Northern Ireland Connection

“After scaring most of the cows in the neighbourhood, I pulled up in a farmer’s back yard.” Amelia Earhart

Although the Stratus team members hail from a number of different countries, the Project is based in Belfast, N. Ireland. It is a little known fact that Earhart landed in Northern Ireland to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. This was arguably her greatest single achievement, and it secured her place in the history books as a legendary aviator.

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On 20th May 1927, Charles Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field, Long Island and landed in Paris over 33 hours later to become the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic. Earhart had felt like a “sack of potatoes” during the 1928 “Friendship Flight”, which saw her become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic as she had only been a passenger. Despite a number of attempts, no one had managed to emulate Lindbergh’s achievement and fly the Atlantic solo.

Earhart was determined to try, saying that a successful attempt would be “self-justification”, and she would finally earn the fame that was awarded to her following the 1928 flight. In 1929 she had upgraded her plane to a Lockheed Vega, the most powerful monoplane in the world, which would be ideal for the long distance flight.

The Flight

derry-2Five years to the day since Lindbergh had made his historic flight, Earhart took off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. The time was 7:12pm and she was headed for Paris. Initially the flight ran smoothly, however, it wasn’t long before she ran into some trouble. In all she had to contend with a broken altimeter, a leaking fuel gauge, and a burnt out exhaust manifold, out of which she could see flames shooting. On top of this she was flying through storms for much of the flight and at one point her wings coated with ice and she had to dive rapidly to break it off.

Earhart: “Until midnight it was smooth sailing for me. The rest of the time—well, you’ve got to expect bad weather out in the Atlantic. I ran into a severe thunderstorm and then ice conditions when flying high, so I had to come down pretty quick.”

When she hit land she followed a railway line in the hope that it would lead to a city and an airport, but seeing only fields she decided to land. She touched down at 1:46pm to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. In the process she set the speed record for the fastest Atlantic crossing (15 hours, 18 minutes) and a women’s distance record of 2, 026 miles.

In Derry

Unbeknownst to Earhart, she had landed in a pasture belonging to Robert Gallagher. His farmhand, Dan McCallion, who had been working in the field, was the first to greet Earhart. He asked her, “Have you flown far?” and was greeted with the shocking reply, “From America”.

derry-3Earhart later told reporters, “I was never in Ireland before, but the sight of the thatched cottages and the marvellous green grass and trees left me no doubt that I had actually made the Emerald Isle. I was still surer when I heard the brogue of my friend Dan McCallion.”

Mr Gallagher took Earhart to the local post office where she made this phone call:
On this go I was flying low the whole time and had to rely on myself. I am afraid I’m a bit deaf after the terrible roar of the engines in my ears all the time, but at any rate, I’ve done it. In addition the petrol gauge had broken, probably in the storm of the night and there was a little leakage, so I decided to come down. I landed in an open field a mile or two from the town of Derry. The first one to greet me was the owner of the field. My first thought on getting here was to ring up the press association so that my safe landing would be made known without delay.”

The Gallagher’s invited her to stay the night and the next day the pasture was flooded with excited crowds and reporters who had heard of Earhart’s historic landing. She taxied her plane around in a re-enactment of the previous day and she signed autographs and was photographed and interviewed.
Robert Gallagher’s wife gave a fantastic and insightful interview in 1935 in which she described Earhart’s time with them.

“..At about 2:00 we heard an aeroplane, and soon afterwards we saw a great red monoplane over the house flying very low. It circled round a couple of times then made for a big field at the back of the house and landed….The first farmhand who got to the aeroplane saw there was a woman in it so he asked her where she’d come from. She said America…..My curiosity got the better of me after a minute or two and I went up to the plane as well. Standing beside it was a tousled headed girl in trousers and a leather coat. She didn’t seem at all excited….We asked her to stay with us until she was ready to go on again and she said she would, so long as we didn’t mind her clothes.

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She had nothing but what she stood up in… I leant her some of my things and life was just settling down again when the trouble really started. The news had got about that an American aeroplane had landed in our field and we were received by visitors, onlookers, and of course reporters. Poor Miss Earhart, she seemed to spend her whole time being interviewed… We all liked her very much. There was no nonsense about her and we all thoroughly enjoyed having our very unexpected guest. I can still hear her nice, matter of fact voice saying about her flight as though it had been rather a long motor drive on a cold day.”

Aftermath

After spending the day in Derry, Earhart travelled first to England and then to Paris, where the French Government awarded her with The Cross of the Legion of Honour. When she returned to America, President Hoover bestowed upon her the National Geographical Medal, and Congress awarded her the Flying Cross (Earhart was the first woman to be awarded this). Amelia Earhart had now finally earned her fame.

Earhart’s legacy in Derry

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When news spread that Earhart had landed in Derry, hundreds of people journeyed to Gallagher’s pasture to see her. One such man was Grenville Mackie who, upon hearing the news, flew his plane from Belfast, taking his 35mm camera with him. The footage that he took remained forgotten about until early 2012 when Colin Cobb came across it in the Public Records Office. He contacted the Mackie Estate and was granted permission to show the footage in Derry on the 80th Anniversary of Earhart landing in the City (21st May 2012).

The footage shows Earhart’s Lockheed Vega sat in the field, the crowds of excited people who had come to catch a glimpse of the aviatrix, and Earhart herself with the plane, and with the Gallagher family at their house. Mackie must have stayed in Derry for a few days as he even caught some incredible footage of the Vega being deconstructed in order to ship it back to America.

Colin arranged to give a talk on the 80th anniversary, where he would document Earhart’s life and present Mackie’s footage to the people of Derry.

The talk was held in the Tower Hotel and it was completely free. Colin had no indication at all of how many people would turn up but he was nicely surprised when every seat was filled. In fact, more chairs had to be added to accommodate everyone! It is clear that Derry has not forgotten the American icon who so surprisingly dropped in for the day in 1932.