When the Electra splashed through the puddles of the Oakland, California airport’s runaway and lifted into the air on March 17, 1937, Amelia Earhart believed she was on her way to Howland Island. Sure, she had to stop in Honolulu first. But then she planned to wing her across the 2,556 mile to Howland. Already the Coast Guard cutter, Duane, waited in the waters offshore the island while construction crews scrambled to complete three, 150 foot wide runways.
Because it was the most hazardous leg of the around-the-world trip, she took along three experts (hardly a solo flight). There was Harry Manning, experienced in Morse code and radio direction-finding. He planned on staying with Amelia as far as Darwin, Australia.
Also onboard was technical adviser and pilot, Paul Mantz. In truth, Mantz was flying the Electra on that historic March day. Amelia sat in the copilot’s seat. Reporters later described the takeoff as “excellent.” They didn’t know it was the work of the technical advisers. Mantz, who claimed he was looking for bugs in the plane, intended to fly only as far as the next stop — Honolulu.
And then there was Fred Noonan, arguably the world’s best aerial navigator. Because he didn’t have a proper visa to accompany the flight farther than New Guinea, Noonan planned on contributing his considerable skills only as far as Howland Island. The Coast Guard would return him to Honolulu after the Electra landed.
It was a good plan and a good team. And it probably would have succeeded if not for rainy weather, mechanical failures, and the crash that occurred on takeoff from Honolulu’s Luke Airfield. This time, Amelia was at the controls. The accident wiped out the plane’s main landing gear, both propellers and most of the underside of the fuselage. It wouldn’t be ready to fly for month. And that delay made a huge difference. Instead of landing at Howland Island at the beginning of the journey when “everyone was fresh,” she would be approaching it late in the trip – her 33rd day out. Even worse, she would lose the experience of two key players – Mantz and Manning, the only crewmember familiar with Morse code and radio navigation. It was a tremendous loss. And it causes one to wonder… What would the outcome of Amelia’s around-the-world-flight have been if the first attempt had not met with such disaster? Would she have made it? Would she still be with us? And if so, would she still be an icon of history? Or was it her disappearance that propelled her into historical stardom?