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

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

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

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

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

Barefoot in the Sky by Sheila Scott

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

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

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

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

Sheila Scott, page 211 of Barefoot in the Sky

She goes on to say:

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

Sheila Scott, page 212 of Barefoot in the Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting for Space, page 117

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jerrie Mock Story, Page 51

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

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

Get Inspired: 10 Modern Day Female Explorers to Watch Across Air, Space, Land & Sea

Recently I listened to an episode of the Women Who Travel podcast featuring Jessica Nabongo, who in October of 2019 became the first documented black woman to travel to every country in the world. How cool is that? I enjoyed listening to this podcast, hearing all about Jessica’s travels, and how she used social media to report on her adventures along the way. While I did not follow her story in real-time as she traveled around the globe, I was able to learn more about her journey through social media. 

(Image Source)

As I listened to Jessica’s story, I couldn’t help but wonder about how Joan Merriam Smith’s experience of being the first person to complete a solo flight around the world at the equator in 1964 would have, or could have been documented, if only social media, the internet, personal computers, or smart phones had existed back then. 

For example, it was only recently that I came across a video of Joan speaking for the very first time! What an experience it was to hear her voice after having wondered for so long what she would sound like. (Click below image to watch this video.)

Press conference with audio following the completion of Joan Merriam Smith’s 1964 around-the-world flight, courtesy of the Center for Sacramento History

Whenever I hear stories like Jessica’s or Joan’s, however, more than anything I am reminded of all the wonderful people out there who are busy living their lives and working hard to accomplish big goals, despite the obstacles. Because I came across so many inspiring stories while writing this book, I wanted to take a moment to recognize a few of the females I discovered along the way so that you might feel inspired too!

These women are listed in order of the domains they’ve dominated (air, space, and land, followed by sea) and is by no means meant to be comprehensive. It’s simply intended to be starting point for further exploration. Enjoy!

Modern Day Female Trailblazers Across Air, Space, Land & Sea

1) Jessica Nabongo – According to a June 2020 Travel & Leisure article entitled “Get to Know Jessica Nabongo, the First Documented Black Woman to Travel to Every Country in the World,” Jessica is a self-proclaimed geography nerd who has lived in five countries on four continents. By the time her epic expedition around the world commenced, she already had 60 countries under her belt. To keep up with Jessica, bookmark her website and/or follow her on Instagram.

2) Anneliese Satz – In 2019, Annelise became the first female Marine to complete the F-35B Basic Course, becoming the Marine Corps’ first-ever female F-35B pilot. During her four years of training, she accumulated over 300 flight hours. Before joining the Marines, Satz was a commercial pilot flying helicopters. Learn more about Annelise.

3) Alyssa Carson – At 19 years old, Alyssa is one of seven ambassadors representing Mars One, a mission to establish a human colony on Mars in 2030. At age 15, she became the youngest person accepted onto the Advanced PoSSUM Space Academy, making her one of the world’s youngest astronauts-in-training. You can learn all about her at her website. You can also follow her on Instagram.

4) Christina Koch – In February of 2020, astronaut Christina Koch returned to Earth after spending 328 days in space. On December 28, 2019, she broke the record for longest continuous time in space by a woman. Christina also participated in the first all-female spacewalk late last year. She graduated from North Carolina State University with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and Physics and a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering. (Below video begins at about 6 minutes.)

5) Kristina Schou Madsen – Did you know that there’s an actual, annual World Marathon Challenge, whereby people train and compete to run 7 marathons, on 7 different continents, in just 7 days? In 2020, Kristina became the first woman to win the World Marathon Challenge outright with an average time of 3 hours, 25 minutes, and 57 seconds per marathon. You can read all about her accomplishment here. You can also follow her on Instagram. Here is a short video clip of Kristina talking about running.

6) Gloria Lau – In 2012, Gloria became the first Singapore woman to complete the 7 continents in 7 days challenge. In 2019, she became the oldest woman, at 67 years, to complete the challenge. Gloria only began running at the age of 57. Read more about her motivations, training schedule, and overall accomplishments here.

(Image Source)

7) Kate Harris – In 2011, Kate Harris took 10 months to bike the Silk Road, crossing through 10 countries, and cycling over 10,000 kilometers. She wrote a book about her experience entitled Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road. Below is a short video reel about her experience of biking the Silk Road.

8) Vanessa O’Brien – Just this month, British-American explorer Vanessa O’Brien officially became the first woman to reach Earth’s highest and lowest points. A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Vanessa has also skied to both the North and South Pole. In addition, she has climbed five peaks over 8,000 metres. You can read more about her accomplishment here. Her website is filled with great information for those interested in keeping up with her. She also has forthcoming book entitled, To the Greatest Heights: Facing Danger, Finding Humility, and Climbing a Mountain of Truth, which will be released in 2021.

9) Liz Clark – As a solo sailor, Liz recently shared all about her experience of solo sailing the Atlantic Ocean with Conde Nast. In total she has solo sailed some 20,000 miles over the past 10 years. She also wrote a 2018 book about her experiences entitled Swell: A Sailing Surfer’s Voyage of Awakening.

10) Diana Nyad – In 2013, Diana Nyad became the first person to complete a 111-mile solo swim without a shark cage from Cuba to the Florida Keys at the age of 64. The swim took approximately 53 hours. Diana is the author of several books, including her latest Find a Way: The Inspiring Story of One Woman’s Pursuit of a Lifelong Dream. You can also keep up with her at her personal website.

Chances are, like me, you’ve only heard about a couple of these women. Aren’t they amazing? Sometimes they get publicity, sometimes they do not. Sometimes they are successful in their efforts, sometimes they are not. But the one thing that unites every single one of them is a drive to explore, push boundaries, seek adventure, and learn. There’s so much we can learn from this collective group … if only you can pin them down.

What other names would you add to this list?

(Featured Image Source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joan graduated from Miami Senior High School in 1954.

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

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

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

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

Joan Ann Merriam, circa 1958.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joan Merriam Smith and Trixie Ann Schubert were killed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2020, Bryan R. Swopes

Patrick Mozier: The U.S. Navy’s Original Bad Boy

In 1963, Trixie Schubert published a book entitled A Bell in the Heart: The Autobiography of Patty Gardenseed, America’s Ambassador of Good Will. This book was gifted to me by my grandfather at Christmas-time when I was just 14 years old. Featuring a split-pea green cover, with its dust jacket either missing or removed, to me it looked like the most boring book I’d ever seen. Promptly shelved, it wouldn’t be until dozens of years later that I actually decided to read it …

I’ll admit: I mostly wanted to read this book because it was published the year before Joan Merriam Smith’s world flight took place, and theoretically it would have laid the groundwork for Trixie’s interest in wanting to write Joan’s story. My best guess was that it had something to do with spreading seeds around the world. I also assumed Patty Gardenseed was woman. As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

A question from an online forum asks “Who Remembers Patty Gardenseed?” Not surprisingly, the top reply reads: “Well, not me for sure. But I found this Korean cover referencing him (Aloysius Eugene Francis Patrick Mozier) in my collection.” (Image Source)

If you search for the terms “A Bell in the Heart” or “Patty Gardenseed” on Google, you’re not likely to find much. Mostly, I came across a few eBay pages and historical book sellers carrying old copies of this book. As for Patty Gardenseed, I was only able to find a couple of articles referencing his work as a goodwill ambassador—including this 1952 New Yorker article entitled “Global Johnny Appleseed“—as well a summary of boxing records, and an overview of felonies. But if you were to stop here, that would certainly be a pity.

Patrick Mozier: The U.S. Navy’s Original Bad Boy

As it turns out, A Bell in the Heart is the story of Aloysius Eugene Francis Patrick Mozier, or Pat Mozier, a.k.a. Patty Gardenseed, who is coined in the book as “the U.S. Navy’s Original Bad Boy.” Rather than a cheerful story about gardening, Pat Mozier’s story reads more like a James Bond meets Indiana Jones adventure. The experience of reading the book, in fact, also feels a bit reminiscent of the movie A Night at the Museum, for key characters in history continually pop up throughout and are subsequently brought to life. Adolf Hitler, Chiang Kai Shek (leader of the Republic of China between 1928 and 1975), Mao Tse Tung, Joseph Stalin, Henry T. Ford (Pat was sworn into the Navy on Ford’s recommendation), Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Benito Mussolini, Jim Thorpe (an American athlete and Olympic gold medalist), and others are just a few of the well-known names who make an appearance. Also worth noting, the foreword to this book is written by Admiral Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.

With regard to Hitler, for example, Pat recalled:

“I had reached Berlin, heading for a German port, and deviating by train to Berlin so I could meet a friend of mine in that city. I was sitting in the lobby of the Kaiserhof Hotel when Hitler walked through with an entourage of Secret Service men. Ribbentrop, following closely behind him, bellowed in German, ‘The Fuehrer.’ Resentment of Hitler overwhelmed me. Being full of the sailor sap that runs in the spring of the year, I stood up and bellowed back, ‘Ah, the Fewer the better,’ after all, what could happen to an American? I wasn’t long in finding out. American citizenship was no immunity when it came to punishment for insulting the Fuehrer. Promptly I was strongarmed and escorted to jail.”

(Page 253, Schubert)

Pat’s story begins at his childhood home at 27th and Lexington in Newport News, Virginia. He was born on April 20, 1903, the second of 13 children born to Teresa and Alonzo Mozier. Having served as one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Spanish-American war, Pat’s father spent most of his time out at the local docks, gathering stories from the seamen and traders coming into the port, often inviting them to his home to tell their tales of adventure late into the night. As such, Alonzo inspired eight of his own sons to become seamen and no doubt secured Pat’s deep love for adventure.

By the age of 13, Pat was starting to cause trouble in school and continually running away from home. His parents decided to send him to Grand Prairie, Texas to live with Grandpa Ennis at his cattle ranch (an excursion that included transportation by train, horse, buggy and wagon). From there, the two set sail for Alaska where they lived for four months in search of gold. Eventually it was decided that Pat’s wanderlust could not be contained, so his parents next sent Pat to live with his godparents in France. This time, he sailed across the ocean to England with a family friend, a legend known as Trader Horn. Upon arrival to France, instead of going to live with his godparents, Pat decided to run in the other direction and kick off a life-long adventure of his own.

As luck would have it, at the moment Pat arrived to France, WWI was just beginning. As such, Pat decided to join up with the French Foreign Legion as a way of securing food and shelter. But at age 13, he did not quite meet the minimum requirement of being at least 17 years old, so he lied about his age to get in.

In no time at all, Pat became a messenger boy for the French. Everything was going well until he accidentally left behind a notebook of decoded messages. Publicly charged as a spy and sentenced to prison for 20 years, to his surprise, he was next made an offer he couldn’t refuse by the French: go directly to Strasbourg, Germany to find out what happened to five missing French operatives. In this way, because his reputation among the French had already been tarnished, he would not be suspected as a French spy among the Germans.

As soon as Pat got to work, he learned more about what happened to at least one of the missing French spies: he had defected to Germany. Pat soon became friendly with the Germans. He was next offered a job to become a spy for the Germans. From the book:

“It was like the bizarre plot of an unbelievable novel. But the strange coincidence of it all was too real ever to make acceptable fiction. I stood speechless. Able to make myself understood adequately in several languages, I suddenly had nothing to say in any of them. Not by the most exaggerated twist of fate could I have anticipated being in the spy messenger business for two countries at war with one another. Each country expected me to give it an outline of the other’s movements. If either country had reason to doubt my integrity the result would have been the same.”

(Page 71, Schubert)

What ensued was a literal game of cat and mouse while engaged in dual espionage. There were death threats, killings, arrests made in both Russia and France, a prison escape, harrowing travels back and forth across the front lines of war, submarine rides, parachute jumps into enemy territory, and most notably perhaps, time spent with Mata Hari, among the most famous of spies for her time.

Pat Mozier would go on to befriend Mata Hari. Perhaps in part because of his age (she was in her late 30s at the time of his boyhood), and perhaps because Pat never drank, smoke, or gave into tattoos, she was able to trust him, and provide him with valuable info that would ultimately help the French. Though charged as a German spy, it is widely believed that she was setup as a scapegoat. Hari was executed by a firing squad of French soldiers just before dawn on October 15, 1917. Pat Mozier tried in vain to reverse her fate. He was on hand to witness her execution. The night before her death, she told him that she believed that her execution would be faked. From the book, Pat stated the following:

“I witnessed the execution of Mata Hari, the woman who saved my life in Germany a few months back, and I was unable to help her in the least. I wonder if she ever knew what hit her, it happened so quickly. They tricked her into her death. They say it is the best way out. But it is the way of cowards. As the rifles rang out she smiled at me where I stood and her mouth formed the word ‘Adieu.’ Eleven bullets easily found their mark. One of the soldiers near me fainted. Mata Hari was 39 years old. To me she looked 18. A beautiful morning today but I am a little sick. I wonder if the real story about her will ever be told.”

(Page 122, Schubert)

Following the closure of this particular chapter in his life, unbelievably Pat’s adventures were only still JUST beginning. In-between stints working for the Navy, other branches of the military, and taking on odd jobs while stowing away on ships, Pat also gained acclaim for becoming an undefeated boxing champion in the Navy, winning over 220 matches. He was awarded the prestigious Diamond Belt.

Aside from traveling to and through some 36 countries by either ship, plane, train, or automobile, there were also times that Pat traveled by submarine, camel, horse, or parachute. While there are simply too many stories to recount here, some of the episodes from the book that stood out to me include:

  1. Deciding to take the matter into his own hands of being the first person to land a plane on the U.S.S. Saratoga, the Navy’s first aircraft carrier. Upon completion of the feat, Pat soon learned that the stunt had been reserved as a honor for ace pilot officer Dave Rittenhouse. Subsequently, at the age of 29, Pat was transferred to the U.S.S. Texas.
  2. Following a stint in Hawaii, Pat boarded a Dollar liner bound for the Phillipines. He bribed the gang to bring him on board as an oiler. Once the ship arrived to the port in Manila, he was anxious to find a new adventure. A local suggested visiting the town of Navjan in the northeastern part of Mindoro. A group of three Filopinos agreed to bring him there via boat. Along the way, the Chief attempted to kill him with a knife to avenge his two sisters’ deaths by a white man. Pat sent the chief into the ocean.
  3. Stowing away on a ship in December of 1932 en route to China that was believed to be transporting opium, and resisting arrest upon arrival to the British port in Hong Kong, Pat evaded authorities and was chased on Christmas Eve throughout town by the British police. He ultimately hid out in a church during Christmas Eve mass.
  4. Fleeing Shanghai to join up with a caravan as a camel driver, crossing the Gobi Desert to arrive in Lhasa, Tibet where he lived for a time among the Buddhists after passing a test of walking across an alligator-filled pond blindfolded to prove his worthiness to the locals.
  5. Getting arrested in Germany for disrespecting Hitler as he passed through a hotel lobby with his entourage, and then talking his way out of arrest since he not only spoke German, but explained that he and Hitler shared the same birthday (April 20th).
  6. Surviving a raid of rebel forces while aboard a cross-country train in Mexico, having his life spared only because the rebels happened to reach within a pocket to find he was carrying the proper papers.
  7. Being arrested in Mexico, feigning injury while imprisoned, knocking out the prison guard, setting fire to the prison and then hijacking a government plane in order to make it back to the U.S., only to run out of gas and land in a peasant’s field where he received guidance and a boat to ultimately make it safely across the border.

In short, there is so much about Pat’s story that I can barely scratch the surface.

Ultimately, a turning point for Pat came a little later in life. While serving in Korea, he witnessed a young girl collapse, whose death was ultimately caused by starvation. From that point forward, he decided to dedicate his life to spreading seeds around the globe in order to teach communities how to grow their own fruits, vegetables, and yes, even flowers. This change of heart is best captured in his own words:

“After half a century of fighting with my fists as a welterweight champion, and fighting with guns and sabres in the French Foreign Legion, fighting with Chinese bandits in the Orient, and in innumerable wars and scraps from Turkey to Tibet, it came somewhat as a shock to find that there were other ways of fighting, equally stimulating and much more rewarding.”

(Page 270-271, Schubert)

He also offered these valuable words of advice:

“I’ve not been able to accomplish alone what needs to be done in each of the underprivileged countries. But my procedure is always the same. I go to the top man in the country. I always go to the top man; it is only through the pinnacle that individuals, or governments for that matter, can escape needless red tape. In this manner of always going to the top I’ve met every president of the United States from Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, and Truman to Eisenhower, and most of the heads of other world governments.”

(Page 278-279, Schubert)

In summary, for anyone interested in history, WWI history in particular, and adventure in general, this is a book that would be well worth anyone’s time to read.

Joan Merriam Smith featured in Long Beach Press Telegram Cover Story

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

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

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

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

G. Pat Macha, Aircraft Wreck Historian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Trixie Schubert, May of 1964

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

A Synopsis of “Before and Behind the Iron Curtain”

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

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

The Fascinating Life of 1930s Aviation Pioneer Mary Petre Bruce

(Note: A version of this post previously appeared on the Holistic Marketing Concepts Blog)

Before Joan Merriam Smith’s first solo flight around the world at the equator in 1964, before Betty Miller’s first solo crossing of the Pacific Ocean in 1963, and before Amelia Earhart’s first solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 1932, there was Mary Petre Bruce. While Bruce had to ship her plane across the oceans to turn her idea of completing a world flight into a reality—hence making it an “unofficial” flight—did you know that she was technically the first woman to complete a solo trek around the globe utilizing a plane?

Imagine the surprise of coming across an airplane for sale while window shopping in downtown London, deciding to buy it on a whim without ever having taken a flying lesson, and then using that plane to become the first woman to complete an around-the-world flight solo. This is precisely what happened in the late 1920s when the Honourable Mrs. Victor Bruce, otherwise known as Mildred Mary Petre Bruce, decided that she was going to buy a Blackburn Bluebird IV and set out to become first woman to fly solo around the world.

Newspaper
Mary Petre Bruce, London Times, October 26, 1996 (Image source)

I first came across the existence of Mrs. Bruce while conducting research to learn more about all of the women who have set out to complete around-the-world solo flights. After checking with my local library and various aviation-based organizations, it wasn’t until I found the Earthrounders website and its list of historical solo flights that I first spotted the name “Mrs. Victor Bruce.” From there I discovered the 2012 book written about her life entitled Queen of Speed: The Racy Life of Mary Petre Bruce. The book’s author, Nancy R. Wilson, first learned of Mrs. Bruce upon reading her obituary from half way around the world in 1990. This finding would ultimately launch Ms. Wilson on a 20-year research journey, complete with multiple trips to Europe, to learn all that she could about her.

Mildred Bruce.jpg
Mary Petre Bruce at the 1927 Monte Carlo Rally (Image source)

From the book, Mrs. Bruce is described as “a teenage law-breaker, an unwed mother, a record-setting speedboat and racing car driver; a pioneer round-the-world flier, an author, an innovative airline executive; a fearless adventurer, a free-spending luxury-loving millionaire and an eccentric curmudgeon.” All of this is true. And according to some sources, Mrs. Bruce was the first woman to be prosecuted for speeding in 1911! As unbelievable as it was to learn that such a woman lived during this era, what was even more impressive was actually reading her story, and specifically the undertaking of her world fight.

Mary Petre Bruce after the 1928 Bournemouth Rally (Image source)

Bruce’s 1930-31 World Flight Attempt

After recognizing the buzz and fanfare surrounding English aviator Amy Johnson’s attempt to set a speed record on a solo flight to Australia, Mrs. Bruce decided that embarking on world flight for herself would be the next most logical thing to do. As of 1930, she had already set multiple records in automobile racing, in addition to a speed record for crossing the English Channel in a motorboat.

Departing from London in 1930, Mrs. Bruce traveled through eastern Europe, Syria, the Middle East, Thailand, China and Japan before folding up her plane’s wings and shipping her plane on a Japanese liner to cross the Pacific. Arriving in Vancouver, she would next fly down the West Coast of the United States to Los Angeles, across the country through her mother’s hometown in Indiana, then finally to New York before boarding yet another shipping vessel to complete her journey back to London. (You can view a full overview of her world flight itinerary here.)

Her trip was not without incidents that would provide plenty of storytelling for future generations to come. Key among them: an arrest in New York for flying circles around the Empire State Building, a forced landing in the jungle, an unexpected landing in the Gulf of Oman where she was met by tribesmen, the experience of an earthquake while on the ground in Japan … to name just a few. There were narrowly dodged potential crises, near-death moments, unpleasant accidents, and unexpected expeditions, but most of all one thing was certain: this was the true adventure of a lifetime.

Without giving too much more away, I highly recommend the book Queen of Speed: The Racy Life of Mary Petre Bruce. It’s an account you won’t want to put down. There is also a memoir by the title of Nine Lives Plus, originally published by Mrs. Victor Bruce herself back in 1977. While these titles are a bit difficult to locate, they are certainly worth the adventure of finding, and will certainly inspire you to never take no for an answer, to be more—and to do more—in your own life. 

The Undeniable Lure of the Amelia Earhart Disappearance

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

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

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

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

Digging into the Idea of a Japanese Capture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Three Phases of My Research Journey:

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

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

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

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

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