An Overview of Legal Activity Following Joan’s & Trixie’s Fatal 1965 Plane Crash

Earlier this year I wrote a post about the media coverage surrounding Joan and Trixie’s 1965 plane crash. Since then, I decided that I wanted to try and figure out what lawsuits were filed following the crash, and learn (for the record) what was ultimately concluded?

With help from the archives division at the Los Angeles Superior Court, over the course of months I was able to uncover a few stacks of documents pertaining to old legal cases. After sorting through notes, filings, depositions, statements, motions, claims, and so on, I’ve whittled it down to this.

  • On February 7, 1966 Marvin G. Smith filed a Wrongful Death Complaint (the first document filed in court to initiate a lawsuit) against Rajay Corporation, V.E. Kuster Company Inc., Cessna Aircraft Company, Belmont Aviation, West Coast Sales and Service Company, and Banning Aviation Company for $500,000 ($4.6 million in 2022 dollars).
  • On February 15, 1966 a Complaint on insurance policy was filed between Delwyn G. Schubert and The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York.
  • On April 25, 1967 Delwyn G. Schubert et al filed a Proposed First Amended Complaint (wrongful death) against the same entities as Marvin G. Smith for $1,000,0000 (roughly $9 million in 2022 dollars).
  • Some time later (presumably), V.E. Kuster Co., Inc. filed an undated Cross Complaint against Rajay Corporation, Belmont Aviation, West Coast Propeller sales and Service Company, Banning Aviation, Inc.
  • On May 12, 1967 a Notice of Ruling was filed with plaintiffs listed as Delwyn Schubert and Marvin G. Smith, and cross-complainant V.E. Kuster, whereby it was stated that the defendants had 15 days from receipt of Notice of Ruling to answer plaintiffs’ first amended complaint.
  • On February 27, 1968, the deposition of William H. Mastin of Rajay was taken.
  • On October 21, 1968 a Supplemental Declaration of Counsel in Support of Motion to Set Case for Trail was filed in a case between Delwyn Schubert and The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York.
  • On November 21, 1968 the deposition of Delwyn Schubert was taken.
  • On December 10, 1968 a Request for Entry of Dismissal was filed in the case between Marvin G. Smith, Jr. and Rajay Corporation et al.
  • On December 24, 1968 a Request for Entry of Dismissal was filed in the case between Delwyn Schubert and Mutual Life Insurance Company.

While I’m undoubtedly missing other documents, to summarize, it looks to me like Jack Smith and Delwyn Schubert each sued the same six entities for negligence , and that Delwyn also sued the life insurance company following Joan and Trixie’s deaths.

In the deposition given by Delwyn Schubert for the life insurance case, I came across a particular point that I found interesting when Delwyn stated that Jack felt the cause of the plane crash to be mechanical. He said:

Q: Do you recall any statement which he made to you or which, obviously he made in your presence about the crash?
A: Yes. Of course we talked about every aspect of it, as you can well imagine, and he felt very positive that it was due to mechanical failure of some sort.

Similarly, from the October 21, 1968 Supplemental Declaration of Counsel in Support of Motion to Set Case for Trial (relating to the Mutual Life Insurance case), Delwyn’s attorney John E. Sweeney declared:

“Lt. Cdr. M.G. Smith, Jr. is a key witness for the trial of this case. He has been on a Navy cruise for several months presently … Lt. Cdr. Smith is an extremely important witness in this case. He has first hand knowledge of many of the specific details in issue in this case. He has uniquely qualified both from the standpoint of his expertise as a long time Navy pilot as well as his position as a percipient witness to many of the facts in issue.”

Based on these statements, it surely seems as though Jack would have had a good idea about what happened to Joan’s plane based on his own expertise with planes. If he assumed mechanical failure, why was his case dismissed? The paperwork I have doesn’t specify.

While I don’t have a formal notice of Delwyn Schubert’s negligence/wrongful death case being formally dismissed, I do know that Delwyn’s Mutual Life Insurance case was settled out of court. Initially in the Mutual Life Insurance case, the life insurance company deemed that Trixie’s death was not covered under her life insurance policy because she was a passenger in a non-commercial plane. From an October 1965 letter from Mutual Life Insurance to Delwyn’s attorney:

“We are sorry to have to inform you that we will be unable to honor your request for payment for accidental loss of life under the contract. If you will refer to the contract, you will note that the policy does not cover any loss resulting from, any kind of aircraft, except riding as a passenger in an aircraft then being operated (i) commercially to transport passengers for hire or (ii) by a private business organization to transport its personnel or guests.”

Challenging this definition as to whether or not Trixie qualified as “crew” on a plane operated by a private business organization explains (in part) why Rajay Inc. provided a deposition about the nature of Joan’s arrangement with their company to test turbochargers and how Trixie was involved. An excerpt from the October 1968 deposition of William H. Mastin of Rajay Inc. follows below:

Q: Mr. Mastin, did you advise the CAB that Mrs. Schubert was a member of the crew?
A: Technically, yes, as an observer.
Q: All right. There had been a briefing prior to the flight which resulted in the crash, had there not?
A: Yes.
Q: Mrs. Schubert was present at the briefing?
A: She was present but not party to it.
Q: She was in the room; is that it?
A: (Witness shakes his head from side to side.)
Q: No?
A: The briefing was conducted at my desk. My desk is in a trailer. She was standing right outside the trailer door.
Q: Who else was present actually, then?
A: Joan Merriam Smith.
Q: Yourself and Joan Merriam Smith?
A: Yes.
Q: You were aware that Mrs. Schubert was going to accompany Joan Smith?
A: Yes.

While there is still plenty more detail to sort through, for now this information does answer the basic questions of who was sued and why. Of course I’m still curious to learn why the negligence cases were dismissed. Perhaps another post on this topic in the future …

New Book Recommendations Featuring 4 Fearless Female Adventurers

In 2020 I wrote a post on this website entitled “Get Inspired: 10 Modern Day Female Explorers to Watch Across Air, Space, Land & Sea” which talked about some of the modern day women who are out there exploring the Earth, living non-traditional lives, facing seemingly insurmountable challenges, and accomplishing REALLY BIG things. In each and every case I was blown away to learn that there are people like this out there in the world who exist, namely:

  • Heather Anderson – In 2018, Heather became the first female to complete a Calendar Year Triple Crown hike (completing the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide National Scenic Trails) in one March-November season. She has also completed each of those trails three times, setting records for fastest known times along the way.
  • Jessica Nabongo – In October 2019, Jessica became the first documented Black woman to visit every country in the world.
  • Kate Harris – In 2011, Kate Harris and her friend Mel set off for a 10-month, nearly 10,000 km adventure as they cycled the fabled silk road trading route across 10 different countries. Starting in Istanbul, Turkey, they cycled across mountains, through foreign lands and into the elements, ending in the city of Leh in the Indian Himalayas.
  • Vanessa O’Brien – Vanessa is the first woman to reach earth’s highest (Mt. Everest 8,848m) and lowest points (Challenger Deep 10,925m). She is the fastest woman to climb the seven summits in 295 days. She is also the oldest woman to summit K2, the second tallest peak at 8,611m at 52 years old, among other accolades.

From left to right (alphabetically): Heather Anderson, Jessica Nabongo, Kate Harris, and Vanessa O’Brien

“Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others.”

– Amelia Earhart

It’s been a couple years and I realized I have now read books written by several of these women mentioned in my original post. I find these reads to be incredibly inspiring and humbling. In the name fearless female adventurers, below are my four latest book recommendations!

Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home by Heather Anderson
Published: 2019
Mountaineers Books (Amazon book link)
Follow on Instagram: @_wordsfromthewild_

I had never heard of the Triple Crown of hiking until I came across Heather Anderson’s story. I was simply amazed to learn that a woman like this existed who had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) solo in the fastest known time (40 miles a day for over 50 days). I was further shocked to learn that she also became the first woman to hike the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and PCT (aka “Triple Crown”) in under year, which is over 8,000 miles in eight months. This is the incredible story of how Heather went from a self-conscious, sedentary, overweight teenager to become an ultra marathoner and thru-hiker of the highest regard. This book brings you along for her incredible journey. As a bonus: I learned about many places along the PCT that I’ve been to, never realizing that they were a part of the PCT. Next time I’ll be on the lookout for thru-hikers.

The Catch Me if You Can: One Woman’s Journey to Every Country in the World by Jessica Nabongo
Published: June 2022
National Geographic (Amazon book link)
Follow on Instagram: @jessicanabongo

I first learned of Jessica Nabongo through a podcast I listened to after she finished her trip traveling around the world to visit all 195 countries. I was excited to hear that she came out with a book; needless to say, I devoured it. I enjoyed every single page and I didn’t want it to end. I learned so much about the world through her experiences. As a bonus: Joan Merriam Smith traveled through many of these cities on her 1964 world flight. Through Jessica’s book, I was able to learn a lot more about some of the obscure regions that Joan traveled through. This book is beautifully laid out, easily digestible, and written in a conversational, informative style. Would make a great gift for a friend who enjoys travel; it’s also a perfect coffee table book.

Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road by Kate Harris
Published: 2019
Vintage Books Canada (Amazon book link)
Follow on Instagram: @kateoffmars

I greatly admire the unimaginable challenges Kate and Mel took on in the name of exploration as they biked nearly 10,000km across 10 different countries on a self-supported adventure. I appreciated the philosophical reflections, the references to various historical, fellow explorers along the way, and the vividly written descriptions of their travels. I also enjoyed the musings on the observed and relative fluidity of boundaries and borders: “Political frontiers, while sometimes as solid as brick, are only as strong as shared belief.” Or, “When there are no fences, no signs, it’s hard to tell when you’ve arrived.” I thought this was an excellent book, nice job, and kudos to the author for sharing her unique and admirable personal experience.

To the Greatest Heights: Facing Danger, Finding Humility, and Climbing a Mountain of Truth by Vanessa O’Brien
Published: 2021
Atria/Emily Bestler Books (Amazon book link)
Follow on Instagram: @vobonline

Vanessa is the fastest woman to climb the Seven Summits in 295 days: the Seven Summits are the highest mountains of each of the seven traditional continents. I enjoyed Vanessa’s story, how she progressively intertwined her personal life experiences with the daunting challenges she met in the face of mountaineering. More than anything, it was inspiring to hear such an incredible adventure tale from a female’s perspective. Introduced me to a completely different existence and made we want to get outdoors and do more. This book was obviously written from such a place of depth, passion, and reflection that it forced you to slow down and absorb the words on each page—or more accurately the experiences shared—and I do believe that was the point.

Summary: When I first became familiar with Joan Merriam Smith’s story, I was blown away by the boundaries she pushed in her day, shocked at her ability to pull together a solo flight around the globe in honor of Amelia Earhart, and inspired by her passion, self-reliance, and her general ability to keep pushing despite the odds and the elements. The stories of Heather, Jessica, Kate, and Vanessa are no different. What new goals will you set today?!

Revisiting Joan and Trixie’s 1965 Plane Crash on its 57th Anniversary

Today marks the 57th anniversary of Joan Merriam Smith and Trixie Ann Schubert’s fatal 1965 plane crash, which is hard to believe! Even though this crash happened before I was born, the more I’ve learned about it over the years, the more it continues to intrigue me.

To provide a quick recap for those unfamiliar with the crash, on the morning of February 17, 1965, Joan invited Trixie to fly with her on a routine flight to test turbochargers for the Rajay Corporation, by whom Joan was employed as a pilot. Rajay’s primary business was to manufacture and sell turbochargers. Joan’s job was to put hours on the plane to achieve company certification for the turbochargers. Trixie had flown with Joan doing the very same thing just a few weeks prior.

On this clear and sunny day, no flight plan was filed. The plane took off from Long Beach, CA and was headed towards Wrightwood, CA when a single witness noticed the right wing fail and watched the plane crash. The story made newspaper headlines around the country. (For reference, a copy of the original witness letter is here.)

A copy of the original Los Angeles Times article dated February 18, 1965

The US Forest Service initially responded to the scene of the crash, as did the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAP), various private citizens, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) were ultimately all involved in either 1) the response 2) the collection of evidence and/or 3) the analysis regarding the crash.

Key parts of the plane (forensic evidence) were missing from the outset. From a March 20, 1965 article in the Long Beach Independent, it was noted that poor weather conditions were delaying the search efforts for missing plane parts from the crash, and that much of the plane was still missing (to aid in forming a conclusion as to what caused the crash).

But in a May 1965 issue of the Civil Air Patrol Times the discovery of missing plane parts was reported when a hiker inadvertently came across them.

The article went on to say, oddly, that neither the nearby Air Force Base or the U.S. Forest Service ranger knew of any recent crashes in the area. Once the missing parts were delivered to the FAA, the Civil Aeronautics Board investigator found great interest in the missing parts.

A year following the crash, the CAB issued a final report (the original report as of this writing has not been located in archives). Referring to this report, a February 2, 1966 article in the Los Angeles Times reported that Joan was flying a plane with an “experimental turbocharged engine” and was “flying in excess of 190 MPH” at the time of the crash.

It was also reported that “turbulent air at high speed” was the cause of the accident.

Source: Reno Gazette Journal
February 10, 1966

The official crash report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) cites probable causes as “pilot in command,” “airframe – wings,” and “miscellaneous acts.” Clear air turbulence in flight is cited as a factor.

However, many people I’ve talked to over the years find these conclusions to be a bit perplexing.

  1. It doesn’t make sense that Joan would have been flying so fast as to push the limits of her airplane (i.e. the media reported her speed as 190 mph, whereas the maximum structural cruise speed of her plane was 160 mph).
  2. Other than clear air turbulence caused by the mountainous terrain, what other factors could have created such extreme turbulence?
  3. If the wing failed first (and caused the crash), then the tail would have failed second. But in this case, key tail portions of the airplane were found 1 – 1.5 miles away, meaning the tail broke apart before the wing. If the tail failed first, then the wing would not be cause of the crash.
  4. Just five weeks prior to the accident, Joan was involved in another near-fatal crash in a different plane when her engine’s heater caught fire mid-air. Coincidence or bad luck?
  5. How likely was it that Joan made a mistake with 9,000 hours of flight time and zero accident history? (Not counting the January 9th crash.)

Additionally, there were many other conflicting statements made in the months following the crash. Not only was the plane reported flying in different directions, and at different altitudes, but there were references to both a nose-first and a tail-first crash (can’t be both).

In looking at statements made in the media regarding the crash, the following excerpts point out some areas of speculation, but not FACT.

From a February 18, 1965 article in the Miami Herald it was reported that “a wing apparently folded back, causing the crash.” But, it wouldn’t be until a year later that a true cause of the crash was reported.

On the same date, The Wichita Eagle reported that Joan liked to fly fast. However, the article’s title was a bit sensational had to do with a statement she made when she first learned to fly 13 years prior, and nothing to do specifically with her accident.

On February 22, 1965, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that “Joan ran her plane into the mountain and killed herself.” The writer speculated that she could have been in fog and hit the peak at the last second. Obviously there was no fog, Joan did not “run into a mountain,” and this was not what happened.

Perhaps most interestingly, from a news clipping saved by Jackie Cochran—courtesy of the Eisenhower Presidential Library’s files on Joan Merriam Smith—it was also noted that “a fellow 15,000-hour pilot Joan spoke with at the airport restaurant on the morning of the crash told him she planned to reach 190 mph” and that she would “have to throttle back at low altitudes to avoid exceeding red line.” According to one pilot I talked with, it would not have been possible for her to get to 190 mph at that altitude.

In summary, there were so many entities involved and so many conflicting statements made, it’s been difficult to nail down the facts. To this day, no one really knows for sure what happened. Will we ever know?

Working backwards, I’ve tried to locate information from a variety of sources over the years to put together a better picture of what actually happened. I’ve reached out to various organizations for copies of accident reports or summaries from various investigating bodies (CAB, NTSB, CAP); to records departments at Sheriff’s offices; to archives departments at county courthouses; to historical societies and newspapers; and to friends and fellow pilots who have taken on a similar interest in this over time, some who even recall the day of the crash. Unfortunately, some of the material is protected by privacy laws. There are TV news clips that exist but are unavailable for viewing. The full narratives for the CAB report and the NTSB report due not appear to exist in any publicly available archives.

Adding to the intrigue, there were at least three civil lawsuits filed after the crash. In one, Joan’s husband sued several entities for negligence. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $500,000 in 1965 is the equivalent of $4.5 million in 2022.

Source: Santa Ana Register, February 10, 1966

Most recently, I was able to get a hold of some 100 pages of archived files from the Los Angeles County Superior Court pertaining to a lawsuit against Trixie’s life insurance company. The info provided filled in many gaps but it also created many more questions.

In essence, the hunt for more information continues. Feedback, questions, expert opinions, and insights are always welcomed. The ultimate goal? To work toward clearing Joan’s name as the “cause” of her own demise.

Joan’s 1964 Side Trip to Saipan to Investigate Earhart’s Disappearance

For those familiar with Fate on a Folded Wing, you may recall the following words regarding Joan Merriam Smith’s side trip to Saipan in 1964, where she planned to investigate the Amelia Earhart disappearance.

“April 24th I took off for Saipan but had to return because the gear wouldn’t work properly. I thought the hydraulic power pack probably needed overhauling. The afternoon of April 30th, the hydraulic gear plans supposedly were in readiness, so I was off to see Saipan. I took pictures from the air of Rota Island, the first I came upon. It’s only one-mile-by-one and a half miles in dimension. Tinian Island was next. It was at Tinian that the first atomic bomb was loaded on the airplane Enola Gay bound for Hiroshima. There was a large, round, concrete circle below. The plane was parked in the circular ramp area to be prepared for its mission and night takeoff. All these islands were infiltrated heavily by the Japanense …”

Source: Fate on a Folded Wing, page 110

Of course, those were the last words in the original manuscript before two sequential pages went missing in the middle of that particular chapter, creating a cliffhanger for those wanting to know more about what Joan did and saw during what she referred to as “the most important part of her trip.”

While we’ll never know why those pages went missing, it did force me to try and re-create from public sources what exactly transpired during that span of time. Below follows a brief overview of news excerpts about Joan’s world flight between April 20 – May 1, 1964.

Source: Guam Daily News, April 23, 1964
  • “The 27-year-old Long Beach housewife planned to take off today for Guam on what she calls the “most important part of my trip.” – April 20, 1964 | Long Beach Press Telegram
  • “She leaves today for Wake Island and the mainland via Honolulu.” – April 23, 1964 | Guam Daily News
  • “Joan Merriam Smith is pausing in Guam on her around-the-world flight, and will make a visit to the island of Saipan in an effort to learn the fate of the late Amelia Earhart.” – April 23, 1964 | The Indianapolis News
  • She planned to visit the island of Saipan north of Guam tomorrow to seek possible information on the death of Amelia Earhart.” – April 23, 1964 | Honolulu Star Bulletin
  • “She canceled her flight to Saipan last night because of bad weather. She had planned the 150 mile hop from Guam to Saipan as a pilgrimage to the area where Miss Earhart disappeared in 1937.” – April 24, 1964 | Sacramento Bee
  • “Joan Merriam Smith took off for Wake Island from Guam Wednesday but returned an hour later with mechanical troubles.” – April 30, 1964 | Long Beach Independent
  • “Joan Merriam Smith landed safely at Wake Island last night. She completed the 1,300 mile overwater flight from Guam in 12 hours 18 minutes.” – May 1, 1964 | Tucson Daily Citizen

While there is nothing else printed in the original manuscript about Saipan, and I was unable to find anything about her trip to Saipan printed in newspapers (via, Joan did go on to make this statement in an article that was published in the Saturday Evening Post in July of 1965, confirming that she did in fact stopover there:

“I talked with some people on Saipan who claim that the Japs shot Noonan and that Amelia died a few weeks later. I saw the place where she was supposedly kept in prison and the spot where she is said to be buried.”

Source: Saturday Evening Post, July 1965

The questions inevitably remain: what else did Joan do in Saipan? Why wasn’t anything printed in newspapers about her trip, when every other leg of her journey was covered in detail? How long did she stay there? Who exactly did she meet with? Did she learn anything new? What did she come away from the experience with? After flying around the world tracing Earhart’s footsteps for herself, surveying the area, and visiting New Guinea and Saipan, what were her assumptions and takeaways? What did she personally believe happened to her hero in 1937?

In 2019, I published a blog post entitled “The Undeniable Lure of the Amelia Earhart Disappearance,” which provided an overview of the items Trixie saved in her files about Earhart’s disappearance, among other things. For those interested in reading more I recommend this post for an interesting look at this pivotal moment in American history.

In closing, on April 23, 1964, Guam Daily News asked the same question many people still find themselves asking today: will we ever know? Or “may somewhere there still be hidden a clue as to what happened,” as the article suggests?

Flying Magazine’s Historical Coverage of Joan Merriam Smith and Jerrie Mock

Recently, I decided to browse through some historical articles in Flying Magazine. (Thanks to Google Books, all of Flying Magazine’s issues dating back to the 1920s are available for one’s personal exploration here.) I wanted to see not only how Joan Merriam Smith and Jerrie Mock were covered by one of the aviation industry’s leading publications in the 1960s, but how other women pilots were covered as well. It was quite the experience.

Flying Magazine’s 1960s Coverage of Women Pilots

While I had known about the ridiculous feature story written about Joan following her death entitled “The Loser,” which is buried on page 80 of the August 1965 issue, I was shocked to find an editorial in the very same issue about women in aviation from none other than the editor of the magazine himself, Robert B. Parke.

In “The feminine case” on page 28, Parke writes:

“There have always been a good many reasons why women shouldn’t fly and a few reasons why most of them don’t. The reasons are not related. The ‘shouldn’t reasons’ are largely based on man’s shrewd insight into women’s natural shortcomings—their lack of mechanical aptitude, their emotional and irrational behavior in emergencies and their well-known limitation of being able to do only one thing at a time.”

He goes on to explain:

“But a hint of change is in the wind. A tiny ripple is appearing on the vast ocean of consummate diffidence of women toward the airplane … of course the presence of hordes of women in an activity does revolutionize the activity, and this we should be braced for. You can almost certainly expect potted geraniums outside the hangars, curtains and rugs in the pilots’ lounge and clean restrooms. You can look, too, for more tasteful paint schemes on airplanes, fewer skirt-stretching steps and more readable instrumentation. Perhaps there will even be a new phonetic alphabet—Annie, Bertha, Carol.”

On page 30 of this issue, there is a similar article entitled “For Men Only: A Women’s Place is in the Kitchen.” Author Milton W. Horowitz, PhD writes “There are those who look with distaste upon the prospect of women swarming into aviation like lemmings: this professor of psychology, for one.” Ouch. But seriously, you must read the article for yourself to get the full effect.

Then on page 39 of this issue, there is an article entitled “The Invisible 99s” (also by a man named Richard Bach). He writes: “Women are people who seek to clutter the air with tea and talk, using the sky as a sort of highway where you don’t have to signal your turns, and an airplane as a thing wherein this is a knob you push and this little wheel you twist and if you’re lucky and keep your fingers crossed you arrive where you are pointed.”

NOW – if this isn’t the definition of mansplaining then I don’t know what is! Hard to believe that this sentiment was so deeply infused into the mainstream thinking, and that the editor of an industry magazine (marketed as “the world’s most widely read aviation magazine” on their front cover), in the case of Parke, actually held such views. Hearing this perspective, however, does offer an enlightening peek back into the past. It brings to light some of the insidious challenges that Joan and Jerrie faced, and the difficulty it took to not only navigate the world in an airplane without GPS, but an ultimately condescending, unfriendly, and unsupportive network upon which they relied to achieve their respective undertakings.

Joan Merriam Smith Branded as “The Loser”

Taking the above-mentioned coverage into consideration, it is therefore no surprise to find a story like “The Loser” written about Joan. For a woman who became the first to complete Amelia Earhart’s route, the first to fly solo around the equator, the first to complete the longest single solo flight of her time, and the first female to seek out and take off for (but not be the first to complete) a flight around the world solo, all she gets in the end is an unfair commentary from a biased, male, associate editor at Flying Magazine in 1965 to sour her accomplishments. Not to mention coupled with a terribly chosen photo.

In the article, Mr. James Gilbert writes:

“She was a little tornado of a girl who flew alone around the world, and in so doing made the longest solo flight in history. It was for her the fulfillment of a childhood dream of immortality, the achievement of a life-long ambition to finish the unfinished last flight of the girl she had ever idolized—Amelia Earhart. yet the journey was also a fiasco and a defeat, a losing race with another girl, a girl who got home weeks ahead, and who got all the official world records, the handsome gold medals and the lioness’ share of the fame.”

Gilbert goes on to talk about the controversial sanctioning process, commenting that it was probably Joan’s fault as to why she didn’t get the sanction. (Of course in my book, based on my research, I beg to differ.) It’s therefore no surprise that someone like Gilbert would write:

“You might say she hemmed and hawed and procrastinated for so long that someone else beat her to it. Surely the NAA is right here: it’s nice, neat completed application forms that count, rather than vaguely expressed intentions to have a go … all the NAA could do was sit tight and see whose completed application came in first. And bad luck on the loser.”

Gilbert also goes on to share his opinion about how Joan’s way of finding sponsors was wrong. He talked about how the plane she chose was wrong. He talked about how her route was basically, you guessed it, wrong. He talked about how her supporters and advisors were wrong. Of course, this was just an opinion. It was one man’s biased, third person perspective, and an unfair framing of a situation that he had zero involvement with. The biggest tragedy of all was that this article in some ways was the final word on her legacy. And it left a very bad mark. In fact, it was one of the very first articles I received a photocopy of from various archives when I first began my research into Joan’s world flight.

Jerrie Mock Branded as “The Winner” (In a “Race” the Two Women Didn’t Acknowledge as Such)

To compare the coverage Jerrie Mock received in Flying Magazine, it’s easy to feel the sting of what Joan must have felt. In the July 1964 issue, Jerrie was highlighted in a feature story about her world flight entitled “Jerrie Mock: Winner Take All” with a subhead that reads: “blend a diminutive 38-year-old Ohio housewife with an 11-year old single-engine airplane; add courage and determination; stir in a pinch of competition; mix well and presto—7 world records.”

The story includes a picture of Jerrie receiving a medal from President Lyndon B. Johnson. There is hardly any mention of Joan.

Jerrie is also introduced in the publisher’s letter at the opening of the magazine. He writes this about Jerrie:

“At the Wings Club luncheon, Bill Lear was warmly applauded. But the assembled aviation personnel—chief pilots, private pilots and non-pilots alike—saved most of their energy for a well-deserved, five-minute standing ovation for Jerrie Mock, whose total flying time after her flight is still less than 1,000 hours.”

In other parts of the magazine, Jerrie appears in advertisements such as these:

While there is nothing wrong about Jerrie being celebrated and featured for achieving such a fantastic feat, the absence of coverage regarding Joan’s accomplishment is deafening. When comparing the coverage of Joan and Jerrie in Flying Magazine, and taking into the account the general sentiment about women in aviation at the time, I do find one thing a bit odd. Why such celebratory coverage of Jerrie if the men didn’t want women in aviation to be taken too seriously? A closer look at the article reveals something interesting: the main author who wrote the story? Her name was Betty Vail.

19-Year Old Zara Rutherford Embarks on World Solo Flight

On August 18th, 19-year old Zara Rutherford embarked on an around-the-world solo flight, with hopes of becoming the youngest woman to fly around the world solo.

In 2017, Shaesta Waiz became the “youngest woman to fly around the world solo in a single engine aircraft” at the age of 30. Zara is hoping to break her record. However, readers of Fate on a Folded Wing will know that Joan Merriam Smith actually completed a flight at a younger age than Shaesta, who was just 27 when she finished her solo flight around the equator in 1964 without GPS following Earhart’s same route. (Joan flew a twin-engine plane vs. Shaesta’s single engine.)

Zara’s undertaking is aimed at bringing more awareness to both women in aviation and STEM. She is following a western route from Belgium via Greenland through to New York on her 32,000 mile voyage. After that, she’ll fly down to South America, back up through North America and over to Russia, through Asia, Indonesia, the Middle East, Europe, and back to Belgium. She expects that due to potential weather delays and anticipated bureaucratic tape, that her flight will take about three months to complete.

Zara Rutherford’s Around-the-World Route (image source)

Female Earthrounders

To date there have technically been just 10 women who have completed solo flights around the world. While there were at least two other women who completed solo flights during the Great Depression—before any woman had yet completed a solo flight across the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean—it wasn’t until 1964 that an official solo flight around the world was made by a woman! (Read more about the 10 women who have completed solo flights around the globe here, plus Mary Petre Bruce and Elly Beinhorn who completed unofficial world flights in the 1930s.)

Around-the-World Solo Flights Completed by Women | 1964 – 2017

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

For those interested, you can follow Zara’s journey via her Facebook and Instagram pages. And one thing that’s really cool? You can follow her flight in real-time on her website here. Go Zara, go!

Post World Flight Correspondence Between Aviation Heavyweight Jackie Cochran & Joan Merriam Smith

With research institutions across the country now physically re-opening after months of Covid shutdowns, I recently heard back from the Eisenhower Presidential Library about an inquiry I made many months ago. Because this library holds the historical files of Jackie Cochran, I wondered if there might be any info about Joan’s experience of being tested for the First Lady Astronaut Trainees program, a.k.a. Mercury 13.

While I didn’t end up finding any info about Joan’s involvement in the program, I did find a series of letters catalogued between Jackie, Joan, the National Aeronautic Association, and others that shed some additional light on the events that unfolded following Joan’s 1964 world solo flight.

Jackie Cochran, circa 1940 (image source)

When the package containing the copied materials from archives arrived in the mail, I was excited to see what was inside. Prior to this, the only correspondence I’d seen from Jackie regarding Joan’s flight was a letter that she had written to the NAA on Joan’s behalf courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution’s archives. Individuals involved in the new correspondence that I received include:

  • Jackie Cochran, famed aviatrix and honorary lifetime president of National Aeronautic Association (NAA)
  • Floyd Odlum, Jackie’s husband, and one of richest men in the U.S. at the time
  • Colonel Mitchell Giblo, Executive Director of the NAA
  • William Ong, President of the NAA
  • M.J. “Randy” Randleman, Secretary of Contest Board under Mitchell Giblo, NAA
  • Ruth Deerman, outgoing President of the 99s
  • Alice Roberts, incoming President of the 99’s
  • Joan Merriam Smith
  • John Sarver, Joan’s PR Person
  • Peg Schroeder, friend of Joan’s and head of “Citizens committee for recognition for Joan Merriam Smith”
  • Two U.S. congressmen

While reading through these letters, there was a lot to unpack. There’s nothing quite reading actual history vs. someone else’s account of it! I also couldn’t help but think about how much more complicated communication seemed back then having to write formal letters, copy them out in the mail to everyone, and then retain paper copies. Email is so much easier.

Below follows a top-level overview of the correspondence, along with direct links to a couple of these letters for historical value.

  • May 12, 1964 – Joan becomes first person in history to fly solo around the world at the equator, the first person to complete the longest single solo flight around the world, the first woman to fly a twin-engine aircraft around the world, the first woman to fly the Pacific Ocean from west to east in a twin-engine plane, and the youngest woman to complete a solo flight around the world.
  • Following Joan’s flight, John Sarver (Joan’s press person) sends out letters to multiple agencies and individuals attempting to find a way to have her flight more formally recognized. In July of 1964 Sarver received a letter from the FAA telling him that there was nothing they could do to help Joan get recognition for her flight.
  • Joan next reached out to Jackie Cochran directly for help by telegram. (Download telegram)
  • Jackie’s husband Floyd responded the next day to Joan’s telegram, and he also drafted a response letter for Jackie to send to Joan. In his drafted letter he included a note to Jackie that said: “Maybe a show of interest in Mrs. Smith’s problem along the lines of the attached draft letter would be a good on the record action for you irrespective of results accomplished.” (Download telegram)
  • Next, Jackie reached out to Colonel Mitchell Giblo, executive director of the NAA for more info, and said she would be in DC soon and would make an appointment before coming to the office.

Col. Mitchell Giblo, pictured in 1964 (Image Source)
  • Jackie received a formal response from the NAA, then sent another letter asking follow-up questions to NAA’s secretary of the contest board, Randy Randleman.
  • After receiving a response that Jackie felt was sufficient from Col. Giblo with a copy of a letter written from Randleman to Ong, she explained to NAA in another letter that she felt satisfied with the actions taken.
William “Bill” Ong (Image Source)
  • During this time, Jackie received a letter from Joan thanking her for looking into the matter. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2)
  • On 9/14/64, Jackie wrote a letter to Joan summarizing her findings after inquiring about her world flight with the NAA. Jackie explained to Joan that she understood her disappointment but that there was nothing more that she could do. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2)
  • On 9/16/64, Jackie sent Joan another letter acknowledging receipt of her first letter, which she didn’t receive until after her 9/14/64 response. (Download letter)
  • From here, Joan decided to send Jackie a follow up letter on 9/17/64 explaining what “really” happened, in that she felt there was favoritism. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2)
  • Jackie’s secretary then responded saying that Jackie was out of the country for a month. (Download letter)
  • Incidentally, in this very same month of September of 1964, Jackie was featured on the cover of National Aeronautics Magazine, which was a quarterly publication of the National Aeronautic Association, edited by William Ong, with feature stories by Col. Giblo. (View the publication)
  • After Joan died, a woman by the name of Peg Schroeder reached out on behalf of a citizen’s committee to gain recognition for Joan in the form of a commemorative stamp to celebrate Earhart and Joan’s accomplishments. (Download letter)
  • Jackie clearly did not like this idea as she wrote a condescending letter back to Peg in July of 1965, in which she said “I think you and those on your committee may be emotionally carried away by the fact that Miss Smith is dead. She was killed in an airplane accident when the wing of her light plane pulled off. Of course this was a structural failure, but whether the plan was structurally weak or had a stress put on it beyond its designed strength, I do not believe, has yet been officially determined.” Jackie copied NAA’s executive director on this letter. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2, Page 3)
  • Jackie next reached out to the incoming and outgoing presidents of the 99s, she reached out to two congressmen, and also followed up with the NAA.
  • The NAA (Giblo’s) response to Jackie on 7/22/65 was “congratulations for sending the type of reply that Peg Schroeder deserved.” (Download letter)

After reading all of these letters, my main takeaways were these: 1) If there truly was any favoritism, Jackie was not asking the right questions to NAA 2) What would Jackie have gained anyway from telling the NAA that they were wrong in how they handled the sanction process between Joan and Jerrie? 3) What reason would there have been for Jackie to have pressed the issue considering she had never even met Joan and also had close ties to NAA leadership? 4) Since Jackie was a close friend of Earhart’s, and together she and Earhart were among the most accomplished women in aviation history, it seemed to me that asking for her support to create a “Joan Merriam Smith-Amelia Earhart Aviation Day” after Joan’s death was a bad idea. The reasoning is evident in her July 1965 letter, as Jackie felt Joan’s supporters were somehow trying to equalize Joan and Amelia when all they were trying to do was find a creative way to get Joan some recognition.

In conclusion, I felt that Joan had noble intentions, and Jackie intended to help her so long as it was convenient to do so, but that’s about the extent of what could be expected given her stature and her political ties. If you’ve followed along this far, would love to hear your thoughts!

If there’s one thing I have learned in this research, it’s that most information about Joan is buried in historical archives such as this and not easily findable. Needless to say, the treasure hunt continues!

Joan & Jerrie’s 1964 Post World Flight Feud

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

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

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

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

(Click here to view article)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Click here to view article)

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/

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

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.