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.

Why I Became Interested in Learning All That I Could About Joan Merriam Smith

Joan Merriam Smith

For all intents and purposes, Joan Merriam Smith should be a household name across the United States of America. Instead, her incredible personal story and amazing accomplishment of becoming the first person to fly solo around the world at the equator, as well as the first person to successfully complete the Amelia Earhart route (at the age of 27 nonetheless), has gone largely untold, until now. Why?

For my entire life I have known about the name Joan Merriam Smith, but not for the reasons you might expect. That’s because on February 17, 1965, Joan died in a plane crash over the mountains of Los Angeles together with my grandmother, Trixie Ann Schubert. As a child, I often heard about the day that my mother learned about her own mother’s death: she was abruptly pulled out of her elementary school classroom, only to be matter-of-factly informed that there had been a tragic accident.

About 10 years ago, for the first time I felt compelled to Google Joan’s name. Not surprisingly, the search results essentially turned up nothing. At the time, the only real information I could find about Joan online was a reference to her fatal plane crash from a 1965 Associated Press news article. Literally, this was the extent of what I was able to locate:

The article states:

“Los Angeles (AP) — The first woman to fly the equatorial route around the world is believed to have piloted a small plane that crashed in the San Gabriel Mountains Wednesday, killing the two women aboard. Although the coroner’s office declined official identification until her husband views the badly burned bodies, the husband said he had no doubt his wife, JOAN MERRIAM SMITH, 28, is dead. Authorities believe the other woman was TRIXIE ANN SCHUBERT, 42, of Los Angeles, who was writing JOAN’S life story.”

Intrigued, I wanted to learn more about why Joan was considered famous. I had always known that Trixie was working on a book about Joan when she died, but I wanted to know what it was about. How did the two become friends? Why did Trixie want to write a book about her? And of course, why did their plane crash? Ultimately, this led to a blog post I wrote about Trixie back in 2010, which unexpectedly launched a ±10-year journey of discovery with people from across the web to learn more about both Joan and Trixie’s lives.

In the early days of my research, the only articles I could really find about female pilots in the 1960s mentioning Joan Merriam Smith had to do with Geraldine Mock, the official first woman to fly around the world solo in 1964. Of course, I wondered why Mock had received so much publicity, and why there was literally nothing much written about Joan. Even back then, something just did not sit right with me, and I wanted to explore it. After all, if Trixie wanted to tell Joan’s story, I believed that Joan must have had quite some story to tell.

Trixie was known for taking on big projects. At the time of their deaths, she had just returned from reporting behind the Iron Curtain in Russia as an Associated Press foreign news correspondent. In 1963, she published a book about the adventurous navy veteran and American goodwill ambassador Aloysius Eugene Francis Patrick Mozier. As it turns out, the more the dug into Joan and Trixie’s story, the more I became enthralled and intrigued by what I was learning.

Fate on a Folded Wing is the culmination of years of research and personal explorations made into better understanding the life and great accomplishments of Joan Merriam Smith. It’s been my great pleasure to research this story, and I look forward to sharing it with you!