We begin 2019 with a closer look at one of the more controversial characters in the history of the Earhart saga. Art Kennedy was an aircraft technician for the Pacific Airmotive Company in Burbank, Calif., during the 1930s, and first met Amelia in 1934 when he serviced her Lockheed Vega for a Bendix Trophy race. Later, he directed the repairs of the Electra when it was shipped back to Burbank in boxes following the March 20, 1937 accident at Luke Field, Hawaii, during her takeoff on the second leg of her first world-flight attempt, which could have easily resulted in her death.
Much speculation surrounded the cause of the Electra’s so-called “ground loop,” and Amelia herself said that “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.” Army aviation experts “expressed unofficial opinions that a landing gear failed just before the right tire of her plane burst,” but Harry Manning, who was in the co-pilot’s seat that day, said Amelia “lost it” on takeoff.
“The plane began to sway during takeoff, and according to Manning, Earhart tried to correct with the throttles and simply over-corrected,” Fred Goerner wrote in a 1992 letter to Ron Reuther. “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.”
In his 1992 autobiography co-written by JoAnn Ridley, High Times — Keeping ‘Em Flying, Kennedy offered a far more sinister explanation for the crash. 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, who passed away in September 1998 at 85, 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.
Most recently we heard from Kennedy when his account was featured in “Did Earhart crash on purpose in Hawaii takeoff?” on Nov. 2, 2018. The following interview, titled “A Visit With Art Kennedy in Portugal,” by Bill Prymak, appeared in the February 1993 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter. Prymak described Kennedy, who then lived in Cellerrico De Beria, Portugal, as a “walking encyclopedia on every aspect of airplanes in the Golden Years of Aviation and at the age of 81 [in 1993] his mind is incredibly sharp. . . . It is with a feeling of deep veneration that we sit and break bread with a man who knew Amelia Earhart so intimately, a man who worked with her, laughed and joked with her, took her home at nights when she didn’t have the car, dined with her. There is virtually no one alive today who knew her as well as Arthur Kennedy.”
As an added feature in this interview, still relevant after 25 years, Kennedy lent his considerable expertise to the early TIGHAR claims that made so much international noise in its early days, and sadly, continues to do so, though only those without critical thinking ability pay any attention these days. We begin:
AES: Art, you spent quite a bit of time with Amelia, both professionally and personally. What was she like?
KENNEDY: Bill, this gal was a true lady . . . lots of class, but no snob, friendly with all the shop guys, very inquisitive about the work being done on her airplane. Always looking over the shoulder, but never interfering with the mechanics. She and I developed a special relationship as I was the only one, once she got to know my work, who she would allow to work on her engines. Polly (Art’s high-school sweetheart and wife of 45 years, who died in 1978), Amelia and I would go out for supper many times when we were working late. On one occasion she lamented how she was tiring of all the notoriety, sick of all the false fancy friends, fed up with George’s constant pressures, and simply yearned once more to be a simple American gal who could enjoy her privacy like the rest of us could. Polly and Amelia got along great, went shopping together, had girl-to-girl private times, and really developed a close friendship.
AES: If they went shopping together, did they ever shop for shoes, and if so, do you recall if Amelia’s shoe size ever came up?
KENNEDY: If you’re alluding to Mr. Gillespie and his size 9 theory, with all the hoopla I’ve recently read about this “great discovery,” let me put it to rest once and for all. Polly wore a size 7 and COULD NOT fit into Amelia’s shoes . . . not by a longshot. That TIGHAR theory is pure baloney. (ED. NOTE: Art was more inelegant in his choice of words, and we simply had to clean it up.) Where did they find this guy?
AES: What about Paul Mantz?
KENNEDY: Paul was one of the finest pilots I had ever met, but everybody used to call him the HOLLYWOOD GLAMOUR BOY, and I did quite a bit of work for him before I moved over to PAC, and it was Paul who first introduced me to AE. He gave her countless hours of dual (instruction) in the Electra and Paul was pretty satisfied that she could tackle the world flight. He could never figure out the groundloop [sic] at Hawaii . . . that puzzled him to his dying day. But Paul in his business dealings was a bulldozer, and quite a wheeler and dealer.
AES: Did you ever meet her husband George?
KENNEDY: No, but I saw him several times looking for AE in the shop, and, on one occasion, when she saw him beckoning with this finger, AE pleadingly caught my eye, and her facial expression seemed to say: Gad, why did he have to show up at this time, when I was really enjoying these guys around me and my airplane! Polly and I never went out with the Putnams as a foursome. George was too big to socialize with a ramp rat. Amelia was different that way.
AES: You indicate in your book that Amelia told you that she was told, immediately before takeoff at Hawaii bound for Howland Island, to somehow abort the flight. This is potent stuff, Art, and not many are buying this. Can you expand on this?
KENNEDY: I never did ask her who ordered her to abort at Hawaii and it really was none of my business, and she probably would not have told me even if I did ask her, but indeed she did state that she was ordered to abort. I can think of only two reasons for this; something was not ready downstream, or, somebody figured she needed bigger generators as the existing generator blew fuses or burned out on the way to Hawaii.
AES: But Art, if somebody wanted to abort an airplane, I could think of a dozen safer ways to do it — run the wing into a telephone pole, hit a pickup truck, slide into a ditch, fake a brake failure and run into a brick wall . . .
KENNEDY: Yea, I know, but she was probably planning on a very slow, deliberate ground loop at very slow speed, where she figured there’d be no risk with all that has on board. But in a situation like that, if you start the takeoff roll and hesitate for just a fraction of a second, bam . . . you’re already past the “safe zone” and you find yourself doing things that are absolutely crazy! One spark in the wrong place and they all would have been fried.
AES: Was she really a good pilot?
KENNEDY: Bill, I flew with a bunch of the old timers, even got a pilot’s license myself. A lot of the final checkouts, such as rigging and engine performance, had to be done in flight . . . and yes, Earhart was a good solid, pilot. I flew with her many times, even once watched her bring in the Electra down to the runway with a 25 mph crosswind straight as a die. When the Bendix rep who was halfway down the runway during the ill-fated Hawaii takeoff told me that her tailwheel was already high when the groundloop began, I could not believe it! Even a dumb student pilot does not groundloop on takeoff at 50 mph. Something very fishy here.
AES: You’re still convinced she was on a spy mission?
KENNEDY: Absolutely! I’m 81 years old and have no need for storytelling or ego trips at my age. I have only one trip left, and that’s to meet my Maker. I can’t tell you everything she told me about the mission because other people were involved who might still be alive, but I will tell you this: She mentioned the mission taking her over Truk, the big engines received brand new from Pratt & Whitney in May 1937, were modified by me personally to accommodate the bigger generators, and even though her regular engines were being overhauled, these two new super engines were charged to NR 16020 — her airplane! Many strange things and many strange people were involved in her last flight.
AES: How do you address the claim by TIGHAR [The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, which has never recovered a single historic aircraft, to my knowledge] that the piece of aluminum they found came from the belly of NR 16020?
KENNEDY: This simply cannot be! When the damaged aircraft came back from Hawaii, Amelia Earhart and I personally and meticulously went over the entire fuselage. We had to raise the fuselage high enough to get a low-boy tractor underneath for transport to the Lockheed factory on the other side of the field. In lifting the fuselage, Amelia and I got a good look at the belly, and there was absolutely no damage, not even dirt, from the groundloop accident. There was however, cable sling damage from hoisting the airplane onto the boat from Hawaii, and in unloading same stateside. Cable sling damage was observed at Station 239, where two stringers were buckled in, and it was here that Lockheed removed and replaced stringers and full skin sections, NOT patches, as TIGHAR claims.
AES: But Gillespie claims that Lockheed people like Ed Werner and Harvey Christen are wrong when they state that the rivet and stringer spacing could not vary from the original specification, as found on TIGHAR’s piece of aluminum.
KENNEDY: I don’t remember Ed, but if Harvey Christen says after studying the TIGHAR piece that it could not have come from the Electra, well you can bet the farm, the wife, and your bottom dollar that it did NOT come from an Electra. Let me tell you something about Harvey . . . there was a guy, who in the early days of Lockheed, started as a wrench rat and who, through his some forty years with the firm, rose to be Vice-President of Quality Control Engineering. He was revered, respected, and loved by everybody, and nobody knew his job better than Harvey. There is no greater authority on this argument than this man. For Gillespie to say that Lockheed “could have changed” original design integrity is ludicrous, stupid and pretty damn arrogant of him. He must have a lot of money riding on this piece of aluminum.
AES: But TIGHAR claims that the piece has an ink-stained stencil reading 24S-T3, in red ink, and that because it was “hand-stamped” at the factory, it had to be pre-World War II.
KENNEDY: All aircraft companies bought their aluminum from ALCOA starting in 1932. 24S-Condition 3 was used on all aircraft prior to World War II. 24S-T3 was produced right through the beginning of WWII and was used on tens of thousands of American aircraft, including the PBY, DC-4, P-38, P-51, P-47, and the 247D. Lockheed and other airplane manufacturers were stacked to the rafters with 24S-T3 on the onset of WWII, and as far as identifying the date of manufacture of a piece of stamped aluminum, hell, I saw the stamps put on in blue, red, green, black . . . they used every color under the sun, and sometimes they stamped with the grain, sometimes against the grain, diagonally, every which way. Nobody today, shown a piece of 24S-T3, can pinpoint the date of manufacture just by the color of the ALCLAD stamp or by the shape of the letters.
AES: You have seen a sketch of the TIGHAR artifact. Comments?
KENNEDY: Absolutely no way would Lockheed permit a change of rivet spacing on the replacement of a skin panel . . . it would never pass inspection. Nobody in their right mind . . . in any repair situation, would ever change the pattern of the rivet holes and make different holes thru stringers, circumferentials [sic], keels, and other attaching structures and put more holes in these structures and thusly compromise the structural integrity of the original design. This TIGHAR piece of aluminum might have come from the nose gear door of a Catalina Flying Boat because they got easily damaged and were always in constant repair. You might also check the bottom of the floats as they have a rivet pattern similar to what you showed me. Lockheed did skin replacements, not patches.
AES: TIGHAR claims that they have evidence that Amelia and Fred removed a fuel cell from the cabin and with an engine cover jury-rigged a water-catchment device on Gardner Island, using only a screwdriver. Your comments?
KENNEDY: Bill and Joe, you guys can’t be serious that somebody would try to bamboozle the American public into thinking that AE and Fred would even attempt such an impossible job on a deserted island. First, you’d have to remove the radio blocking your way to the fuel tank to be removed. Then you have to tear apart the floor boards of the entire rear of the airplane . . . then you need special wrenches to get at the nuts tying down the tank; then you need BIGGER 1.5-inch wrenches to release the B-nuts tying the vent lines to the other tanks. And when this is all said and done what have you got? I’ll tell you what you’ve got! Ever try drinking water out of an aluminum can that’s been full of aviation gas for two months? It’ll kill ya, and Fred certainly knew better. Didn’t I read someplace that somebody suggested that if they really were down on a deserted island they simply would have deployed their life raft for water-catching purposes?
AES: Yeah, we suggested that in a previous AES Newsletter.
KENNEDY: And another point . . . the engine covers were never taken on the final flight. I remember walking into Firman Grey’s office at Lockheed several weeks after she went down and seeing engine covers in the corner stenciled NR 16020. Firman said Amelia thought they were too bulky and heavy to be trucking around the world.
AES: But AE’s book Last Flight states that they used engine and prop covers at Timor.
KENNEDY: That’s baloney. Putnam wrote that book and filled in all that fancy prose. Amelia was too busy and dog tired at every stop to write notes for George. GP got a few scraps of information from phone calls to AE and from the press, but there was no press or telephone at Timor, so George filled in some empty space with his own creations.
AES: Art, you’ve been a superb host, and a fabulous source of “firsthand” information on the greatest Lady of Aviation. In closing, what do you feel really happened?
KENNEDY: I am convinced she went down in the Marshall Islands, as so many researchers besides you two guys have theorized. Something BIG has always bugged me: I kept immaculate fuel low records from the tests cells on her engines, and so help me, from her last message to Itasca at 20 hours and 14 minutes into the flight, she had AT LEAST five hours of fuel left. Think about it: if you’re really lost, then when your fuel runs out, you’re about to die, and you know it. Talking to somebody there on the radio is your only lifeline, and it costs you nothing to talk and yell for help, as the average pilot would have done in this situation. The silence with an operational radio and five hours of fuel left really bugs me. That was not the Amelia I knew. She had somewhere else to go to. It was planned. (End of Kennedy interview.)
In High Times, Kennedy wrote that Earhart told him she was ordered to abort the Luke Field 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 agreed with Fred Goerner in dismissing Kennedy’s claim about the Luke Field accident. On the other hand, Prymak wrote that “Joe Gervais (who accompanied Prymak to Portugal) and I were left with some lasting impressions of Art Kennedy, not the least being his total love and admiration for Amelia, his uncanny knowledge of the Lockheed Electra, and his unquestioned honesty and resolve not to embellish when we quizzed him on matters that happened 55 years ago that since became fuzzy. We appreciated that kind of candor.” So what are we to think?
It’s hard to buy Kennedy’s claim about the ground loop, as it’s difficult to imagine that Amelia would purposely endanger Harry Manning and Fred Noonan, who were both aboard. It’s more likely that she honestly blew the takeoff at Luke Field, but what of Kennedy’s assertion about Amelia’s “mission taking her over Truk,” and that the Electra received “big engines” in May 1937 that he personally “modified” for the flight’s extra miles? We have no credible evidence that supports the idea that a new pair of “big engines” was put on NR 16020, but could it have happened?
The total distance from Lae to Truk to Howland Island is 3,250 statute miles, compared with 2,556 statute miles when flying direct from Lae, well within the Electra’s normal range of 4,000 miles, even without modified engines. Can we so easily dismiss these separate and altogether plausible — at least in this observer’s opinion — claims from Kennedy? Most probably the fliers reached Mili in a different way, but a definitive answer continues to elude us.