“I climbed into the cockpit. The earlier fog had dissipated into a haze but hung over Oakland. My thoughts were whirling through outwardly. I know I appear very calm. How many thousands of takeoffs made. And yet none have been, or ever again will be, quite like this one.”

Joan Merriam Smith, March 17, 1964

On May 12, 1964, at the age of twenty-seven, Joan Merriam Smith became the first person in history to complete a solo flight around the world at the equator, which marked both the fulfillment of a lifelong dream and a tribute to Amelia Earhart. Having obtained a pilot’s license at the minimum possible age of seventeen, Joan was inspired to finish what Amelia Earhart had set out to accomplish in 1937, after reading a book about her attempt to circumnavigate the world.

Plagued with plane trouble from the start, Joan circled the globe in her beloved twin-engine Apache N3251P, which she affectionately referred to as 51-Poppa. Unlike Earhart, who had been accompanied by her navigator, Fred Noonan, Joan flew alone. None of Amelia Earhart’s originally scheduled stops were missed, with the exception of Rangoon, which she overflew since landing there was forbidden unless in the case of an emergency. Joan even spent time in Papua New Guinea and Saipan to investigate the Amelia Earhart disappearance for herself.

Lae, New Guinea, dated April 21, 1964. Shown with Joan Merriam Smith are the last six (at the time) remaining people on Lae who had witnessed Earhart’s 1937 departure. From left to right: John Cooke, Mrs. George Griffiths, George Griffiths, Ela Binnell, Joan, Flora Stewart, Max Monehan.

After a series of setbacks due to mechanical troubles and persistent bad weather, some 27,750 miles and 56.5 days later, Joan crossed the finish line in Oakland, California.

Upon completion of her world flight, she became the 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; the first woman to receive an airline transport rating at the age of 23; the youngest woman to complete a solo flight around the world; and the first woman to fly solo from Africa to Australia, from Australia to Guam via New Guinea, and from Wake to Midway Island.

Joan Merriam Smith upon completion of her historic 1964 world flight

Joan had finally completed her goal of finishing what Amelia Earhart had started. At the end of her flight, Joan had collected more than eight hundred signatures on her plane from various people around the world.

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