Much has been made by a few of the more conspiracy-minded researchers of Amelia Earhart’s disastrous crash at Luke Field, Hawaii, on March 20, 1937, during her takeoff on the second leg of her first world-flight attempt, which could have easily resulted in her death, as well as those of Fred Noonan and Harry Manning, who were also with her in the Electra that day. Some believed Amelia crashed on purpose.
First, some background might be helpful. The original world-flight plan called for an Oakland-to-Oakland flight via Honolulu, then on to Howland Island; Lae, New Guinea; and Port Darwin, Australia. “Part two, a lengthier stretch over fabulous lands,” as Earhart described it, “extended from Australia to the west coast of Africa by way of Arabia.”
Part three would take the Electra over the South Atlantic to Brazil and from there northward to the United States. Noonan would go as far as Howland and return to Hawaii by ship. Captain Harry Manning, a pilot, navigator, and master mariner of the United States Line, had agreed to serve as Earhart’s navigator and radio operator during the difficult early stages of the flight. Manning would stay until they reached Australia, and Earhart would fly the rest of the way alone.
The flight from Oakland to Honolulu went well, as Earhart, Noonan, Manning, and technical advisor Paul Mantz took off from Oakland Airport on March 17 at 4:37 p.m. Pacific time. They landed at Wheeler Field, Oahu, at 8:25 a.m. Pacific time, March 18, covering the 2,400 miles in a record 15 hours, 43 minutes. Once there, Mantz test flew the Electra, made repairs on the right propeller blades that became temporarily inoperative about six hours from Hawaii, and delivered the plane to the Navy’s Luke Field, on Ford Island near Pearl Harbor. With its 3,000-foot paved runway, Luke was considered more practical for the Electra’s 900-gallon fuel load.
But on the March 20 takeoff for the 1,900-mile flight to Howland Island, the Electra had covered about a thousand feet of runway when its right wing dropped, the right wheel and the undercarriage were torn away, and the plane slid along the runway, showering sparks before coming to rest. Miraculously, despite fuel leaking through the drain well of the belly, no fire erupted and no one was injured.
“Witnesses said the tire blew,” Earhart explained. “However, studying the tracks carefully, I believe that may not have been the primary cause of the accident. Possibly the right landing gear’s right shock absorber, as it lengthened, may have given way. . . . For a moment I thought I would be able to gain control and straighten the course. But, alas, the load was so heavy, once it started an arc there was nothing to do but let the plane ground loop as easily as possible.” A wire report said Army aviation experts “expressed unofficial opinions that a landing gear failed just before the right tire of her plane burst.”
Art Kennedy, an aircraft technician for the Pacific Airmotive Company in Burbank, Calif., during the 1930s, offered a more sinister explanation for the crash in his 1992 autobiography, High Times, Keeping ‘em Flying. Kennedy first met Earhart in 1934 when he serviced her Lockheed Vega for a Bendix Trophy race, and directed the repairs of the Electra when it was shipped back to Burbank in boxes following the accident at Luke Field.
After a close examination of the plane’s damaged right wing, right gear, brakes and propellers, Kennedy said he realized the ground loop was not normal, but “forced,” and that Earhart purposely wrecked the plane. When confronted by Kennedy, she “told me not to mention it and to mind my own business,” he wrote.
Kennedy said he reminded her that an inspector was due the next day to make an official accident report and would recognize the plane’s condition would never have been caused by an accident. “Damn! I forgot about the gear,” Kennedy claimed she said. “Art, you and I are good friends. You didn’t see a thing. We’ll just force the gear back over to make it look natural. Will you promise me never to say anything about what you know?” Kennedy complied and swore he kept his word for 50 years.
Kennedy said Earhart told him she was ordered to abort the takeoff “and did it the only way she knew how.” According to Kennedy, she said “a lot depended on my keeping quiet about what I’d seen because she was going on a special mission that had to look like a routine attempt to go around the world. She said, ‘Can you imagine me being a spy?’ then she sort of tittered and added, ‘I never said that!’” Several researchers, including some who knew him well, have looked askance at Kennedy’s claims and pointed to his reputation as a well-known “bullshit artist,” as he himself admits in his book’s prologue. Who knows for sure?
Bill Prymak, who knew Kennedy well, was among those who joined Fred Goerner in dismissing Kennedy’s claims. Goerner laid out his reasons in a cordial 1992 letter to Ronald T. “Ron” Reuther (1929-2007), himself a remarkable and highly accomplished individual.
Reuther, a close friend of Goerner, founded the Western Aerospace Museum and was a revered, original member of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society. Reuther was unique among the elite of the aviation establishment in his support for the Marshalls Islands-Saipan truth in the Earhart disappearance, but these are mere footnotes in an impressive list of memorable achievements in a life well lived.
He was also a great naturalist who curated and directed the Micke Grove Zoo (Lodi, Calif.), the Cleveland Zoo, the Indianapolis Zoo, the San Francisco Zoo, and the Philadelphia Zoo. As director of the San Francisco Zoo, Reuther was instrumental in the creation of an amazingly successful project to teach the world-famous and recently deceased gorilla Koko sign language. Following is Goerner’s cordial 1992 letter to Reuther. All boldface is mine.
August 7, 1992
Mr. Ron Reuther
1014 Delaware Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
Again you have proven to be a good friend!
Many thanks for your comments regarding my health, and extra thanks for sending along the chapter from Arthur Kennedy’s book, HIGH TIME [sic] — KEEPING ‘EM FLYING.
I’m more than a little happy to report that my recovery proceeds apace, although I have some distance to go in regaining strength.
The surgeons at the Cancer Institute in Washington, D.C., saved my life in a fifteen-hour operation, and I have just concluded the last of three week-long chemo sessions at Mount Zion Hospital here in San Francisco. The latest CT-scan is clean, so it appears that I have at least a few more years to plague family and friends.
With respect to the Kennedy comments about Earhart, the proverbial grain of salt applies.
Kennedy appears to have been influenced by the film FLIGHT FOR FREEDOM in which Earhart [is asked by the U.S. Navy purposefully to crash her plane in Hawaii so she can later undertake a secret mission. Kennedy alleges Earhart did just that and that Earhart even told him something about it. [Ed. note: Tony Carter is the character in Flight for Freedom that Goerner identified as Earhart, but the parallel was obvious.]
This reckons without the testimony of Harry Manning who was flying the right-hand seat alongside Earhart at the time of the Honolulu crack-up.
Harry became a good friend in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. As you will recall, Harry was the initial navigator for the around-the-world flight, and he later shared the duties with Fred Noonan.
Harry told me Earhart simply “lost it” on the takeoff, and there was no mystery about it whatsoever.
He said, “One second I was looking at the hangars and the next second the water. I thought we were going to die.”
The plane began to sway during takeoff, and according to Manning, Earhart tried to correct with the throttles and simply over-corrected. He said it wasn’t a matter of a tire blowing at all. It was pilot error with a load of 940 gallons of fuel. He added it was a miracle there was no fire.
As far as the rumor that Earhart ground looped the plane on purpose to delay the flight, he said it was a concoction of a script-writer. There was no truth to it whatsoever.
To accept such a conclusion, he added, one would have to accept that Earhart did not tell either himself (Manning) or Noonan what she planned to do. He said neither he nor Noonan would have been foolish enough to go along with such a plan which might end in death for all of them.
Harry also said if there was a need to delay the flight because of some secret mission, the easiest way to delay the flight was for Earhart to feign an illness which required her to return to California. Then they could have flown the Electra back to California instead of having the wrecked plane returned by ship.
Harry said by the time he got out of the wrecked plane and onto the runway he had already made up his mind that he no longer wanted any part of the flight. It has always been stated that Harry had to return to the command of his ship and that is why he left the flight, but the truth is he had had enough of both Earhart and Putnam.
Sometime when we have a chance for a face to face, I will tell you the whole Manning story. Harry wanted me to do a book about him and his career, but he died before the project could begin.
By the way, Harry Manning was a pilot himself, and he knew whereof he spoke.
I trust that all is well with you, Ron, and with your family.
Merla joins me in sending all good wishes to you and yours, and thanks again for your thoughtfulness in sending the Kennedy material to me.
With respect and admiration.
P.S. A chap named Bob Bessett of the Aviation Historical Society wanted me to appear tomorrow at Spenger’s to discuss Earhart along with Elgen Long and Richard Gillespie, who is flying in from Delaware. Alas, my doctor won’t turn me loose. I simply do not have the requisite strength yet. Oh, how I would love to train my guns on Gillespie. The man is a consummate rascal, and the Nikumaroro business is totally bankrupt. If you happen to attend tomorrow’s confrontation, give me a blow by blow. I’m sure Elgen and Gillespie will pea [sic] on each other’s shoes. (End of Goerner letter.)
Goerner had two more years before the cancer took him on Sept. 13, 1994.
Publicly unfazed by the near disaster at Luke Field, Earhart nonetheless changed the flight’s direction to an easterly route, explaining in Last Flight that weather differences in various locations after the three-month delay for repairs dictated the reversal:
The upshot of those consultations was, that I decided to reverse the direction originally chosen for the flight. Revising the Pacific program was a sizable task in itself. The Coast Guard had arranged its routine cutter cruise to Howland Island so as to be on hand there at the time of my flight, other provisions had been made by the Navy.
The original course from Brazil though Panama, Central America and Mexico would be replaced by a cross-country flight to Miami, a “practical shakedown flight, testing the rebuilt ship and its equipment . . . thereby saving the time of running such tests in California,” Earhart wrote, adding that any necessary adjustments or repairs could be made in Miami.
Do Goerner’s letter and Prymak’s dismissal of Kennedy’s claims really mark the end of the story? Can we really declare “case closed” with confidence, based on the word of these two experts, as well as what some of our own “better angels” would have us conclude?
The words of a few others might give some of the more suspicious among us reason to pause. We still don’t know precisely how much Amelia’s mother, Amy Otis Earhart knew, for example, as I discussed in a Dec. 9, 2014 post, “Amy Earhart’s stunning 1944 letter to Neta Snook.“
And in Amelia Earhart’s Radio (2006), respected researcher Paul Rafford Jr. made an astonishing revelation:
Yet Mark Walker, a Naval Reserve Officer, heard something different from Earhart. I heard about Mark from his cousin, Bob Greenwood, a Naval Intelligence Officer. Bob wrote to me about Mark and what he had heard.
Mark Walker was Pan Am copilot flying out of Oakland. He pointed out to Earhart the dangers of the world flight, when the Electra was so minimally equipped to take on the task. Mark claimed Earhart stated: “This flight isn’t my idea, someone high up in the government asked me to do it.”
“Earhart’s crack-up in Honolulu is a classic example of how minor events can change world history,” Rafford wrote. “Had she not lost control and ground looped during takeoff, Earhart would have left navigator Fred Noonan at Howland and radio operator Captain Harry Manning in Australia. Then, she would have proceeded around the world alone.
“Fate decreed otherwise.”