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.

A Brief History of Known World Solo Flights and the 10 Women Who Have Completed Them

Before I encountered the Joan Merriam Smith story, I had never really stopped to think about the concept of completing a world solo flight. While I had known that Amelia Earhart was famous for attempting a world flight, it was not truly a solo attempt as she was accompanied by her navigator, Fred Noonan. I wondered: when did the actual first solo flight around the world take place? How many people have completed a world solo flight? Who are the types of people that do this, and why? The more I looked into it, the more intrigued I became.

A March 18, 1937 article regarding Amelia Earhart’s first attempt at a world flight.
(Image source)

After reaching out to several organizations to try and figure out the answer to this question on my own, I was soon surprised to learn how difficult this information was to find. Luckily, I was able to eventually locate Australian-based aviation enthusiast Claude Meunier of Earthrounders, who completed his own solo flight around the world in 1996. Upon discovering Earthrounders, I was amazed to find an entire association dedicated to pilots who have completed flights around the globe! From his website, he talks about his motivation behind starting Earthrounders:

“After flying solo around the World in 1996, for a reason I have since forgotten, I became interested in finding out who else had flown solo around the World. I intended to write a book on those pilots and their flights. Later, speaking with Ron Bower in Austin TX, he suggested to create an Internet Site instead of writing a book, which I did, both in English and in French (‘soloflights.org’ and ‘volssolitaires.com’). I remembered Gaby Kennard, the only Australian woman having flown solo around the Wold, I remembered Don Taylor the first home built aircraft having done so, I also remembered the adventures of Dick Smith in his helicopter. But I was sure there were more pilots having done the same flight. So, I started a research and found a few names, some like Wiley Post who is no longer with us anymore, and I decided to try to meet as many of these pilots as I could.”

Claude Meunier, Earthrounders

A Brief History of World Flight Attempts

According to Claude, there is no official register of world flights. However, he has done a very impressive job of personally cataloging a chronological listing of all known flights around the world, which I encourage you to check out here. According to the list, the first known world flight was sponsored by the U.S. Army Air Service in 1924 when eight pilots and mechanics took off from Seattle, Washington in four airplanes to attempt a circumnavigation of the globe. They completed the journey 175 days later on September 28, after making 74 stops and covering about 27,550 miles. Can you imagine?

The World Flight crews at Sand Point, Washington, before the start of their round-the-world journey in 1924. (Image Source)

In terms of known solo flights around the world, however, it wasn’t until 1933 that Wiley Post completed the first solo flight around the globe. Post’s flight set a record of seven days, 18 hours, and 49 minutes, bettering his previous around-the-world record of eight days, also set in the Winnie Mae in 1931, with navigator Harold Gatty.

The Female Earthrounders

Of the 127 known solo flights Claude’s tracked, however, only TEN have been made by women. Furthermore, only THREE women completed solo flights before the introduction of the Global Positioning System (GPS) in 1973. The full list of women who have completed solo flights around the globe includes:

  1. Geraldine Mock (1964)
  2. Joan Merriam Smith (1964)
  3. Sheila Scott (1966, 1969, and 1971)
  4. Judith Chisholm (1980)
  5. Gaby Kennard (1989)
  6. Jennifer Murray (2000)
  7. Polly Vacher (2001 and 2004)
  8. CarolAnn Garratt (2003 and 2011-12)
  9. Julie Wang (2016)
  10. Shaesta Waiz (2017)

(To learn more about each of these 10 women listed above, please visit the dedicated “Female Earthrounders” page here.) In closing, below follow a couple of videos for you to enjoy summarizing the first three solo flights made around the world by women. Truly inspiring, and worth the watch.

Jerrie Mock Flies Solo Around The World (1964)

Joan Merriam Smith Returns from Following Amelia Earhart Route (May 1964)

Sheila Scott’s 30,000 Mile Solo Flight (1966)

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!