This ordinary looking stamped-addressed envelope in the Museum’s collection features two signatures, one is of the famous American aviator, Amelia Earhart, and the other F. (Fred) J. Noonan, her navigator during their pioneering world flight in 1937.
The envelope is part of an extensive collection of some 20,000 items of aviation philately or aerophilately acquired from Ernest (Ernie) and Virtie Crome. When aviation was in its infancy in Australia in the 1920s and 30s, Ernie worked near Mascot and gave envelopes to pilots to sign and post back to him. He saw them as ‘miniature log books’ of early experimental flights and Amelia and Fred’s envelope is among them.
I usually research Australian aviators like Kingsford Smith and Lores Bonney, so an opportunity to look into Amelia Earhart’s short but inspiring life (1897-1937) I found absolutely captivating. So much has been written about Amelia in books and especially online that I won’t repeat it all here.
However, after a brief joy flight at 23 she immediately became passionate about flying. While most pilots at the time wrote about aircraft capabilities Amelia spoke of the freedom it entailed and the breathtaking beauty of sunrises and cloud formations. At this time aviation was largely in the hands of former WWI pilots who gave flying demonstrations, performed stunts at shows, gave flying lessons and started fledgling air services. Their aircraft were flimsy biplanes with open cockpits. Pilots wore goggles, flying caps and leather flying suits. Navigation was by pocket compass using a road map often pinned to the pilot’s clothes, so it wouldn’t blow out of the cockpit. They followed railway lines, roads and rivers to get their bearings, often having to land to ask where they were!
Amelia worked hard to save up for expensive flying lessons with Anita (Neta) Snook, a pioneer female aviator. To look the part, she slept in her brand-new leather jacket for 3 nights to give it the worn look and cropped her hair short like the other female flyers. With her mother’s help, she bought her first plane, a little yellow Kinner Airster biplane, powered by a tiny 3-cylinder engine. Only weeks after gaining her pilot’s licence she set a new women’s altitude record of 14,000 feet. With no aviation prospects she sold her much-loved little plane and ended up as a social worker in Boston teaching English to poor, immigrant children.
After Charles Lindbergh’s first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, the hunt was on for a woman to be a passenger on a similar pioneering flight. Amelia’s striking similarity to Lindbergh in appearance, tall, slightly built and blonde hair, (she was later dubbed “Lady Lindy”), saw her successfully interviewed by the publisher and publicist, George P. Putnam, seeking the right girl for the dangerous adventure. In a Fokker Trimotor, like Kingsford Smith’s ‘Southern Cross’, fitted with floats, she flew with the pilot and navigator as the only passenger writing a log and taking photographs from the cramped cabin mainly taken up with extra fuel tanks. The flight was from Newfoundland to Wales in 1928 and took 20 hours. Immediately on arrival she was catapulted into instant fame, though privately always felt she was a fraud for not having done any of the flying herself. Though in fairness, she had no experience with this size aircraft nor flying with instruments. Nevertheless, Amelia dined with the British Prime Minister, danced with the Prince of Wales and moved in high society circles.
Back in the USA, Putman heavily promoted Amelia sending her on exhausting lecture tours. Celebrity endorsements are certainly not new, and he used her to promote lightweight airline luggage, cigarettes, (she only smoked about 3 a year), and her own clothing line called ‘Active Living’ with aviation-related design elements such as raincoats of ‘parachute silk’ with buttons shaped like propellers. This all enabled Amelia to finance her flying. She appeared equally competent down in the hanger assisting mechanics working on aero engines as designing fashion and made the line’s samples on her own sewing machine. Amelia promoted aviation to women in ‘Cosmopolitan’ magazine articles, as the biggest deterrent to commercial aviation across the US at the time were the wives of businessman who wouldn’t let their husbands fly! More importantly she encouraged women to learn to fly themselves.
The first all-women air race was held in the USA in 1929, an 8-day event from California to Cleveland. From it, a group called the Ninety-Nines were formed, an organisation for licenced women pilots with Amelia as its first president. It was so named because 99 of the 117 licensed American female pilots at the time signed up to be members. By 1930 there were 200 women pilots in the USA and by 1935 this had increased to almost 800, no doubt many with Amelia’s encouragement. By comparison, in Australia there were 18 licensed women pilots in 1929 and a similar organisation to the Ninety-Nines, the Australian Women’s Pilots’ Association, was formed in 1950.
Back in the 1930s Amelia continued to set aviation records in planes and an early helicopter called an autogiro but what she really wanted to achieve was to be the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Five years after Lindbergh’s flight, in her then state-of-the-art, single-engine Lockheed Vega 5b high-wing monoplane, Amelia achieved her aim in a white-knuckle flight in 1932. Her little red racing plane was primitive by modern standards with no radio, auto pilot, yet alone radar, GPS nor access to current weather reports. To keep the plane’s weight down to an absolute minimum, to carry the extra fuel, her only luggage was a toothbrush and food comprised a thermos of soup and a tin of tomato juice. The Atlantic is notorious for storms and unpredictable weather and only 2 hours into the flight her altimeter broke followed by engine problems. With her hands clenched tightly on the controls and continually checking her instruments she ploughed on making landfall in Ireland after almost 15 hours. Her aircraft is now in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
Amelia was showered with awards and presentations, but her adventurer gene could not be satisfied, and she was compelled to continue setting and improving aviation records for both women and men in the 1930s as aviation routes were still being pioneered.
Acknowledging this last flight would afterwards see her settle down, she set off on 20 May 1937 in her specially-built, twin-engine Lockheed Electra 10-E, with Fred Noonan, an ace navigator, to be the first to fly around the world at the equator. This brings us back to the envelope which was signed during a stopover in Darwin, Northern Territory, at the end of June 1937 about three-quarters of the way into the flight. After leaving Darwin on 30 June, Amelia and Fred stopped at Lae, New Guinea, before setting off on 1 July for the longest and most dangerous leg of the flight 4,113 km over open water to the tiny Pacific Island of Howland where she was to land and refuel.
In one of the most heart wrenching accounts I have read recently, John Burke’s book, ‘Winged Legend: The Story of Amelia Earhart’, describes the efforts to contact Amelia in the radio room of the ‘Itasca’, a US Coast Guard cutter stationed off Howland. Normally cool-headed, Amelia’s increasingly desperate and high-pitched voice was heard as she tried to contact the ship and lock onto its homing signals. Amelia’s plane never arrived, and no remains have ever been located. The oceans had claimed another aircraft in similar circumstances to Kingsford Smith’s tragic disappearance in 1935 during his flight to break an England to Australia speed record and in more modern times Malaysia Airlines’ Flight 370 in 2014.
This envelope, signed by Amelia and Fred, is now of special historical significance as it may be one of the last surviving tangible objects the aviators touched prior to their disappearance, while the circumstances of the plane’s disappearance continue to be a controversial mystery over 80 years later.
Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, November 2017