Circumnavigation of the World

The trip in question was an attempted circumnavigation of the world

No mean feat in itself in 1937, but Earhart wanted to go a step further. She wanted to fly around the world at the equator which no one had ever done before. Earhart had a new plane built for the attempt – a Lockheed Electra 10-E. It was dubbed a ‘Flying Laboratory’ and was specially modified for long-distance flight.

“I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system and I hope this trip is it.” Amelia Earhart

The flight would begin in Oakland, California and Earhart would travel westwards, covering a distance of about 27,000 miles.

There was a question mark over how she was going to cross the Pacific Ocean. A potential plan was for her to refuel mid-air but this plan was dropped in favour of stopping off to refuel on Howland Island – a 1 ½ mile long sand spit. This flight, from Honolulu to Howland, would be the second leg of the world trip and it was the most hazardous. Earhart would not fly this leg alone, however, as she decided to take along naval Captain Harry Manning whom she had met following her 1928 Atlantic crossing. Manning was captain of the ship, the SS President Roosevelt, on which Earhart sailed to return to New York, and they struck up a friendship. Manning was to perform the role of navigator and help with radio operations up to Darwin, Australia, where he would leave Earhart to fly the rest of the way solo.

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Although a competent maritime navigator, Manning was not experienced at aerial navigation. Famously, when flying with Earhart and her husband George Putnam from New Jersey to Burbank, California, he calculated that they were in Kansas when actually they were in Oklahoma. Although in reality he was not off by a substantial number of miles, the fact that he had placed them in the wrong state was disconcerting. It is not difficult then to understand how expert aerial navigator Fred Noonan came to be added to the team at the last moment. He was to help Manning with the navigation to Howland and he would then leave the flight there.

On March 17th 1937, Earhart took off in her Lockheed Electra accompanied by Manning, Noonan and technical adviser Paul Mantz. They landed at Wheeler Field, Honolulu on the morning of March 18th. On March 20th, now only accompanied by the two navigators, Earhart attempted to take off from Luke Field to head across the Pacific to Howland Island, but during take-off she lost control of the aircraft which groundlooped causing severe damage. The first world flight attempt was at an end and the plane had to be shipped back to the Lockheed factory in Burbank for substantial repairs.

Earhart was determined to have another go at the world flight but during the near two months it took to repair her plane, some crucial changes were made to the flight plan:

1. Harry Manning left the team –  Theories of why he left range from him not being able to extend his leave from work, to Putnam and Earhart losing faith in him or alternatively him losing faith in Earhart. Whatever the reason, this left Noonan as the sole navigator for the flight. It was the loss of Manning’s radio skills, however, which would prove critical. Unlike Manning, neither Noonan nor Earhart was proficient in Morse code. Due to this Earhart opted not to have the trailing wire reinstalled on the Electra for the second attempt (the wire, used for transmitting Morse on 500 kilocycles, had been destroyed in the Luke Field crash) to save weight. Earhart now couldn’t transmit on the emergency frequency of 500kcs and was largely restricted to radio-telephone communications (radio-telephone was not the norm in 1937 – radio-telegraph (Morse) was by far the more common method of communication). Not only that but Manning had been the one trained on the Electra’s radio direction finder when it was installed – Earhart was not present – and it can be questioned whether she actually knew how to operate it correctly.

2. The decision was made to reverse the direction of the flight – The reason given was due to climatic changes later in the year. This meant that instead of the Howland leg being at the beginning of the flight, it would instead be at the end where fatigue would be more likely to be a factor. Flying westwards as originally planned, the longest leg of the flight would have been Howland to Lae, New Guinea, providing a substantial land mass to aim for. Reversing the flight meant the longest leg would only be successful if tiny Howland was located. Not only that but the hazardous leg to Howland was only 1,650 nautical miles flying westwards from Honolulu, providing a lot more room for manoeuvre than flying eastwards from Lae at a distance of 2,222 nautical miles.

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On May 20th 1937 Earhart and Noonan departed from Oakland, California to begin the second world flight attempt.