volumes of Trixie’s old photo albums, scrapbooks, and journals. As an avid writer and journalist, she was certainly adept at cataloging her many personal reflections and experiences. Luckily for me, this made my job of pulling together Fate on a Folded Wing not only fascinating, but fun.

With that being said, I wanted to take this opportunity to simply share some of the interesting photos and newspaper articles I came across as it pertains to women’s flight history, and specifically the Ninety-Nines. Please enjoy the following photo essay.

The Ninety Nines 20th Anniversary luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Photo dated October 5, 1949. Jacqueline Cochran seated at head table, alongside other notable pioneers in American aviation. Trixie is seated just below the American flag in the upper left-hand corner of this photo.
Trixie (left) is pictured with Australian pilot Ruth Bonney, Beth McQueen, and Matilde Moisant. Moisant was an American pioneer aviator. She was the second woman in the United States to get a pilot’s license.
Trixie (third from left) pictured with several fellow pilots including Ruth Elder (fifth from left). Elder was an aviation pioneer and actress. She carried private pilot certificate P675, and was known as the “Miss America of Aviation.” She was a charter member of the Ninety-Nines.
Seventh annual banquet for All Woman Transcontinental Air Race at the Lafayette Hotel in Long Beach, CA. Photo dated July 8, 1953.
Flying time is logged when you can get it in between raising a family or working as a lab technician for Mrs. Trixie-Ann Schubert, left, and Shirley Blocki, last year’s winner of the Ninety-Nines All Woman Transcontinental Air Race. Planning for the annual event is an all year ’round job, mostly by women like Mrs. Schubert who love doing the job even if it means taking daughters, Heidi-Dell and Patrice Ann, along.
Trixie Ann Schubert, standing next to wing, holds her baby Norman, 1 1/2; Shirley Robinson, on wing, holds Johnnie. On ground, Suzanne Robinson reads to rest of youngsters, left to right, Patrice Schubert, Sandra Robinson, Heidi Schubert and Arthur Robinson.While moms fly at Whiteman Air Park in Pacoima, youngsters wait on ground for their return.
Above, getting ready to take off on a flight from El Monte Airport, are, left to right, with their children, Mrs. Norma Wilcox, Mrs. Katherine Wagner, Mrs. Trixie Ann Schubert and Mrs. Shirley Robinson. They are members of the San Fernando Chapter of the organization which includes the Pasadena, CA area.
A picture from the Los Angeles chapter of the 99s Stardust Banquet at the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica on September 17, 1955. Trixie and husband Del are seated at the table just left of the table in the center of photo, toward the front of the photo.
Flight planning is a family affair for Mrs. Delwyn Schubert whose children Heidi, Patrice and Norman, from left, fly with her.
Trixie pictured with Betty Miller, first woman to solo fly across the Pacific Ocean (center), and broadcast news journalist Ruth Ashton. Photo dated May 15, 1963.
An accompanying May 1963 newspaper article to the standalone photo pictured just above.
Trixie takes part in the 12th Annual All Women’s Transcontinental Air Race (AWTAR), better known as the Powder Puff Derby, which came into being in 1947. The AWTAR held its 30th, final and commemorative flight in 1977.
Based on my records, it was this particular flight that prompted Trixie to write the letter to her children that is featured in the beginning of Fate on a Folded Wing.

An Experiment in Foreign News Reporting: Trixie’s Time Behind the Iron Curtain in 1961

When I first started collecting information for Fate on a Folded Wing, I happened upon an old cassette tape that contained a lecture given by Trixie in May of 1964 to the American Association of University Women. According to publicity documents, Trixie was a frequent lecturer on various topics relating to her travels as a journalist, and in the winter of 1963 alone, I was able to confirm (via personal notes) that she gave at least 23 lectures. Her most common titles were “Before and Behind the Iron Curtain,” “Holy Land Discoveries” (regarding her trips to the Middle East to work with leading researchers on the Dead Sea Scrolls), and “Air Conditioned Housewife” (pertaining to women in aviation and the realities of being a petticoat pilot).

Having never heard any of Trixie’s lectures for myself, I wanted to hear at least one, so I was excited to learn that such a tape existed! Unfortunately, the tape was in poor condition, so it was difficult to understand many of her words at first. However, with a little persistence and determination, I was eventually able to convert the old tape into text format. The full lecture is available for viewing in eBook format, which you can click here to download.

What was interesting about this talk for me, is that it opened up my eyes to the risks associated with traveling behind the Iron Curtain as an American in 1961. From the lecture, Trixie explains why she wanted to go to Russia and what she had to do to get there:

“My hope of going to Russia stemmed shortly after graduation from the university, as we were reckoning a little while ago. About a quarter of century ago. Some of the men were being siphoned off into the service, and the women were getting the journalism jobs.

Back then I had an embassy news reporting job in the Middle West for the Milwaukee Journal stations. Then I went to New York and spoke with the foreign news editor. He said they were thinking of sending three women to Russia. It was an experiment in foreign news broadcasting in that part of the world.

However, he felt that a pilot’s license would be necessary because of the expanses of country that would have to be traversed. Also, to learn the language. I went back to Milwaukee and had three years of private tutoring in Russian with a member of the Russian nobility who escaped persecution to come to this country. Learned the language and got my license. Then went back to New York. This was ’45. As you know, the Iron Curtain had come down, and I was to find, it’s a very real one.”

~Trixie Schubert, May of 1964

To be transported back in time to an era where tensions were extremely high between the U.S. and Russia, to be on the courthouse steps during the Francis Powers trial, and to hear a first person experience from this perspective was eye-opening. Furthermore, it gave me some unique insight to consider when looking back at Joan’s own story of traveling around the world solo in 1964. For those interested in Cold War history or journalism, I highly encourage you to check out this story out and share your thoughts below!

A Synopsis of “Before and Behind the Iron Curtain”

“Before and Behind the Iron Curtain” is the story of journalist Trixie-Ann Schubert’s journey into Russia during the Cold War prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain. Traveling as an Associated Press correspondent with high-ranking officials from the American military, Trixie had to not only acquire a pilot’s license, but learn how to speak both Russian and German in advance of her trip. She later supplied information to Radio Free Europe, which was (and still is) a United States government-funded broadcasting organization that spreads news, information, and analysis to countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East, where it claims “the free flow of information is either banned by government authorities or not fully developed.”

This talk specifically covers Trixie’s experience of traveling into Moscow by bus through Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland during the time of the Francis Powers trial. She also discusses her time in East Berlin immediately before “the wall” went up in 1961, as well as her talks with the Turkish press and various victims of the nationalized industry
in Egypt and Arab League countries

The Undeniable Lure of the Amelia Earhart Disappearance

One of the most spectacular turns I took (of which there were many) while researching for Fate on a Folded Wing, was the surprise of getting pulled into the Amelia Earhart disappearance from a completely backwards angle, and experiencing a crash course in all things Amelia Earhart. That’s because, when I first got started on this project, one of the items related to the book that Trixie had saved—among others—was a 1963 letter written to her at the publication General Aviation News from a WWII veteran claiming to have met Amelia Earhart in the Marianas Islands in 1940. I simply had to explore it.

Now, let’s take a step back for a brief moment. My first impression upon reading the letter was “this is amusing.” But, I had zero context for it. I can’t emphasize enough that I didn’t have any real understanding of who Amelia Earhart was at that time, or what this letter meant, if anything at all. I also didn’t know anything much about Amelia’s flight accomplishments, her personal life, her ambitions, her world flight attempts, or what was happening in the world of geopolitics back in 1937. I simply assumed the one thing I had always heard to be true: that Amelia Earhart had tragically crash landed into the ocean and probably died as a castaway on some remote island. A tragic mystery: case closed.

If you’re like most people, you may have heard recently in the mainstream media that Robert Ballard, the man who found the Titanic, just wrapped up an initial search for Amelia Earhart’s plane in the Pacific. A video overview of this undertaking is below:

To date, as with all previous searches for Amelia’s plane, the search has thus far turned up turned up nothing. (You can read more about this undertaking in this National Geographic article from earlier this week entitled “‘Tantalizing clue’ marks end of Amelia Earhart expedition: While the location of the aviator’s plane remains elusive, an artifact re-discovered after 80 years may spark new avenues of inquiry.”) That’s because the questions most people are asking may simply NOT be the correct ones.

Digging into the Idea of a Japanese Capture

Once I started digging into the items that Trixie had left behind, as well as into Amelia Earhart’s own story, and of course into Joan’s own personal ambition to explore the Amelia’s disappearance for herself in 1964 in the region where she disappeared, things really started to become interesting. I soon started to wonder why I had always accepted the idea of a “crash and sink” theory as a simple fact.

In addition to the letter, another item Trixie saved was a copy of an article about Amelia’s disappearance from a 1944 issue of the American Weekly (click here to view a full-size image). In reference to Amelia’s disappearance, the article notes that Marion L. Brittain—academic administrator and president of the Georgia Institute of Technology from 1922 to 1944, who is credited with what is now the second largest aerospace engineering faculty in the United States—stated the following: “We got a very definite feeling that Miss Earhart had some sort of understanding with government officials that the last part of her voyage around the world would be over some Japanese islands, probably the Marshalls, which were only a little north of an airline from new Guinea to Howland Island.” In short, the article summarizes early speculation shared in support of a Japanese capture. The more I started to learn about the history behind this case, the more I wanted to talk to someone who was knowledgeable about it.

Enter: Mike Campbell, Author of Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last

As soon as I started digging around for someone reputable to talk to about this topic, I immediately came across the writings of Mike Campbell at his blog Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last. That’s because, unlike other Amelia Earhart researchers, much of what Mike was writing about seemed to match up with the materials that Trixie—as a well-traveled foreign news correspondent and fellow pilot—had saved.

An image of Amelia Earhart from Trixie’s files (no caption)

As an award-winning print and broadcast journalist while on active duty with the U.S. Navy and as a civilian public affairs officer with the Air Force, Mike immediately stood out to me as someone who would offer some great perspective. While I am sure it was mind-boggling for him at first to hear from someone as uninformed as me, at the same time I was shocked to find that there was an actual, credible idea out there that supported the concept of Amelia Earhart having been captured by the Japanese. In short order, I received a copy of Mike’s book, Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, and started reading.

Did you know that there are over 1,500 books available on Amazon related to the topic of Amelia Earhart? As it turns out, Mike Campbell’s book is the #1 ranked Earhart-related book on Amazon, and I highly encourage you to check it out. Mike’s book offers a fascinating perspective, stringing together a mountain of detailed evidence and personal accounts to drive home his point that “nearly everything the American public has seen, read and heard in the media for nearly eighty years about the so-called Amelia Earhart mystery is intentionally false or inadvertently misleading.” The book is informative, well-written and a must read for anyone interested in knowing more about the details, intricacies, and history regarding Amelia Earhart’s disappearance.

Recently, Mike was featured on an episode of the “1001 Hereos, Legends, Histories, and Mysteries” podcast. For those who are interested in learning more, I highly encourage you to listen to that podcast here. This conversation provides an compelling and comprehensive introduction to this topic.

An image of Amelia Earhart from Trixie’s files (no caption)

While no physical evidence exists to support any one theory about Amelia Earhart’s disappearance conclusively, even though this case is now over 80 years old, one thing does remain for certain: Amelia Earhart was an American icon whose legacy remains ever-present within our culture, who surely deserves from each of us that we all take the time to explore for ourselves and to start asking better questions.

Assembling the Pieces Together of a More Than 50-Year-Old Story

With over 200 sources cited in the book, Fate on a Folded Wing was a massive, multi-year research undertaking. Because I had virtually no previous aviation knowledge, nor any real understanding about who Joan Merriam Smith was or what she accomplished when I got started, the research portion of this book made up a huge part of the overall endeavor. To better explain how I arrived at the information I uncovered and the conclusions I arrived at in the book, below follows a brief overview of what this particular research journey looked like for me.

For example, while I had known Joan was famous for completing the Amelia Earhart route around the globe, I didn’t know any details about her flight, and I certainly couldn’t have told you what Amelia Earhart was specifically famous for other than she had been a famous female pilot in the 1930s. I also had a steep learning curve when it came to understanding the various aviation terms, people, and places referenced in Trixie’s story. In fact, I had to look up virtually every name mentioned in the manuscript as I had no context for who people were like Jacqueline Cochran (first woman to break the sound barrier), Paul Mantz (noted air racing pilot, movie stunt pilot, and Earhart’s technical advisor), Fred Goerner (one of the earliest television news anchors and an award-winning broadcaster and author) or Lowell Thomas (preeminent American radio commentator and an explorer, lecturer, author, and journalist), to name a few.

When it came to re-tracing Joan’s steps around the globe, I unexpectedly found myself having to dig into world maps and geopolitical history. Did Trixie mean Ahmedabad, India or Ahmadabad, Pakistan? Were Massawa, Ethiopia and Assab, Ethiopia once a part of Eritrea? When did Surinam become Suriname? When did Calcutta, India become Kolkata? At the time I got started, I also didn’t really understand any of Trixie’s accomplishments, or the nature of her trip behind the Iron Curtain. Needless to say, I started at ground zero on this learning journey.

If had to summarize the experience, I would divide the research into three distinct phases. Metaphorically, it was akin to the feeling of locating and assembling the pieces together of a giant, ever-shifting puzzle. So how did I go from knowing virtually nothing about this story to writing a full book? Here’s how I got started—a roadmap if you will—for anyone else wanting to take on (or dive into) a big and messy project of their own:

The Three Phases of My Research Journey:

  • Exploration and Discovery – Initially I kicked off this project by wanting to learn more about who Trixie and Joan were. I collected information about their accomplishments, copies of letters they had saved or written, and I talked to people who had known them. I dug into Trixie’s extensive personal journals, scrapbooks, and photo albums. I read many articles in aviation publications that were written by both Joan and Trixie. I also explored 99 News Magazine Back Issues from the 1950s and 1960s, as Trixie was often the one writing updates for her chapter. I hand typed Trixie’s original manuscript into digital format so that I could read her story without scribbled notes, and I explored all of the items she had saved related to the book. From there I started reaching out to organizations, such as the Ninety Nines Museum of Women Pilots and the National Air and Space Museum archives to see what information they may have on file. I joined newspapers.com, and intently collected any articles I could find related to Joan and Trixie (of which there were hundreds).
  • Perspective Building Period – With a much better understanding of who Joan and Trixie were, I next moved into a phase of learning all that I could about women in aviation, world flights in general, the 1960s time period in American history, and the history of aviation accomplishments. I read several books for pleasure, beginning first with Paula McClain’s book about Beryl Markham entitled Circling the Sun (which turned out to be a fascinating hook for me to want to learn all I could about the early female pioneers of aviation). From there I checked out Amelia Earhart’s book Last Flight, Nancy Wilson’s book The Racy Life of Mary Petre Bruce, Taylor Wilson’s book Racing to Greet the Sun, Jerrie Mock’s book Three-Eight Charlie, and several others. After that I read Mike Campbell’s book Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last and Fred Goerner’s book The Search for Ameila Earhart. I subscribed to podcasts about aviation, including The Chasing Earhart podcast, which provided a really fun way of learning about aviation, Amelia Earhart, and the various accomplishments of other people tied to her cause.
  • Clarifying Phase – With a good baseline of information, I naturally started to form questions that directed the final stage of my research. This is the stage where the idea for a book really started to come together. At this juncture, I went looking for very specific information to support facts. For example, I collected notable statements published in newspaper articles. I reached out to author Mike Campbell to get clear on the research he included in his book about Earhart’s disappearance. I connected with author Taylor Phillips to get clear about the information he collected for his book about Jerrie Mock and Joan’s race around the globe. I organized specific documents from National Air and Space Museum archives that I felt were important. I asked probing questions of family, fellow pilots, aviation historians, and friends of Joan and Trixie’s. I connected with G. Pat Macha of Aircraft Wreck Finders to get perspective on Joan’s plane crashes, Claude Meunier of Earthrounders to get specific details about known world flights. Eventually I felt like I had enough to work with to form a story.

In the very beginning, I was simply trying to find some answers to a few big questions. But before long, I felt like I was being pulled into a rabbit hole—a time warp, if you will—the further along in the process I got. Eventually, there came a point when I became so consumed with finding information, that I was collecting so much that I didn’t know what to do with it. Sorting through the information I had and making sense of it was half the battle, but it’s also where I experienced the most “aha” moments, made the most connections, and had the most fun.

If all of this sounds like a lot of work, indeed it was! But as a full-time working mom, it really wasn’t as bad it sounds.To make room for this type of research, I simply made a couple of really big adjustments to my every day routine, for a specific period of time:

  1. I woke up early every morning for months on end to dedicate a focused, uninterrupted hour or two before work.
  2. I put the social calendar on pause, and spent most of my “lunch hours” at work dedicated to this. (Over time, the number of hours can really add up!)
  3. I completely stopped watching TV or going on social media for the better part of a year, trading in empty time for focused work.
  4. I often jumped back on the computer late in the evening to conduct more casual research and outreach.

In the end, it really wasn’t that hard. Never once did I feel like this work became a chore. The trick is—at least I think—uncovering the questions you are most passionate about, and secondarily, being open to the adventure, and not being afraid to explore.