For someone who has spent a good amount of time reading up on the adventures of various solo pilots, I suppose it’s perfectly natural that I would eventually become interested in learning all that I could about solo sailors!
Last year a friend reached out to ask if I had heard of Ann Davison, the first woman to sail solo across the Atlantic. I had not. Shortly thereafter I picked up the book Great Voyages in Small Boats: Solo Transatlantic, which recounts not only the tale of Ann Davison’s 1952 voyage across the Atlantic, but David Lewis’s 1960 experience of crossing the Atlantic during the first single-handed trans-Atlantic yacht race, as well as the story of German doctor Hannes Lindemann’s dual adventures across the Atlantic, first in a canoe in 1955, and secondly in a kayak in 1956. Each of these stories was supremely fascinating. And can I just say now that one of my favorite things is coming across a good old-fashioned, out of print adventure book? 🙂
Before reading this book, I had never thought much about what goes into sailing solo across the ocean unassisted. Much like flying solo around the world, solo sailors must prepare far in advance for their excursion, beginning with selecting a course, choosing the appropriate vessel for their trip, modifying it accordingly, then thinking through what makes sense to bring along in terms of provisions. Are they making the trip for personal reasons, for money/fame, a challenge, or for research?
What’s incredible about these three particular stories is that they all took place before GPS and satellite communications. These solo sailors were literally out there in the middle of the ocean on their own, charting their own paths, battling the elements, all the while testing their survivability with rudimentary equipment, protection, and communications.
What’s fascinating about Ann’s story is that she was a pilot first. In 1937 she applied for a job at commercial airfield that was managed by pilot Frank Davison, who would soon become her future husband. Skipping ahead many years, after the war and time spent living on a sustainable farm, the two of them decided to purchase a boat to travel around the world together. Only, tragedy struck. After a rough start to their trip, storm conditions overpowered their boat in the English Channel, wrecking their boat. They launched their life raft, only they were washed off it again and again, and Frank lost his life. Needless to say, Ann was a novice who had survived against all odds. She went on to spend two years preparing a new boat and teaching herself to sail before embarking on her trip across the Atlantic from Plymouth, England in May of 1952.
David Lewis was another riveting character. After an adventurous childhood in New Zealand that included many mountaineering adventures and a legendary, hundreds of miles-long kayak journey, he traveled to England in 1938 and served in the British army as a medical officer. After the war, he worked as a doctor in London. After completing the race across the Atlantic solo single-handed in 1960, he also completed the first circumnavigation of the globe by catamaran accompanied by his wife and two small children. An author of 12 books, his dream was to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent single-handed, but after 13 weeks of not being heard from and capsizing twice, he aborted the mission, accomplishing a major feat in navigation. His book ICE BIRD: The Classic Story of the First Single-handed Voyage to Antarctica chronicles his 1972 trip from Australia to Antarctica aboard the sailboat ICE BIRD.
Not to be outdone, in 1957, German doctor and adventurer Hannes Lindemann published the book Alone At Sea – A Doctor’s Survival Experiments of Two Atlantic Crossings in a Dugout Canoe and a Folding Kayak. The title really does say it all: Lindemann sailed twice across the Atlantic in 1955 and 1956, respectively, once in a canoe and the second time in a kayak. He subsisted on cans of evaporated milk, honey, raw onions and garlic, red wine, fresh dolphin, triggerfish, and barnacles. He capsized twice on his second trip; survived bouts with delirium and was faced with a myriad of physical and mental challenges along his two journeys. His story really is fascinating and worth the read. Small Boats Magazine published a great article in April of 2021 summarizing his adventures and contributions, which you can read here.
In summary, while this book was over 600 pages long, I would highly recommend it because all three stories are written in first person and it’s really neat to compare and contrast the three journeys along the way. When taken together, these stories would make for an excellent book club pick and discussion. For example, while Ann couldn’t bring herself to eat a dolphin, Hannes speared and ate multiple. While Hannes toughed it out in a canoe, David sailed in a small yacht. Each of the sailors had a distinct outlook when faced with hardship, and their personalities shined through in different ways. How would you manage in one of these situations if sailing across the Atlantic alone?
While there have been many stories written about survival at sea, or journeys across the ocean and around the world (and I’m only just getting started), there is one bonus book I wanted to mention for those interested in stories of extreme hardship or survival sea. Last year I happened across the book Sole Survivor:A True Account of 133 Days Adriftby Ruthanne Lum McCunn, which is the true story of Poon Lim’s survival on a life raft during WWII for 133 days. Just when you didn’t think survival could be pushed any further, Poon found a way to survive against all odds and his story is fascinating. I was even surprised to see Poon’s story mentioned by Hannes Lindemann while reading Great Voyages in Small Boats (I love it when that happens). Part of what inspired Hannes to undertake his expeditions was to help people like Poon find the will to survive.
Earlier this year I wrote a post about the media coverage surrounding Joan and Trixie’s 1965 plane crash. Since then, I decided that I wanted to try and figure out what lawsuits were filed following the crash, and learn (for the record) what was ultimately concluded?
With help from the archives division at the Los Angeles Superior Court, over the course of months I was able to uncover a few stacks of documents pertaining to old legal cases. After sorting through notes, filings, depositions, statements, motions, claims, and so on, I’ve whittled it down to this.
On February 7, 1966 Marvin G. Smith filed a Wrongful Death Complaint (the first document filed in court to initiate a lawsuit) against Rajay Corporation, V.E. Kuster Company Inc., Cessna Aircraft Company, Belmont Aviation, West Coast Sales and Service Company, and Banning Aviation Company for $500,000 ($4.6 million in 2022 dollars).
On February 15, 1966 a Complaint on insurance policy was filed between Delwyn G. Schubert and The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York.
On April 25, 1967 Delwyn G. Schubert et al filed a Proposed First Amended Complaint (wrongful death) against the same entities as Marvin G. Smith for $1,000,0000 (roughly $9 million in 2022 dollars).
Some time later (presumably), V.E. Kuster Co., Inc. filed an undated Cross Complaint against Rajay Corporation, Belmont Aviation, West Coast Propeller sales and Service Company, Banning Aviation, Inc.
On May 12, 1967 a Notice of Ruling was filed with plaintiffs listed as Delwyn Schubert and Marvin G. Smith, and cross-complainant V.E. Kuster, whereby it was stated that the defendants had 15 days from receipt of Notice of Ruling to answer plaintiffs’ first amended complaint.
On February 27, 1968, the deposition of William H. Mastin of Rajay was taken.
On October 21, 1968 a Supplemental Declaration of Counsel in Support of Motion to Set Case for Trail was filed in a case between Delwyn Schubert and The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York.
On November 21, 1968 the deposition of Delwyn Schubert was taken.
On December 24, 1968 a Request for Entry of Dismissal was filed in the case between Delwyn Schubert and Mutual Life Insurance Company.
While I’m undoubtedly missing other documents, to summarize, it looks to me like Jack Smith and Delwyn Schubert each sued the same six entities for negligence , and that Delwyn also sued the life insurance company following Joan and Trixie’s deaths.
In the deposition given by Delwyn Schubert for the life insurance case, I came across a particular point that I found interesting when Delwyn stated that Jack felt the cause of the plane crash to be mechanical. He said:
Q: Do you recall any statement which he made to you or which, obviously he made in your presence about the crash? A: Yes. Of course we talked about every aspect of it, as you can well imagine, and he felt very positive that it was due to mechanical failure of some sort.
Similarly, from the October 21, 1968 Supplemental Declaration of Counsel in Support of Motion to Set Case for Trial (relating to the Mutual Life Insurance case), Delwyn’s attorney John E. Sweeney declared:
“Lt. Cdr. M.G. Smith, Jr. is a key witness for the trial of this case. He has been on a Navy cruise for several months presently … Lt. Cdr. Smith is an extremely important witness in this case. He has first hand knowledge of many of the specific details in issue in this case. He has uniquely qualified both from the standpoint of his expertise as a long time Navy pilot as well as his position as a percipient witness to many of the facts in issue.”
Based on these statements, it surely seems as though Jack would have had a good idea about what happened to Joan’s plane based on his own expertise with planes. If he assumed mechanical failure, why was his case dismissed? The paperwork I have doesn’t specify.
While I don’t have a formal notice of Delwyn Schubert’s negligence/wrongful death case being formally dismissed, I do know that Delwyn’s Mutual Life Insurance case was settled out of court. Initially in the Mutual Life Insurance case, the life insurance company deemed that Trixie’s death was not covered under her life insurance policy because she was a passenger in a non-commercial plane. From an October 1965 letter from Mutual Life Insurance to Delwyn’s attorney:
“We are sorry to have to inform you that we will be unable to honor your request for payment for accidental loss of life under the contract. If you will refer to the contract, you will note that the policy does not cover any loss resulting from, any kind of aircraft, except riding as a passenger in an aircraft then being operated (i) commercially to transport passengers for hire or (ii) by a private business organization to transport its personnel or guests.”
Challenging this definition as to whether or not Trixie qualified as “crew” on a plane operated by a private business organization explains (in part) why Rajay Inc. provided a deposition about the nature of Joan’s arrangement with their company to test turbochargers and how Trixie was involved. An excerpt from the October 1968 deposition of William H. Mastin of Rajay Inc. follows below:
Q: Mr. Mastin, did you advise the CAB that Mrs. Schubert was a member of the crew? A: Technically, yes, as an observer. Q: All right. There had been a briefing prior to the flight which resulted in the crash, had there not? A: Yes. Q: Mrs. Schubert was present at the briefing? A: She was present but not party to it. Q: She was in the room; is that it? A: (Witness shakes his head from side to side.) Q: No? A: The briefing was conducted at my desk. My desk is in a trailer. She was standing right outside the trailer door. Q: Who else was present actually, then? A: Joan Merriam Smith. Q: Yourself and Joan Merriam Smith? A: Yes. Q: You were aware that Mrs. Schubert was going to accompany Joan Smith? A: Yes.
While there is still plenty more detail to sort through, for now this information does answer the basic questions of who was sued and why. Of course I’m still curious to learn why the negligence cases were dismissed. Perhaps another post on this topic in the future …
Hilaree Nelson. For nearly two weeks, it’s been a name I can’t seem to get out of my head and a name that I keep coming back to. And for a good reason.
From a recent article in Outside Magazine: “Hilaree had a distinctive sense of wanderlust that propelled her through more than 40 expeditions to 16 countries. Along the way, she explored some of the tallest mountains on the planet, often carrying her skis along with her for the ride down. In 2012, she became the first woman to summit two 8,000-meter peaks, Mount Everest and Lhotse, in a single 24-hour push. Six years later, Nelson returned to Lhotse to become the first to ski from its summit.”
Not unlike Joan Merriam Smith, she was an unassuming, fearless, female adventurer. Only instead of flying planes, she took on mountains. Weighed calculated risks. She persisted and persevered through setbacks and letdowns. Guided by a deep passion, she lived her life unapologetically, accomplishing the seemingly impossible, never giving up, and serving as a beacon to others … all the while raising two boys.
On September 26th, 2022, after summiting the world’s 8th highest mountain known as Manaslu in the country of Nepal, Hilaree and her partner Jim Morrison began their descent when she triggered an avalanche, sweeping her off the side of the mountain. For those unfamiliar with the news, below follows a brief recap from the headlines:
“‘On September 26th at 10:42 am, we reached the true summit of Manaslu in tough conditions,’ he said. ‘We quickly transitioned from climbing to skiing in cold and wind with a plan to ski around the corner and regroup with our Sherpa team. I skied first, and after a few turns, Hilaree followed and started a small avalanche. She was swept off her feet and carried down a narrow snow slope down the south side (opposite from climbing route) … I did everything I could to locate her but was unable to go down the face as I hoped to find her alive and live my life with her.'”
Of course, while learning about this news, I couldn’t help but think of Joan Merriam Smith, who also died unexpectedly and tragically, and far too young, while also doing something she loved and lived for.
While I didn’t know Hilaree, I did have correspondence with her regarding a TEDx talk. While I didn’t follow her closely, I was aware of the things she was accomplishing through both social and traditional media. And while I don’t know Jim, I did know his wife and children, who also died tragically in 2011. (An excellent backstory about Jim and Hilaree from a February 2020 article of Sports Illustrated is here.) Needless to say, I was SO inspired by Hilaree’s example, which makes it all the more difficult to acknowledge that she is now gone.
With the vast outpouring of support and sentiments being shared across the web, it’s evident that that impact of her loss is being felt far and wide. In the spirit of women adventurers that we’ve lost way too soon, below is one of the best tributes I’ve seen. The first few minutes involve a recap from fellow endurance athlete Rich Roll, followed by the re-release of an interview she gave about her life, accomplishments and reflections in her very own words.
For me one thing is certain: while her loss is an utter tragedy for her children, her partner Jim, and her family (not to mention women in general and the world at large), she lived her life to the fullest and will continue to serve as an example of greatness for generations to come.
In 2020 I wrote a post on this website entitled “Get Inspired: 10 Modern Day Female Explorers to Watch Across Air, Space, Land & Sea” which talked about some of the modern day women who are out there exploring the Earth, living non-traditional lives, facing seemingly insurmountable challenges, and accomplishing REALLY BIG things. In each and every case I was blown away to learn that there are people like this out there in the world who exist, namely:
Heather Anderson – In 2018, Heather became the first female to complete a Calendar Year Triple Crown hike (completing the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide National Scenic Trails) in one March-November season. She has also completed each of those trails three times, setting records for fastest known times along the way.
Jessica Nabongo – In October 2019, Jessica became the first documented Black woman to visit every country in the world.
Kate Harris – In 2011, Kate Harris and her friend Mel set off for a 10-month, nearly 10,000 km adventure as they cycled the fabled silk road trading route across 10 different countries. Starting in Istanbul, Turkey, they cycled across mountains, through foreign lands and into the elements, ending in the city of Leh in the Indian Himalayas.
Vanessa O’Brien – Vanessa is the first woman to reach earth’s highest (Mt. Everest 8,848m) and lowest points (Challenger Deep 10,925m). She is the fastest woman to climb the seven summits in 295 days. She is also the oldest woman to summit K2, the second tallest peak at 8,611m at 52 years old, among other accolades.
From left to right (alphabetically): Heather Anderson,Jessica Nabongo, Kate Harris, and Vanessa O’Brien
“Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others.”
– Amelia Earhart
It’s been a couple years and I realized I have now read books written by several of these women mentioned in my original post. I find these reads to be incredibly inspiring and humbling. In the name fearless female adventurers, below are my four latest book recommendations!
I had never heard of the Triple Crown of hiking until I came across Heather Anderson’s story. I was simply amazed to learn that a woman like this existed who had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) solo in the fastest known time (40 miles a day for over 50 days). I was further shocked to learn that she also became the first woman to hike the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and PCT (aka “Triple Crown”) in under year, which is over 8,000 miles in eight months. This is the incredible story of how Heather went from a self-conscious, sedentary, overweight teenager to become an ultra marathoner and thru-hiker of the highest regard. This book brings you along for her incredible journey. As a bonus: I learned about many places along the PCT that I’ve been to, never realizing that they were a part of the PCT. Next time I’ll be on the lookout for thru-hikers.
The Catch Me if You Can: One Woman’s Journey to Every Country in the World by Jessica Nabongo Published: June 2022 Publisher: National Geographic (Amazon book link) Follow on Instagram: @jessicanabongo
I first learned of Jessica Nabongo through a podcast I listened to after she finished her trip traveling around the world to visit all 195 countries. I was excited to hear that she came out with a book; needless to say, I devoured it. I enjoyed every single page and I didn’t want it to end. I learned so much about the world through her experiences. As a bonus: Joan Merriam Smith traveled through many of these cities on her 1964 world flight. Through Jessica’s book, I was able to learn a lot more about some of the obscure regions that Joan traveled through. This book is beautifully laid out, easily digestible, and written in a conversational, informative style. Would make a great gift for a friend who enjoys travel; it’s also a perfect coffee table book.
Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road by Kate Harris Published: 2019 Publisher: Vintage Books Canada (Amazon book link) Follow on Instagram: @kateoffmars
I greatly admire the unimaginable challenges Kate and Mel took on in the name of exploration as they biked nearly 10,000km across 10 different countries on a self-supported adventure. I appreciated the philosophical reflections, the references to various historical, fellow explorers along the way, and the vividly written descriptions of their travels. I also enjoyed the musings on the observed and relative fluidity of boundaries and borders: “Political frontiers, while sometimes as solid as brick, are only as strong as shared belief.” Or, “When there are no fences, no signs, it’s hard to tell when you’ve arrived.” I thought this was an excellent book, nice job, and kudos to the author for sharing her unique and admirable personal experience.
To the Greatest Heights: Facing Danger, Finding Humility, and Climbing a Mountain of Truth by Vanessa O’Brien Published: 2021 Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (Amazon book link) Follow on Instagram: @vobonline
Vanessa is the fastest woman to climb the Seven Summits in 295 days: the Seven Summits are the highest mountains of each of the seven traditional continents. I enjoyed Vanessa’s story, how she progressively intertwined her personal life experiences with the daunting challenges she met in the face of mountaineering. More than anything, it was inspiring to hear such an incredible adventure tale from a female’s perspective. Introduced me to a completely different existence and made we want to get outdoors and do more. This book was obviously written from such a place of depth, passion, and reflection that it forced you to slow down and absorb the words on each page—or more accurately the experiences shared—and I do believe that was the point.
Summary: When I first became familiar with Joan Merriam Smith’s story, I was blown away by the boundaries she pushed in her day, shocked at her ability to pull together a solo flight around the globe in honor of Amelia Earhart, and inspired by her passion, self-reliance, and her general ability to keep pushing despite the odds and the elements. The stories of Heather, Jessica, Kate, and Vanessa are no different. What new goals will you set today?!
Today marks the 57th anniversary of Joan Merriam Smith and Trixie Ann Schubert’s fatal 1965 plane crash, which is hard to believe! Even though this crash happened before I was born, the more I’ve learned about it over the years, the more it continues to intrigue me.
To provide a quick recap for those unfamiliar with the crash, on the morning of February 17, 1965, Joan invited Trixie to fly with her on a routine flight to test turbochargers for the Rajay Corporation, by whom Joan was employed as a pilot. Rajay’s primary business was to manufacture and sell turbochargers. Joan’s job was to put hours on the plane to achieve company certification for the turbochargers. Trixie had flown with Joan doing the very same thing just a few weeks prior.
On this clear and sunny day, no flight plan was filed. The plane took off from Long Beach, CA and was headed towards Wrightwood, CA when a single witness noticed the right wing fail and watched the plane crash. The story made newspaper headlines around the country. (For reference, a copy of the original witness letter is here.)
The US Forest Service initially responded to the scene of the crash, as did the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAP), various private citizens, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) were ultimately all involved in either 1) the response 2) the collection of evidence and/or 3) the analysis regarding the crash.
Key parts of the plane (forensic evidence) were missing from the outset. From a March 20, 1965 article in the Long Beach Independent, it was noted that poor weather conditions were delaying the search efforts for missing plane parts from the crash, and that much of the plane was still missing (to aid in forming a conclusion as to what caused the crash).
But in a May 1965 issue of the Civil Air Patrol Times the discovery of missing plane parts was reported when a hiker inadvertently came across them.
The article went on to say, oddly, that neither the nearby Air Force Base or the U.S. Forest Service ranger knew of any recent crashes in the area. Once the missing parts were delivered to the FAA, the Civil Aeronautics Board investigator found great interest in the missing parts.
A year following the crash, the CAB issued a final report (the original report as of this writing has not been located in archives). Referring to this report, a February 2, 1966 article in the Los Angeles Times reported that Joan was flying a plane with an “experimental turbocharged engine” and was “flying in excess of 190 MPH” at the time of the crash.
It was also reported that “turbulent air at high speed” was the cause of the accident.
The official crash report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) cites probable causes as “pilot in command,” “airframe – wings,” and “miscellaneous acts.” Clear air turbulence in flight is cited as a factor.
However, many people I’ve talked to over the years find these conclusions to be a bit perplexing.
It doesn’t make sense that Joan would have been flying so fast as to push the limits of her airplane (i.e. the media reported her speed as 190 mph, whereas the maximum structural cruise speed of her plane was 160 mph).
Other than clear air turbulence caused by the mountainous terrain, what other factors could have created such extreme turbulence?
If the wing failed first (and caused the crash), then the tail would have failed second. But in this case, key tail portions of the airplane were found 1 – 1.5 miles away, meaning the tail broke apart before the wing. If the tail failed first, then the wing would not be cause of the crash.
Just five weeks prior to the accident, Joan was involved in another near-fatal crash in a different plane when her engine’s heater caught fire mid-air. Coincidence or bad luck?
How likely was it that Joan made a mistake with 9,000 hours of flight time and zero accident history? (Not counting the January 9th crash.)
Additionally, there were many other conflicting statements made in the months following the crash. Not only was the plane reported flying in different directions, and at different altitudes, but there were references to both a nose-first and a tail-first crash (can’t be both).
In looking at statements made in the media regarding the crash, the following excerpts point out some areas of speculation, but not FACT.
From a February 18, 1965 article in the Miami Herald it was reported that “a wing apparently folded back, causing the crash.” But, it wouldn’t be until a year later that a true cause of the crash was reported.
On the same date, The Wichita Eagle reported that Joan liked to fly fast. However, the article’s title was a bit sensational had to do with a statement she made when she first learned to fly 13 years prior, and nothing to do specifically with her accident.
On February 22, 1965, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that “Joan ran her plane into the mountain and killed herself.” The writer speculated that she could have been in fog and hit the peak at the last second. Obviously there was no fog, Joan did not “run into a mountain,” and this was not what happened.
Perhaps most interestingly, from a news clipping saved by Jackie Cochran—courtesy of the Eisenhower Presidential Library’s files on Joan Merriam Smith—it was also noted that “a fellow 15,000-hour pilot Joan spoke with at the airport restaurant on the morning of the crash told him she planned to reach 190 mph” and that she would “have to throttle back at low altitudes to avoid exceeding red line.” According to one pilot I talked with, it would not have been possible for her to get to 190 mph at that altitude.
In summary, there were so many entities involved and so many conflicting statements made, it’s been difficult to nail down the facts. To this day, no one really knows for sure what happened. Will we ever know?
Working backwards, I’ve tried to locate information from a variety of sources over the years to put together a better picture of what actually happened. I’ve reached out to various organizations for copies of accident reports or summaries from various investigating bodies (CAB, NTSB, CAP); to records departments at Sheriff’s offices; to archives departments at county courthouses; to historical societies and newspapers; and to friends and fellow pilots who have taken on a similar interest in this over time, some who even recall the day of the crash. Unfortunately, some of the material is protected by privacy laws. There are TV news clips that exist but are unavailable for viewing. The full narratives for the CAB report and the NTSB report due not appear to exist in any publicly available archives.
Adding to the intrigue, there were at least three civil lawsuits filed after the crash. In one, Joan’s husband sued several entities for negligence. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $500,000 in 1965 is the equivalent of $4.5 million in 2022.
Most recently, I was able to get a hold of some 100 pages of archived files from the Los Angeles County Superior Court pertaining to a lawsuit against Trixie’s life insurance company. The info provided filled in many gaps but it also created many more questions.
In essence, the hunt for more information continues. Feedback, questions, expert opinions, and insights are always welcomed. The ultimate goal? To work toward clearing Joan’s name as the “cause” of her own demise.
For those familiar with Fate on a Folded Wing, you may recall the following words regarding Joan Merriam Smith’s side trip to Saipan in 1964, where she planned to investigate the Amelia Earhart disappearance.
“April 24th I took off for Saipan but had to return because the gear wouldn’t work properly. I thought the hydraulic power pack probably needed overhauling. The afternoon of April 30th, the hydraulic gear plans supposedly were in readiness, so I was off to see Saipan. I took pictures from the air of Rota Island, the first I came upon. It’s only one-mile-by-one and a half miles in dimension. Tinian Island was next. It was at Tinian that the first atomic bomb was loaded on the airplane Enola Gay bound for Hiroshima. There was a large, round, concrete circle below. The plane was parked in the circular ramp area to be prepared for its mission and night takeoff. All these islands were infiltrated heavily by the Japanense …”
Source: Fate on a Folded Wing, page 110
Of course, those were the last words in the original manuscript before two sequential pages went missing in the middle of that particular chapter, creating a cliffhanger for those wanting to know more about what Joan did and saw during what she referred to as “the most important part of her trip.”
While we’ll never know why those pages went missing, it did force me to try and re-create from public sources what exactly transpired during that span of time. Below follows a brief overview of news excerpts about Joan’s world flight between April 20 – May 1, 1964.
“The 27-year-old Long Beach housewife planned to take off today for Guam on what she calls the “most important part of my trip.” – April 20, 1964 | Long Beach Press Telegram
“She leaves today for Wake Island and the mainland via Honolulu.” – April 23, 1964 | Guam Daily News
“Joan Merriam Smith is pausing in Guam on her around-the-world flight, and will make a visit to the island of Saipan in an effort to learn the fate of the late Amelia Earhart.” – April 23, 1964 | The Indianapolis News
“She planned to visit the island of Saipan north of Guam tomorrow to seek possible information on the death of Amelia Earhart.” – April 23, 1964 | Honolulu Star Bulletin
“She canceled her flight to Saipan last night because of bad weather. She had planned the 150 mile hop from Guam to Saipan as a pilgrimage to the area where Miss Earhart disappeared in 1937.” – April 24, 1964 | Sacramento Bee
“Joan Merriam Smith took off for Wake Island from Guam Wednesday but returned an hour later with mechanical troubles.” – April 30, 1964 | Long Beach Independent
“Joan Merriam Smith landed safely at Wake Island last night. She completed the 1,300 mile overwater flight from Guam in 12 hours 18 minutes.” – May 1, 1964 | Tucson Daily Citizen
While there is nothing else printed in the original manuscript about Saipan, and I was unable to find anything about her trip to Saipan printed in newspapers (via Newspapers.com), Joan did go on to make this statement in an article that was published in the Saturday Evening Post in July of 1965, confirming that she did in fact stopover there:
“I talked with some people on Saipan who claim that the Japs shot Noonan and that Amelia died a few weeks later. I saw the place where she was supposedly kept in prison and the spot where she is said to be buried.”
Source: Saturday Evening Post, July 1965
The questions inevitably remain: what else did Joan do in Saipan? Why wasn’t anything printed in newspapers about her trip, when every other leg of her journey was covered in detail? How long did she stay there? Who exactly did she meet with? Did she learn anything new? What did she come away from the experience with? After flying around the world tracing Earhart’s footsteps for herself, surveying the area, and visiting New Guinea and Saipan, what were her assumptions and takeaways? What did she personally believe happened to her hero in 1937?
In 2019, I published a blog post entitled “The Undeniable Lure of the Amelia Earhart Disappearance,” which provided an overview of the items Trixie saved in her files about Earhart’s disappearance, among other things. For those interested in reading more I recommend this post for an interesting look at this pivotal moment in American history.
In closing, on April 23, 1964, Guam Daily News asked the same question many people still find themselves asking today: will we ever know? Or “may somewhere there still be hidden a clue as to what happened,” as the article suggests?
In 1958, Trixie flew in the 12th Annual All Woman Transcontinental Air Race, also known as the Powder Puff Derby. According to the Ninety Nines website, the 1948 and 1949 All-Woman Transcontinental Air Races, sponsored by Jacqueline Cochran, marked the formal beginning of the All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race (AWTAR). In 1951 and 1952, the AWTAR was called “Operation TAR” (in response to the Korean War) and was operated as a training mission to “provide stimulation as a refresher course in cross-country flying for women whose services as pilots might once again be needed by their country.” The AWTAR became affectionately known as the “Powder Puff Derby,” a reference to the 1929 Women’s Air Derby by Will Rogers.
While I had known that Trixie flew in a Powder Puff Derby, I didn’t know which one … or who she flew with. Therefore, it was pretty neat when I recently came across a personal story that Trixie had typed up for a sponsorship (per her notes) about her experience of flying in the race. I wanted to re-share it here to preserve a little piece of history.
Coincidentally, I learned that she flew together with Jan Wood, who also completed an around-the-world flight (albeit unofficial) in 1955-56. (Click here for a 2019 feature article about Jan Wood courtesy of the San Fernando Valley 99s Newsletter.) It’s no doubt she and Trixie had plenty to talk about. Bios from the official race literature follow below:
Pilot: Jan W. Wood, Reseda, Calif. Jan will be flying her 1st TAR in the the “Little Yellow Cloud” which she flew around the world in 1956-57. She has logged more than 1,100 hours fling time and holds a Commercial license, Single and Multi-Engine Land ratings. Jan is a former WASP Pilot during WWII and is currently teaching at Birmingham High School. She is an active member of the Ninety-Nines, Inc., CAP, NAA, AOPA, Lockheed Flying Club and Icerian Flying Club.
Co-Pilot: Trixie-Ann Schubert, Los Angeles, Calif. Trixie-Ann will be flying her 1st TAR. She holds a Private license and has logged more than 200 hours flying time. Trixie-Ann is currently writing a column in Cross Country news and freelances in aviation writing. She has won the Donald Douglas trophy and the TWA trophy for her aviation writing. Trixie-Ann is a member of the Ninety-Nines, Inc., the Los Angeles State Faculty Wives, and the Aviation Writers of America. her husband, Delwyn G. Schubert, is a Professors at Los Angeles State College and they have three children.
Source: Twelfth Annual All Woman Transcontinental Air Race Official Program | July 1958
Without further ado, below is Trixie’s story. Original language, original punctuation, as well as some dated references follow, but a very entertaining story offering a first person vs. a fictionalized view into the past.
Notes on Flying the Transcontinental Air Race, 12th Powder Puff Derby By Trixie-Ann Schubert
July 1 seemed like the culmination rather than the beginning of the air race, climaxing three months of concentrated preparation and planning for the Transcontinental Air Race (TAR). Local citizenry and aviation groups gave a banquet for us the night before we left LA as a prelude to the big takeoff banquet for all the pilots in San Diego.
We had sectional maps, jet navigation maps, world air maps. The most direct route between race legs was marked in red with every 20 miles indicated so we could spot-check progress and try to gain at least a minute on our own time each 20 miles. We inked in the airport designations which we might land on without being disqualified; made separate cards for each new heading (allowing for variation and deviation) with OMNI, VOR, VHF radio, and LF Radio frequencies in case all else failed. At the last minute we decided not to take a supplementary radio offered us by the Civil Air Patrol; it eliminated five extra pounds. We had the OMNI installed by OnMark Engineering Corp. in the rear of the plane rather than on instrument panel or beneath it; as it seemed better to distribute the CG.
We saw the catapult mechanism for the jets on deck and learned that a catapult failure is a “dead cat shot”; saw Guppie AD 5 NANs fly overhead, and big ships (airplanes) land in the bay on this busy southwest military establishment. Shirley Thomas of Voice of America was with us to file a report on “the average day of a woman race pilot” which was anything but average. The flight deck is 800 feet plus, but the cables have adjustable tension so that they can be “set” to the particular aircraft making a deck landing with the aid of the new mirror system. 2,800 men in the ship’s compliment and 32 pilots aboard the Bennington. On non-convoy tracks three destroyers accompany a carrier. 12 to 20 planes in the squadron. Can’t find my notes on how many tons of paint it requires to grey the flight deck but it was staggering. A call to the ship indicated that any women pilots aboard who were flying Bonanzas in the race were to report to the field immediately to check the stall warnings on the planes. Did not concern me but the tour was over anyway so we left the Bennington for Miramar Naval air station. In the immense mess hall which feeds 5,000 servicemen daily we were met by a bevy of Brass and escorted to seats and served breaded veal, deep fried eggplant, potatoes, 20 varieties of salads, all the trimmings, and a huge cake decorated by the “mess crew” with “Welcome ladybirds to Miramar.” High along the upper ceiling of the hall were printed the Hebrew, protestant, and Catholic meal blessings.
Again we split up and we’re talking to the RATCC (radar air traffic control center) which we found difficult to leave. We watched the beeps as the needle scanned for alien planes, identified those in the air, expanded its scope to include much of the US and narrowed it to include the immediate area; cut out planes and monitored weather clouds, or vice versa. After exhausting her questions in the RATCC center we entered the weather room and got current briefing on weather plus prospects for July 4th takeoff. As we checked isobar markings on new weather maps being prepared the siren sounded indicating an emergency landing. Every man in the vicinity dove into action of some kind, leaving us girls stranded so we climbed to the roof to watch the emergency approach. Red fire trucks, ambulance trucks (one at each end), and at least 12 or more pieces of equipment were converging along the line of approach. The jet came in streaming black but made a normal approach and landing; and the pilot was out of the cockpit almost before the plane stopped rolling. The tri-wheel jets come in with nose wheel high to break speed … looking like praying mantas. Saw the Douglas F4D Sky Rays, the F38 all-weather fighters, the Grumman Cougar (F-11s), the F8U crusader built in Dallas by Chance Vought. We pay $9 million each for the Crusaders. Captain Campbell, who was commander of the famed Hornet before coming to Miramar showed us around some more as did commanders H.B. Hanson, C.E. Fisher, and L.W. Newman.
Lieutenant Harry F. Thompson asked permission to take us through his domain, the mess kitchens. We walked through zero temperature freezers to see the 20 beef carcasses which would be eaten before the weekend, the bakery where 2,000 loaves of bread are baked daily, the great machines which peel potatoes automatically, the tremendous vats of soup, etc. The Lieutenant was more proud of his kitchens than the flight squadron leader of his planes. He showed us how in the storehouse he could name at a glance how many cans of this or barrels of that he had on hand. Chief MM Blankenship joined us and finally I found myself quizzing R. Bardeau PH 2, USN who told me in the war he shot combat film with infrared film as it “cut out “camouflage and showed only the true God’s greenery. Camouflage greenery showed up white.
Went to Astronautics Division of Convair, the home of Atlas, but not even the top brass escorting us was permitted past the gate of the beautiful new buildings housing our Atlas missile. Everything in the vicinity highly classified as it should be.
Back at the hotel about 5:30 I phoned Dell and the kids. Dell said Trice awakened at 10:30 last night screaming “Mother just crashed. I saw her. She’s dead. She’s dead.” She was hysterical Dell said, so he took her upstairs and tried to get me long distance so she could talk to me. At midnight he got her calmed down after the operator tried unsuccessfully several times, with paging at the hotel, to reach me. “Where in the devil were you?“ Dell asked. “In Mexico,” I replied meekly.
We had agreed during the race to wear only the exquisite race wardrobe designed and donated to us by Zella of Beverly Hills. I took off the crushproof Persian print and got into the white raw silk cocktail dress just in time for the takeoff banquet at which there were about 500 people, almost as many speeches, introductions and brief histories of each pilot. Again asleep almost before I reached my room; the pre-dinner cocktails at the late afternoon party given us by aircraft manufacturers made me sleepy anyway.
I did some quick shopping (for face powder, extra dark glasses, etc.) All the fruit we wished was supplied to us at race headquarters complements of Safeway Chain Groceries. So I made up a plate of fruit and put it in the double room suite I’d engaged for Dell and kids along with candy and gum; then walked over to the Catholic Church for a visit. I have three St. Christopher medals (both priests from our LA church came to the house for dinner the week before I left and insisted on this) one given to me by Mary Moy for the new watch Dell bought me for my birthday. Pilot briefing, the final before takeoff, was scheduled for 13:00 in the hotel dining room. Everything in the race runs on strict schedule and no one waits for anyone, nor is any excuse a valid reason for being late. The briefing lasted three hours and seemed like three minutes, so fascinated was I with each new speaker from race chairman Betty Gillies to C.A.A. inspectors, Murter from weather, and Air Force officials.
I took copious notes as did Jan which we planned to read over and over before going to bed. Typewritten, they covered four single-spaced sheets. Here are just some brief excerpts.
Never fail to file flight plan each leg of route or you’re disqualified. At Yuma, Arizona call the tower on 122.5 VHF and listen on 119.1. Only 80 octane gas available here. A banquet waiting here for you girls who wish to stop.
You are cleared through the restricted areas (area 309) of an ADIZ (air defense interception zone) only on July 4. If delayed going through you must get individual clearances as practice bombing and maneuvering will be resumed.
Stay south of 32’ 30” latitude on the 4th en route to Tucson. At El Paso international fly one base leg of 90° to the traffic pattern on entry and one crosswind leg to 90° on takeoff. Left hand approach on runway is 26, 22, 17 and right hand on runway is 35, 4, 8. Maintain lateral separation on final approach for runway 35.If lost at any time fly high so VHF can be heard. If your receiver only is in operation fly a triangular pattern to the right and hold each heading two minutes (do this twice), resume course. Repeat every 20 minutes.
If both transmitter and receiver are out fly triangular pattern to the left. Keep this up till radar spots you and sends a plane to lead you in.
Remember there isn’t much civilization north or south of Highway 80 in the desert and the desert is no place for a forced landing so keep your position to 80 in mind at all times crossing the desert.
Stations will answer on 120.7 OMNI range unless advised 126.7. Make sure station knows frequency you’re listening on.
Be on the lookout for jets around Jackson, Mississippi. Charleston has demolition of explosives below 3000 feet. Montgomery has LF frequency change to 396KC. Pull mixture control full out on ground. If engine kicks over while you’re on ground for log stamping you’re out of race.
Clock position has been changed at Macon, Georgia. Do NOT buzz the finish line at 200 feet at Charleston until you get radio permission to do so. Contact at least 40 miles out if possible.
Do not penetrate eastern ADIZ without military okay.
Be sure to RON (remaining overnight) each night or you’re disqualified. Do this with C.A.A. communications.
Remember temperatures at El Paso may be over 100 and the runway is 3,900 feet long. Consequently it’s like landing at 9,000 feet altitude. Allow for it. Etc. etc.
And some more … Anvil head of thunderstorm indicates which direction it’s moving. DON’T go in front of it, but around behind it.
Thirty minutes before takeoff deadline start leaving impound area; taxi single file. If have a magneto drop or trouble on takeoff land on runway 23. Takeoff at 20 second intervals. Air Force B 36 and some F 102s are coming over at zero takeoff in demonstration flight for crowds watching takeoff. Don’t try to outguess them in the air.
Then the weather man. There’ll be coastal low stratus back to the foothills in the morning with base at 1,500 and top at 2,000. There’s a trough of low pressure far to the north. Expect 3 p.m. cumulus thundershowers and unstable air east of Texas, etc.
I left the briefing room running to see if my family had arrived. And sure enough there were the girls and my Normie who was overjoyed to see me. Trice began crying until I got them into the bathing suits and the outdoor pool. Countess Marina Coudenhove-Calergi who loves the kids and is staying with them this week came down with Dell. She’s beautifully bred and tutored in everything—except housekeeping but is doing a marvelous job of keeping my home and hearth together. (Marina’s mother, now in Europe, was the first woman pilot of Austria.)
Marina watched the children while Dell and I attended a cocktail party given by the AC spark plug people. Then we all went into the dining room for dinner. Back in our rooms Trice began crying again and Heidi soon followed suit. Cried themselves to sleep.
Today is my Grandmother Gehrung’s birthday (after whom I was named Beatrice). Up at 5 a.m. after fitful sleep. Took my luggage to the entrance where a truck would pick it up to put on the Air Force C-47 which is flying our excess luggage east for us. In ballroom for heavy 6 a.m. breakfast, and final weather briefing. Did not wake Dell and kids until bus departed at 7 a.m. for field. Then I hurriedly awakened them and dressed the kids before they could remember that I was leaving today and start crying again. “Now go with Daddy to breakfast and I’ll see you right away.” Then I rushed to the bus, the last to board.
An hour after we’d reached the field, Dell, Marina, and kids arrived. I talked steadily about the firecrackers I’d purchased earlier and left at home for them. When the order came to clear the area around impound and for spectators to go to the bleachers I kissed each quickly and ran to the plane leaving Dell to deal with the crying, if it should start again. Fortunately hundreds of colored balloons were released at that moment and sent skyward announcing the imminent takeoff of the derby and the children were fascinated by the new development.
As we lined up and taxied past the bleachers behind plane number one flown by Randa Sutherland (one of the four planes flown solo) the loud speaker again announced pilots and brief histories. Tears streamed down Tricie’s face and Heidi looked bleakly straight ahead. Lined up, all 61 planes for takeoff, there was another delay. A jeep drove up to the plane and the fellow asked “anything I can do for plane number two?” I said, “Yes, how about a portable latrine?” He insisted on driving me at breakneck speed across the field, to the administration building, and back to the plane again. Fran Rocklin and Anna Held who had arrived minutes before with their men friends were at the plane to say goodbye. Los Angeles friends, and Lieutenant Commander Bain Allen and his family of San Diego had come out earlier to say goodbye. Fran brought me a four leaf clover pressed between celluloid.
At 10 a.m. sharp the first plane was flagged over; then our log was stamped and run out to us by a runner and we were heading down the runway past the crowds, past the remote track with the TV cameras grinding away, past the end of the runway airborne by now. The instant we reached 400 feet we made our turn into the pattern and were away heading for the mountains. Minutes later we were alone in the sky, not another plane in sight.
We flew full throttle and kept on course accurately even to the juxtaposition of a railroad with a highway on our maps. The maps were numbered to facilitate handling and we were tuned into the closest OMNI and checking our position on the map against the OMNI rows constantly so that at any given moment we could identify our position exactly. Since we were given permission to fly over ADIZ at briefing the day before, we had reconstructed our first leg of the flight. Though we had 4 1/2 hours of fuel aboard we decided not to be foolhardy in stretching our flying time and perhaps being disqualified by having to land at an undesignated field for fuel.
My mind curiously enough was at rest for the first time in months. We were committed and there was nothing more except following through. It’s always that first step. I felt sure the children were committed by now to being without me for 10 days and looking forward to the drive home through the orange orchards and along the ocean, the promised stop at San Juan Capistrano, and the fireworks later in the evening.
Forty miles out of Tucson (after we passed within sight of Gene’s mountain top in the Laguna range) we radioed for permission to make a head on approach without entering traffic pattern and were given it. On the headphones we were getting latest weather sequence: “92 temperature El Centro, 67 Los Angeles with 1,600 ceiling, 1,700 San Diego, Yuma 91° with a south six wind.”
Got out our map of airport identification as we were to do hereafter on each approach landing, studied the position of runways and the all-important clock position area, and barreled into Tucson. We are the only plane in the race I believe with the Crosswind Landing gear. Our turn off the active runway onto the nearest taxi strip was so abrupt that we came into the clock area sidewise the whole distance though our wheels were in proper position. Not understanding the quirks of the crosswind gear, many bystanders behind the ropes began yelling “they’re going to crash; they’re going to crash.” So reported the amused airport manager who put a cold Coke in my hand almost before I’d stamped the log book.
A splendid smorgasbord style luncheon awaited us along with race favors etc. inside the administration building, compliments of the 99’s of Tucson. We closed flight plan, checked weather, ate, checked weather, filed new flight plan to El Paso and took off.
Landed at El Paso and RONed (remaining overnight) with the proper authorities. Waiting cars took us to beautiful modern Caballero Motel where we got into swimsuits and relaxed in the water for an hour before other cars took us to town for dinner and asked if we’d like to go across the border to Juarez. We wanted only some sleep.
Up at 4:30 a.m. Waiting cars (astronomical thanks to the local drivers … sometimes military, sometimes 99’s and their 49½ ers who always were waiting with transportation the second we were ready for it.) A gulped breakfast at the airport while the plane wing tanks were tipped, the oil put in (we always waited till plane cooled and oil settled before putting in new … thus we kept engine case clean during flight; no overspill from heat expanding oil.) Then off into the dubious dawn toward Abilene. Landed for gas and then on to Tyler, Texas. Asked the HAM operators on the field to wire Los Angeles “Tyler, Texas, tonight. Love to you ducks and drakes. Trixie-Ann.”
Taken to Maria Motel newly managed by the young McDonald’s and their three year old son Gene. No restaurant facilities as yet so McDonald drove out to get 20 of the biggest steaks I’ve ever seen and we barbecued them outdoors (in the rain) while Nancy Walton of Australia made a salad that heretofore she’d only seen her cook make. The local C.A.A. weatherman stopped at the various hotels and motels where we were with discouraging weather reports for tomorrow. Some of the girls decided not to try it. We (we always is Jan and myself) decided to get to the field and take off soon as there was a break in the clouds. But I had one reservation … I wanted to go to mass first. The Catholic Church had no masses till 9 a.m. But I learned that the Mother Frances hospital had a chapel mass at 6 a.m. for nurses. One of the motel workers, a young man by the name of Piccard who was studying to be a Lutheran minister at the local seminary drove me to mass in a pickup truck, waited till it was over, and drove me out to the airport afterwards.
(The HAM operator on the field this morning was a man by the name of Williams who has relatives by name of Peterson in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.)
Coming into Tyler we flew in weather that under normal conditions we’d have never been found in. Hail bombarded the cockpit windshield like machine gun fire. Lightning struck off both wingtips. Rain periodically obscured vision. So this is it… more weather than we expected, but we still have visual reference to the ground (at times), a compass heading, enough gas in both tanks for another hour’s flight, a horizon finder and a roll and bank indicator on the instrument panel to keep us from vertigo or getting the plane into a stall or spin attitude. Also we’ve been well-versed with the new 180 procedure for getting out of a tight situation when weather “closed in.” The emphasis always was on RELAX. And so we relaxed. And not until after we were on the ground at Tyler did we find that our hands were shaking around the cokes handed us on landing.
Haphazardly we picked up morning newspapers at various stops all front page headlined with the news of the Powder Puff Derby, all belated news because it couldn’t keep actual pace with the race. This was my leg to fly and it was a double leg. We took off from Tyler (with some sandwiches we had made up at the field) and while Jan ate and navigated I flew from Tyler, bypassed the Montgomery, Alabama, stop, and onto Macon, Georgia, a MUST stop. Landed at Macon after almost a four hour flight and were greeted with a basket of Georgia peaches, coke, and the usual refreshments, newspapermen, cameramen, 99s, airport personnel trying to be, and being, helpful etc.
We landed at Macon early in the afternoon after a turbulent flight. I was stimulated to a degree that might have enabled me to fly on just indefinitely … at least so I felt. “We can finish this afternoon. Let’s refuel and get out of here and cross the finish line in Charleston. I can almost feel the Atlantic from here,” I said. Jan was tired: “It takes all the fun out of the racing when you’re as tired as I am now,” she said. “Let’s finish tomorrow.” And since it was her plane, it was her decision. We RONed at Macon for the night and were driven to the Holiday Inn. Despite a threatening storm I got into the pool and swam with one lone occupant, a 10-year old boy who was en route to San Diego with his marine father and family. In the deluge of rain that hit the pool a moment later sending big plops of pool water up to meet the downpour he told me his name, complete family circumstances including the condition of his father’s uniform and the family bank account. Twenty minutes later the rain stopped and we got out of the warm pool and ran shivering through the Georgia July afternoon to our motel rooms.
At a long dinner table, those of us remaining at Georgia engaged in “hangar flying“ about the race to date. It was learned the two 18 year old girls from Blackfoot, Idaho, had been disqualified because one got sick and they made an emergency landing at an undesignated airport. We all felt badly. Sylvia Roth, who has an air transport rating and 10 or so thousand hours of flying said that her co-pilot quit in the middle of the race; she was noncommittal about the reason. But since the co-pilot was a licensed pilot too and since personality conflicts are tensed in a race of this nature I thought I understood why the girl quit, undoubtedly forfeiting Sylvia’s chances for a higher score toward winning.
Pat Udall, a very pretty girl who is mother of five children and wife of a Tucson, Arizona lawyer, said her co-pilot was utterly terrified. She was not a pilot, had never flown in weather, was along merely to run the logbook in for time stamping. When she began asking Pat, “What if you faint? I suppose we just plunge down to crash,” then Pat began realizing what terror the girl really felt and offered to send her home by train at the next city. The girl readily accepted and Pat flew the rest of the race solo.
Spent the rest of the evening thinking over the “mind of the south” as I’d been doing for sometime. The Texas drawl was a pleasant respite in the race; not so pleasant had been our first encounter with airport administration buildings that had restrooms labeled “for colored men,” and “for white men”; “for colored women” and “for white women.” One of the girls was heard to ask, “Why, I wonder. Is their urine a different color than ours?” Mostly the colored people when spoken to (at least in the hotels and elevators) kept their eyes lowered like some kind of slave or inferior.
Through the ever-alert HAM operators I sent Dell a wire, “Overnight at Macon. Finish on my birthday. Love, Trixie-Ann.” As I crawled between the seemingly damp sheets in the overly-air-conditioned motel room I was thinking about mother 37 years ago tonight… about to give birth to a baby and with a whole new life opening up before her … so she must’ve thought, not knowing she had less than seven years to partake of it.
We were in no great rush to be off this morning since we had less than three hours time before finishing the race … air time that is. So we didn’t rise until about 6:30 a.m. At the field we were told that our planes would be topped with gas for free, compliments of the Georgia flying service on the field. I began thinking about this half an hour after we were in the air. “Live and learn,” I spoke to Jan. “We shouldn’t have had the gas topped for free. We shouldn’t even have had the tanks filled the night before. We could finish the race with half of each tank filled. And here we’re carrying all that excess weight to slow our speed.” “I never thought of it till too late either,” said Jan. I was sure Fran Bera and some of the other race pros had thought of it. When I questioned them later at the race terminus I found it to be true; they calculated almost exact fuel consumption and flew with that—no more.
As we approached the east we saw the ocean first … then Charleston cuddled on the shores; then the airport west of the city, and finally, straining our eyes to see, we detected the finish line… alternate red cloth markers on the field the span of a couple of planes wide and with what looked like weather balloons attached and floating 25 feet or so above the marker. Never have been so impressed with the control tower operator as with the chief operator at Charleston who with utter cool and calm brought all the girls across the finish line. We were given permission to swoop down within 200 feet, but no lower, of the field lined with crowds. As we buzzed past the tower our time was recorded automatically and the tower operator, knowing our mode of excitation, dropped his usual tower nomenclature and instead of giving us compass turns said, “Now TAR 2, turn to your left; you’ve completed the downwind leg. This is your base leg. Now begin your turn for final approach; take your second taxi strip to the left after landing and immediately called ground tower for further instructions.“ A child could have landed the plane there.
As we coasted to a stop before the administration building two men came running carrying something between them; and before we could get the safety belts off and slip from the plane they literally had rolled out the red carpet and we stepped from the plane onto the red carpet and began shaking hands with all of the grinning people. It was almost too much.
Page Shamburger, who also writes for Cross Country News, was there to greet us as was Marge Campbell from the Charleston Courier and Inquirer. All along the route we met 99’s whom we had corresponded with or knew about but had never met. Cora McDonald, for instance, told me at one stop that my efforts to get Robert Cummings for judge for the Amelia Earhart scholarship at the national convention had been successful, that he had wired later he would participate. Jimmy Stewart, whom I had contacted at their request, for convention speaker, was on SAC duty and could not oblige.
Cross country impressions begin to merge … it had all happened so fast; all the hospitality, all the different people; how small Shreveport, Louisiana looked when I had thought it a big city, how winding the Mississippi River with its barges like water bugs. How superior the airplane seemed over anything that cumbersome that would take unending time to wind around the river bends down to the Gulf; the beautiful hardtop runway system at Monroe, which we had thought a rather small town; the desert nothingness gradually transposed into squares of greens and verdure and finally trees and civilization below again; the strangeness of seeing no mountains anywhere; the bayous and swampy areas of the south; the isolation of cities on the face of vastness that is America … and mostly the insignificance and nothingness of man or humankind in general in the great scheme of things. Only in his own personal integrity and being did man, the finite nothingness, amount to anything, and thus man is his own world. And I began to understand the poet (T.S. Elliott?) who declared that a whole world died every time a man died; or perhaps it was Ernie Pyle who had infinite poetry in his day-to-day reporting.
We were chauffeured by the Air Force to the Francis Marion Hotel, the best in Charleston, and I was struck afresh how the best of most anything in the South suffers by comparison with the best of anything in the West or the North. I had yet to learn that Charleston is not as much a city as it is a museum. And I certainly hadn’t seen ALL of the south. I think maybe New Orleans would give me a new perspective on the south.
We had just time to register, pick up our luggage flown out by the Air Force, get our beach attire and leave for a private beach party given at the L. Louis Green Jr. summer home on the Isle of Palms. We drove over the two roller coaster-like spans of bridge across the Ashley and Cooper rivers. We swam in the ocean, delighted that the Atlantic is much warmer than the Pacific this time of year; we found sand dollars or sea biscuit fish shells to bring home unlike any I’ve found along Pacific Shores; we considered how in a few weeks I’d be home having twice traversed the continent from west to east border and back only to start the transverse crossing from south to north (California to British Columbia) and back; and then, shrieking from the shock of it, I finally kicked free a large blue feeler crab bigger than my hand that had latched onto my right foot. With the crab marks still on my foot I went back to the city and ordered crab salad for dinner. Jan and I ate at a table for two and just as we were about to leave the waitress came up with one big piece of cake on top of which was a vial of flaming brandy, singing “happy birthday to you.” This was Jan’s idea. “Let the cake be the compliments of the Jack Tar hotel,” said the waitress.
Everything had been arranged for us while in Charleston mostly at the expense of two wealthy citizens Thompson and Brenner. I also found myself after the first evening’s cocktail party with several cards from other well-wishers who asked that we call and be welcomed at their homes for private parties. Captain Georges L. Hansen, U.S.N; Dr. Arthur Williams (who had gone to Marquette University in Milwaukee and said he frequently felt nostalgia for the north: local citizenry said he was one of their best internists.) After the party the Williams (Emgee is his wife) took us to the nearby lobster house, but I found it impossible to look a lobster in the face.
Jan had a couple press interviews (she was a former prospective Olympic contender in shot put, discus storing, and excelled in baseball, football, boxing and consequently was a good subject for the sports editors) so I took a boat trip to Fort Sumter. Pauline Glasson sat next to me (all this is free… as with every other courtesy and consideration in Charleston) and told me she had a plus score of 13. Ours averaged 5 plus so I figured we were somewhat shy of being race winners by any count. Pauline said she flies by the clouds, has been doing it for over 20 years. She’s a flight instructor. Her grandfather was a Cherokee Indian, and like most women with traces of Indian blood, Pauline wears well. The officer at Fort Sumter revived the Civil War for us in his soft southern drawl; we were mightily impressed but somewhat askance at how these people live the Civil War yet while the north’s memory of it has been dimmed by more recent wars and perhaps by the fact that the north was not the battleground that the south was. These are a people apart and I had the feeling they wouldn’t require much impetus to secede from the Union even yet. Mr. Green at his beach party told me how his grandfather ran the blockade etc.
Gradually we became overcome with the oldness, the decrepit oldness of everything. My respect for the tradition has never been questioned, my love of the old. But here is oldness in tradition that stagnates because the populace refuses to relinquish it to its proper century. “Charleston has more firsts than any city in America” we heard constantly. The city has a law stipulating that nothing new may be built in the original section of Charleston. When a home recently burned the owner had to rebuild it from the rubble and very old brick made many years ago in order that there be nothing new. Back from the harbor boat trip to Fort Sumter we had luncheon at the white Fort Sumter Hotel on the battery front. The fish is excellent. The turnip greens and black-eyed peas served so often and not quite fresh heated buns hardly serve as a good comparison with the best the west hotels have to offer. And perhaps the comparisons are unjust. It seemed that nowhere in the south could we buy that drink so often associated with the south … mint julep. Maybe it too is antebellum like the plantations we were taken to.
But the recipe for Planter’s Punch, which originated in the Planters Hotel (now used as their legitimate theater) is still ingrained in a wood panel at the bar of the hotel… now almost illegible. We walked back to the Francis Marion after the harbor tour. Streets narrow. Houses historic but decaying. Much hand wrought iron work of which Charleston is proud. Much outdoor brass polished daily by the Negroes … take great pride in their shining brass. But houses seemed close … unventilated by privacy from one another … musty with memories of the has-beens who occupied them when they were new and beautiful. Francis Marion, so the legend on one of the hotel walls reads, was the Swamp Fox of the south … a general who fought viciously, and holed in in the swamps or pursued in the swamps as the case demanded.
(Yesterday on arrival I sent telegrams to Dell, A.L., Dorothy and sponsor Soma.) Received telegrams from Soma, Zella, Joyce Failing. Also my birthday present with a call home. I talked with the children, with Marina who had stayed over till Mrs. Bach arrived on the seventh, with Dell. The girls were delighted to talk. Normie however, said, “My mommy (Moner, he says) went away on an airplane and I’m sick.” I couldn’t seem to convince him it was I talking. “If I find your mother what shall I tell her to bring you?” I asked. “A turtle,” he replied solemnly.
This afternoon we were guests of the Russell Nathaniel home, one of the oldest in Charleston, and now the historical society headquarters. Its lovely old oval rooms and once-lush furniture spoke of another era of gingerbread trimmed living. Even the Sevres China with its burnt orange design splashed on the plates without much glimpse of the white underneath still was in the glass and enclosed hutches. It seemed strangely garish and in bad taste. Could anyway but shudder at a long table set with pieces each of which screamed loudly.
We had cocktails and appetizers served in the back lawns. Stopped to admire again on our way out the graceful spiral staircase spinning up three floors. Then back to The Battery where we boarded a boat for dinner at sea. Cruised the harbor for an hour till we were served chicken like I’ve never before tasted. Injected with spices and deep-fried in corn oil. Never, ever have I tasted such a wonderful chicken and my outlook on Southern Food brightened.
Before pilot briefing Ruth Reinhold and I took a walk. Someone pointed out what they thought was a museum. We walked in. A very old unstable looking interior patio with balconied sides, narrow corridors in the building. We wanted to see some of the paintings and asked a uniformed man where they were. “Did you expect to find them here?” he asked. “Isn’t this a museum?” we asked. He was young and had the courage to share this with his colleagues while we were still there. “This is the police department,” he said.
In pilot briefing promptly at nine. The eyes seemed ready to leave the faces of some of the girls as they awaited the announcement of winners. There was no surprise when Fran Bera was listed as having won with highest par. Pauline Glasson was second; since she had told me her plus score, I assumed this might happen. Third place to two of the nicest girls in the race, Gertrude Howard and Barbara Anspaugh who had acquired a Luscombe only two weeks before the race and had no sponsors except their husbands. Howard teaches at Texas A&M and Anspaugh is working on his PhD. They were the only plane with a higher score than ours flying their first TAR. Since several of us had 5 plus scores we assumed we’d be about 10th but with the scores computer to seconds we were 15th among 61 airplanes.
Most heartbreaking was the situation of San Diego nurse Isabelle McCrae and eight-times-a-grandmother Betty McNeill who flew a great race and would have had second place except that a C.A.A. official in Charleston said the air scoop on the front of the airplane made it non-stock and disqualified it. This should’ve been detected by the race C.A.A. official in San Diego before takeoff. (On landing our plane keys were taken away from us in Charleston and the planes impounded again for another three days while checked over.) Both these veteran race pilots sat in the rear of the hall at pilot briefing, tears running down their faces.
After luncheon I took the city tour of Charleston, glad that I had purchased a little set of pickaninny dolls for the girls a day before since Charleston stores close at noon on Wednesdays. We visited some of the lovely old protestant churches with their pinpoint spires that can be seen far out at sea; passed the Catholic cathedral, and visited the old Huguenot church (the only one of its kind in America) at which services, in French, are held once a year. People in the old days came from the islands to the mainland for services, then waited for the tide so they could return to their islands. They bring lunches and meet on the shores to talk and visit … thus the term originated, “I’ll meet you at the turn of the tide.“ Wandered through the ancient cemetery of the church. On to the City Hall in whose small quarters are housed the famous Turnbull painting of Washington (the original) and other portraits of Calhoun, Lee, Moultrie, etc. (None of Lincoln I might add.)
The bus driver pointed with pride to the squares that used to be slave blocks. “That’s where we sold our slaves.” We saw the long arcade that served as marketplace, visited the log cabin store that sells anything you could possibly wish to buy. (Could that bus driver but have seen Farmer’s Market in LA.) He pointed out the spiked wrought iron fences of many homes, the spikes put up during slave uprisings, indicated how when the earthquake almost 100 years ago left many buildings lopsided they were propped up with sidings of what looked like sewer pipe; in the City Hall the 14 councilmen sit on chairs that have been there almost 200 years … not a nail in them, all pegged. Some of the homes were built with pegs, no nails. One is built of marble slab. All need paint and refurbishing.
The streets are narrow, accommodation for one buggy drawn by horse, some still are cobblestoned like some of Boston’s. The great difference between the New England tradition and the tradition of the south is that New England preserves the old while abiding in the new; the south abides in the old preserving only the memories. Maybe this is unfair judgment too since the south is poor moneywise.
“This is our hospital; the medical students can watch operations by TV now, and “continued the voice of the bus guide. I cringed … could that bus driver but take a tour through the UCLA medical center. Could he but take a ride down Wilshire Boulevard. Could he but drive down Sunset Boulevard to the ocean and see what residential magnificence really is. It was impossible to keep from making mental comparisons. And suddenly I felt myself feeling sorry for these people so hidebound by the past; and I hoped he never would see the West, or the great cities of the North. It would destroy the carefully generated self-satisfaction, the centuries old pride. I wondered if he had been in service … he looked old enough to have been in World War II. And how do they acclimate after seeing the rest of the world … or is hometown so deeply embedded it always seems good. I was told that some northern industrialists choose to retire to Charleston and I have no reason to doubt it. If one wanted to be let alone certainly Charleston would be overlooked. Its vegetation is its particular charm for me… Oleander, crêpe myrtle, the tremendous old magnolia trees, the Spanish moss that graces so many trees and is not parasitic, living off the air; the azalea trees. The vegetation has a primeval air about it in some respects. Lovely vegetation.
Back to the hotel in time to get ready for the next cocktail party. (I should say here that before leaving San Diego I had made arrangements to fly back to the west with Ruth Wagner and Hialeah Reilich in the Navion belonging to Ruth who is a Sacramento doctor’s wife.) Ruth is a platinum pretty blonde; Hialeah, tall and dark; both girls whom I’ve met and like before. At the party I met the mayor of the city … a ruddy complected, kindly man who is dying of cancer. I said the nice things about his city that I found I justly could say emphasizing the beautiful trees and flowers.
Captain Richard Schaller who flew the C-47 out, saw me typing my column for Cross Country News earlier in the day in the hotel press room using a Swiss portable loaned to me by a Courier and Inquirer reporter (Campbell). He said, “Gee we can take press people in the Air Force plane without special permission. Want to come back with us?” I toyed with the interesting idea for a while then decided to take my chances with the Navion … since the Air Force still had six days en route time and we’re likely to use it up at every town with an airport between the east and west. As it happened we reached home in the small Navion a whole day before the C-47 pulled into international airport, LA. I did ask, however, if he’d take my luggage back with him in the C-47 so we wouldn’t overload the Navion.
Finally everyone promenaded into the awards banquet room. Fine meal but iced tea was served with it and most of us headed for someplace where we could get a cup of hot coffee right after the banquet. The trophies, cash awards, leg prizes etc. were distributed ceremoniously at the banquet and speeches were kept to a minimum. A white model (foam material model) of a Beechcraft Bonanza with a “6” on the side graced the speakers table… in other words a model of Fran’s winning plane. Fran has become a legend with her winning … this was the fifth time. Hearsay tidbits ran as follows: “I’ll clue you, that girl plans to win the race in every possible type of ship.” “She never keeps her cash award but turns it over to the owner of plane she flies so she can get a new engine since she usually burns one out per race. Not only does she fly a proficiency race but an efficiency race thinning the mixture till it burns the valves out. Gets the airplane a bad name. That’s why airplane manufacturers wouldn’t put up prize money if we ran an efficiency race for all the girls.” “She’s got the know how all right,“ this from Irene Leverton, “I left Jackson in the same type of plane Fran flew and left an hour before she did. She beat me into Charleston by one minute. I swear she flew right through the thunderstorms without reducing the throttle.” Etc. etc. But notable was the fact that none of the conversation was of the sour grapes variety; people like Fran Bera.
Packed my largest bag, gave it to Captain Schaller to haul home for me in the morning, and went to bed with a call to be awakened at 5:30.
Awoke with misgivings … weather-wise. I’d hate to be weathered in here for a whole week while so eager to start home again. Went out to the field anyway after being offered a complimentary breakfast in our rooms … and after leaving a so-long note to sleeping Jan (who will go on to Europe for the summer) as soon as there was a hole in the weather ceiling we took off and broke through it. Hialeah, who used to be a civil engineer draftsman in the LA Department of Water and Power, has an uncanny ability at air navigation. I have to watch the maps pretty closely. She dozes at times in the air but when asked for a position can pinpoint it within a mile on the map. We stopped at Meridian to refuel and learned that two of the girls en route east during the race had landed in a nearby cow pasture after running dangerously low on gas. Were driven into town to a restaurant that had a sign “whites only” on it. Wasted only an hour on the ground and were off again.
“Why can’t we RON at Fort Worth or city sister Dallas, Texas, for the night?” I asked the girls, “I’ve never met Tony Page, editor of the paper I’ve been writing at for four years. She’s on Meacham Field.” Agreeably they spread the maps and we drew a line to Fort Worth a little north of where we had come in the race. And Dallas apparently all it’s rated to be. Beautifully laid out city from the air with lakes etc. … looks new, modern, progressive and outreaching with new areas being developed far out on its perimeter. Landed in the city almost adjoining it, Fort Worth. Big Texans in cowboy hats and boots were lounging around the airport administration building, a large beautiful building. Tony was in her office. She was on the phone in minutes making arrangements. Then into her car for a sightseeing tour of the city, on to the motel where she had obtained a room for us (City Center Motel). We put on fresh clothes and went on to Western Hills Night Club where a single woman pays an initial $2,000 for belonging, and rooms are $50 a night. Beyond a doubt the most fabulously beautiful and big night club I’ve been in barring none … The Mocambo and Ciro’s together could be placed nicely in the one room with slate floors, mahogany paneled walls, and works of fine art along the sides we were ushered into. White leather long couches everywhere … a fountain in the center. Only by a stretch of the imagination does it compare with any night club so-called anywhere. It’s a breed of all its own. Called Western Hills I believe. And then on to the Branding Iron for dinner after cocktails at the previous night club. Tony says there’s much rivalry between Fort Worth and Dallas.
A huge brazier in the center of the dining place burned with hot coals. Small brands were placed around it so you could go up, put your own brand on a steak, and have it done to your liking.
Tony suggested I have a rare delicacy in Texas known as calf fries. On the menu it was expensive. “What is it?” I asked. “Comes from the tenderest part of the male?” She answered. “Like what?” I pursued. “Steer testicles?” she said. I declined the calf fries and chose very carefully from the menu, things with which I was assuredly familiar. We paid for nothing. “This is on Cross Country News,” Tony said. Her birthday is tomorrow.
Seemed strange to waken and have to call a cab to the airport; where was all that race hospitality transportation we were getting so accustomed to? Snatched a ham and egg breakfast and just as I was finishing Ruth remarked, “I told Al I’d get home by Saturday but it looks like we’ll make it today, Friday.” But too late, I’d already eaten the ham before realizing.
Wasted no time getting into the air, and headed for Tucumcari where we stopped to get gas and eat. No eating facilities on field. A fellow loaned us his Ford and I drove it into town and back so we could eat. Took a good look at Tucumcari Mountain where Indian Tucum and his maiden Cari committed suicide after being denied marriage, and where a couple fellows from Los Angeles were killed a couple weeks earlier when they ran into weather and didn’t see the Tucumcari peak, crashing into it. From there on west the thermals created much air turbulence and soon we were yawing, pitching, and rolling all at once; and all three of us trying not to be sick. North Texas terrain nicely checkered into ranches. We bypassed Albuquerque, New Mexico and headed for Prescott, Arizona which is the place Mayetta Behringer and I had to stop almost 10 years ago with prop trouble when we were flying cross country in her Cessna 140.
With headaches and on the edge of airsickness we three crawled out of the Navion at Prescott and were greeted by Mr. Hightower who asked what we were doing flying in 102° weather. Most plane accidents are so-called hot weather accidents when the air is thin and one needs twice the usual runway to take off. He said also that larger planes than ours had taken off on pleasure flights that day and returned because of the turbulence. He suggested we wait over. But after a cold Coke and cold water and dry bakery we felt like going on and getting home. Learning we were returning from the Powder Puff, Hightower said he’s been a race pilot for years, knew Steve Whitman of Oshkosh well, gave us some valuable pointers to remember if we should race again, and took us out to the hangar to let us climb around his newly delivered Piper Comanche, a $17,000 piece of airplane anyone would be happy to hangar in his possession.
Noticed a 180° wind switch just before we took off and had to taxi the length of the strip again. All three of us soon feeling sick again … the constant tossing and buffeting about. We decided something as light as a Cub, Aronica, or Luscombe just couldn’t make it on so rough a day. Finally crossed over the railroad town of Winslow and spotted the famous meteorite crater just beyond it. Took pix of it from the air; and headed on for the Pacific. How wonderful to see familiar landmarks … Lake Arrowhead with the puffs of white (sailboats) on it, Big Bear Lake, Mount Baldy, the Wilson observatory with the nearby forest fires trailing white smoke high into the air (learned afterwards the forest fires were thought to be set by arsonists), and finally over the crest of the mountain range, smog-smitten LA worse in summer than any other time of year.
Smog has dissipated greatly since the banning of backyard incineration and we were happy to learn, after calling Burbank radio that it wasn’t smog so much as fog rolling in from the ocean and backed up against the mountains. They told us to get in fast and land since the fog would soon put all fields on instrument. We did a full throttle race to the field and I remembered to tell Ruth who is unfamiliar with Grand Central, that we have a right hand pattern approach. Three grateful California citizens crawled out of that plane. I had invited the girls earlier to come home with me for the night and continue their course home to Northern California in the morning or when weather permitted. They were anxious to get home to their children too.
Phoned home. Trice answered. I said, “We’re home; have Daddy come to the airport to pick us up.” Trust my Tricie to emotionalize all situations just like her mother. “Are you home? Are you really here in our city? I’m so glad. I’m so happy, Mother. Mother, I love you. Are you really here?” I asked her to call Dell again and she replied, “Oh he can’t come to the phone. The doctor is here and daddy‘s sick in bed.” Marina came to the phone. Mrs. Bach left yesterday and Marina had returned. They both were perfectly wonderful to my children. The kids are crazy about Marina and Normie had begun calling Mrs. Bach “Momma Bach.” Marina said she would come after us except that she couldn’t drive. I went into the flight office and got one of the instructors, Robert Cook, to tote the three of us and our luggage home in his new small foreign car.
Recently, I decided to browse through some historical articles in Flying Magazine. (Thanks to Google Books, all of Flying Magazine’s issues dating back to the 1920s are available for one’s personal exploration here.) I wanted to see not only how Joan Merriam Smith and Jerrie Mock were covered by one of the aviation industry’s leading publications in the 1960s, but how other women pilots were covered as well. It was quite the experience.
Flying Magazine’s 1960s Coverage of Women Pilots
While I had known about the ridiculous feature story written about Joan following her death entitled “The Loser,” which is buried on page 80 of the August 1965 issue, I was shocked to find an editorial in the very same issue about women in aviation from none other than the editor of the magazine himself, Robert B. Parke.
In “The feminine case” on page 28, Parke writes:
“There have always been a good many reasons why women shouldn’t fly and a few reasons why most of them don’t. The reasons are not related. The ‘shouldn’t reasons’ are largely based on man’s shrewd insight into women’s natural shortcomings—their lack of mechanical aptitude, their emotional and irrational behavior in emergencies and their well-known limitation of being able to do only one thing at a time.”
He goes on to explain:
“But a hint of change is in the wind. A tiny ripple is appearing on the vast ocean of consummate diffidence of women toward the airplane … of course the presence of hordes of women in an activity does revolutionize the activity, and this we should be braced for. You can almost certainly expect potted geraniums outside the hangars, curtains and rugs in the pilots’ lounge and clean restrooms. You can look, too, for more tasteful paint schemes on airplanes, fewer skirt-stretching steps and more readable instrumentation. Perhaps there will even be a new phonetic alphabet—Annie, Bertha, Carol.”
On page 30 of this issue, there is a similar article entitled “For Men Only: A Women’s Place is in the Kitchen.” Author Milton W. Horowitz, PhD writes “There are those who look with distaste upon the prospect of women swarming into aviation like lemmings: this professor of psychology, for one.” Ouch. But seriously, you must read the article for yourself to get the full effect.
Then on page 39 of this issue, there is an article entitled “The Invisible 99s” (also by a man named Richard Bach). He writes: “Women are people who seek to clutter the air with tea and talk, using the sky as a sort of highway where you don’t have to signal your turns, and an airplane as a thing wherein this is a knob you push and this little wheel you twist and if you’re lucky and keep your fingers crossed you arrive where you are pointed.”
NOW – if this isn’t the definition of mansplaining then I don’t know what is! Hard to believe that this sentiment was so deeply infused into the mainstream thinking, and that the editor of an industry magazine (marketed as “the world’s most widely read aviation magazine” on their front cover), in the case of Parke, actually held such views. Hearing this perspective, however, does offer an enlightening peek back into the past. It brings to light some of the insidious challenges that Joan and Jerrie faced, and the difficulty it took to not only navigate the world in an airplane without GPS, but an ultimately condescending, unfriendly, and unsupportive network upon which they relied to achieve their respective undertakings.
Joan Merriam Smith Branded as “The Loser”
Taking the above-mentioned coverage into consideration, it is therefore no surprise to find a story like “The Loser” written about Joan. For a woman who became the first to complete Amelia Earhart’s route, the first to fly solo around the equator, the first to complete the longest single solo flight of her time, and the first female to seek out and take off for (but not be the first to complete) a flight around the world solo, all she gets in the end is an unfair commentary from a biased, male, associate editor at Flying Magazine in 1965 to sour her accomplishments. Not to mention coupled with a terribly chosen photo.
In the article, Mr. James Gilbert writes:
“She was a little tornado of a girl who flew alone around the world, and in so doing made the longest solo flight in history. It was for her the fulfillment of a childhood dream of immortality, the achievement of a life-long ambition to finish the unfinished last flight of the girl she had ever idolized—Amelia Earhart. yet the journey was also a fiasco and a defeat, a losing race with another girl, a girl who got home weeks ahead, and who got all the official world records, the handsome gold medals and the lioness’ share of the fame.”
Gilbert goes on to talk about the controversial sanctioning process, commenting that it was probably Joan’s fault as to why she didn’t get the sanction. (Of course in my book, based on my research, I beg to differ.) It’s therefore no surprise that someone like Gilbert would write:
“You might say she hemmed and hawed and procrastinated for so long that someone else beat her to it. Surely the NAA is right here: it’s nice, neat completed application forms that count, rather than vaguely expressed intentions to have a go … all the NAA could do was sit tight and see whose completed application came in first. And bad luck on the loser.”
Gilbert also goes on to share his opinion about how Joan’s way of finding sponsors was wrong. He talked about how the plane she chose was wrong. He talked about how her route was basically, you guessed it, wrong. He talked about how her supporters and advisors were wrong. Of course, this was just an opinion. It was one man’s biased, third person perspective, and an unfair framing of a situation that he had zero involvement with. The biggest tragedy of all was that this article in some ways was the final word on her legacy. And it left a very bad mark. In fact, it was one of the very first articles I received a photocopy of from various archives when I first began my research into Joan’s world flight.
Jerrie Mock Branded as “The Winner” (In a “Race” the Two Women Didn’t Acknowledge as Such)
To compare the coverage Jerrie Mock received in Flying Magazine, it’s easy to feel the sting of what Joan must have felt. In the July 1964 issue, Jerrie was highlighted in a feature story about her world flight entitled “Jerrie Mock: Winner Take All” with a subhead that reads: “blend a diminutive 38-year-old Ohio housewife with an 11-year old single-engine airplane; add courage and determination; stir in a pinch of competition; mix well and presto—7 world records.”
The story includes a picture of Jerrie receiving a medal from President Lyndon B. Johnson. There is hardly any mention of Joan.
Jerrie is also introduced in the publisher’s letter at the opening of the magazine. He writes this about Jerrie:
“At the Wings Club luncheon, Bill Lear was warmly applauded. But the assembled aviation personnel—chief pilots, private pilots and non-pilots alike—saved most of their energy for a well-deserved, five-minute standing ovation for Jerrie Mock, whose total flying time after her flight is still less than 1,000 hours.”
In other parts of the magazine, Jerrie appears in advertisements such as these:
While there is nothing wrong about Jerrie being celebrated and featured for achieving such a fantastic feat, the absence of coverage regarding Joan’s accomplishment is deafening. When comparing the coverage of Joan and Jerrie in Flying Magazine, and taking into the account the general sentiment about women in aviation at the time, I do find one thing a bit odd. Why such celebratory coverage of Jerrie if the men didn’t want women in aviation to be taken too seriously? A closer look at the article reveals something interesting: the main author who wrote the story? Her name was Betty Vail.
On August 18th, 19-year old Zara Rutherford embarked on an around-the-world solo flight, with hopes of becoming the youngest woman to fly around the world solo.
In 2017, Shaesta Waiz became the “youngest woman to fly around the world solo in a single engine aircraft” at the age of 30. Zara is hoping to break her record. However, readers of Fate on a Folded Wing will know that Joan Merriam Smith actually completed a flight at a younger age than Shaesta, who was just 27 when she finished her solo flight around the equator in 1964 without GPS following Earhart’s same route. (Joan flew a twin-engine plane vs. Shaesta’s single engine.)
Zara’s undertaking is aimed at bringing more awareness to both women in aviation and STEM. She is following a western route from Belgium via Greenland through to New York on her 32,000 mile voyage. After that, she’ll fly down to South America, back up through North America and over to Russia, through Asia, Indonesia, the Middle East, Europe, and back to Belgium. She expects that due to potential weather delays and anticipated bureaucratic tape, that her flight will take about three months to complete.
To date there have technically been just 10 women who have completed solo flights around the world. While there were at least two other women who completed solo flights during the Great Depression—before any woman had yet completed a solo flight across the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean—it wasn’t until 1964 that an official solo flight around the world was made by a woman! (Read more about the 10 women who have completed solo flights around the globe here, plus Mary Petre Bruce and Elly Beinhorn who completed unofficial world flights in the 1930s.)
Around-the-World Solo Flights Completed by Women | 1964 – 2017
Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock (1964)
Joan Merraim Smith (1964)
Sheila Scott (1966, 1969, and 1971)
Judith Chisholm (1980)
Gaby Kennard (1989)
Jennifer Murray (2000) *Used helicopter
Polly Vacher (2001, 2004)
CarolAnn Garratt (2003, 2011-12)
Julie Wang (2016)
Shaesta Waiz (2017)
For those interested, you can follow Zara’s journey via her Facebook and Instagram pages. And one thing that’s really cool? You can follow her flight in real-time on her website here. Go Zara, go!
If it wasn’t for a friend who had clued me in last week, I embarrassingly *may* have missed today’s live coverage of the historic Blue Origin space launch featuring the richest man on the planet Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, and 82-year-old Wally Funk.
If you find yourself asking the question “Who is Wally Funk?” – you may not be the only one. If it hadn’t been for my huge interest in all things having to do with women in aviation, I may not have known who Wally Funk was before today, either …
In 2004, the Los Angeles Times published a feature story entitled “The Unlaunchable Wally Funk,” in which the author traced her saga from the early 1960’s until 2004, outlining her achievements in flight, but also ultimately her unfortunate inability to ever make it into space. In covering her achievements following the shutdown of the FLATs program, the author wrote:
She became a flight instructor at Hawthorne Municipal Airport and competed in women’s air races from coast to coast. A three-year around-the-world interlude in a VW camper took her to 59 countries before she ran out of money. Back in L.A., she was hired as a field examiner by the FAA and then an accident investigator by the NTSB–both jobs a first for women, she says. After investigating 450 accidents ranging from a probable mob hit to a fatal crash at a mortuary, she retired in 1985 and went back to teaching.
Funk lectured widely on space and safety. She skydived, bungee-jumped, raced cars, ballooned and, in Wild West costume, competed as “The Taos Kid” in shooting competitions. She entered hoity-toity car shows in a custom-body Rolls-Royce once owned by the Queen Mother. She designed and built her own house in Taos. She appeared on “The Mike Douglas Show” with Billie Jean King (“I did all the talking”) and was featured flying aerobatics in a Stearman biplane in a Merrill Lynch TV spot (“Sure, I take risks for fun. But when it comes to my money, I’m really careful.”). More recently, and for no apparent reason, she popped up on a CD titled “The Flight of Wally Funk,” by the Australian rock band Spiderbait.
But through it all, she never forgot the ride not taken.
Nearly 20 years later though, it finally appears that all of this has now changed, not only in history’s favor but to Jeff Bezos’ credit. Here’s a short video clip of Bezos telling Wally about how she was going to come up to space with him.
And here’s a look at the recent headlines from CBS and Newsweek, to The Atlantic, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, Washington Post, and more:
Who is Wally Funk? Trailblazing aviator becomes oldest person to travel to space at 82 | CBS News (read more)
Who Is Wally Funk? Oldest Blue Origin Passenger Who Outperformed Jeff Bezos | Newsweek (read more)
Guess Who’s Going to Space With Jeff Bezos? Wally Funk has been ready to become an astronaut for six decades. | The Atlantic (read more)
Wally Funk Is Defying Gravity and 60 Years of Exclusion From Space | New York Times (read more)
Wally Funk’s 60-Year Journey Into Space; In the early 1960s, she was one of 13 women who trained to become an astronaut — but it wasn’t until Jeff Bezos brought her on board that she was able to fulfill that dream | Rolling Stone (read more)
Wally Funk Is Going to Space Aboard Jeff Bezos’s Rocket. Here’s Why That Matters | Time Magazine (read more)
In 1961 She Lost Her Chance to go to Space. Today, at 82, She Finally Got Her Shot | Washington Post (read more)
Wally Funk, the ‘heart of this mission,’ finally reaches space at 82 | MSNBC (read more)
Wally Funk fulfills lifelong dream to go to space with Blue Origin flight
The 82-year-old became the oldest person to go to space, six decades after being denied by the US government | The Guardian (read more)
Finally, here is a video in Wally’s own words about what it was like to finally go up into space today:
Today I learned that the Blue Origin feather is a symbol of the perfection of flight. From the first hot air balloonists, to the earliest aviators, to the pioneering test pilots, and beyond, I think everyone can appreciate this moment and how far we’ve come, yet how very far we’ve yet to go. Until then, cheers to Wally and congratulations to all at Blue Origin on a very historic, uplifting, and successful mission!