Thursday, June 18, 2009

Revisiting Amelia

According the New York Times, on this day in 1928, "Aviator Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean as she completed a flight from Newfoundland to Wales in about 21 hours." In honor of this achievement, and in preparation for the upcoming movie about Earhart starring Hillary Swank, I am re-running an essay I wrote about Earhart two summers ago. I called it "How We Failed Amelia." And here it is:

I've always been fascinated by the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. As mysteries go, it's certainly in my top ten of the interesting and unsolved, and I've always rather romantically connected it to the notion of the Bermuda triangle (which has been thoroughly debunked).

Friday I was listening to The Story with Dick Gordon, a show on NPR that I greatly enjoy, and he was discussing Earhart and the fact that she may, in fact, have survived her plane trouble, landed the plane, and sent distress calls, and that one fifteen-year-old girl, way back in 1937, recorded the distress signals that she heard that day on her father's short-wave radio.

The girl, Betty Klenck Brown, is now in her eighties. In an interview with Dick Gordon, she said that she recognized the voice of Amelia Earhart that day. Earhart had already been missing for a couple of days, and Brown knew that. Because Earhart was a celebrity and a hero to women and men alike, much of America knew the sound of her voice from recorded interviews. Therefore, Betty knew that the distress calls were real and important, and for three hours she wrote down everything that she heard.

Her father eventually came home and heard a bit, too, and he went to the Coast Guard (they lived in Florida) with the information (although NOT with Betty's notebook, which I find regrettable) and was told that everything was being handled and his input was not needed.

Betty was not believed, and I suppose as a young woman in 1937, she didn't have a lot of resources to tap in an effort to help Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan (who Betty describes as being "out of his head.")

Ultimately Betty's notebook, with its valuable information, simply became her burden, because no one wanted it and no one believed her. (You can view the notebook, Earhart's route, pictures of Betty and a film of Earhart's last takeoff at The Story).

What bothers me the most about this story is that anyone in charge would discount what seemed like such valid information, and that they wouldn't at least ask to see the notebook, which could have told them the frequency on which Earhart was broadcasting. In other words, based on hearing this story, I think that Amelia Earhart heroically landed her plane when it developed problems, radioed for help over several days, and never received it, and probably died on a small island in the South Pacific.

I love knowing the solution to a mystery, but this one is not satisfying, and my obsessive mind keeps thinking about what would have happened, what could have happened, if people had merely opened their minds to the possibilities.

Today the police, the FBI, the coast guard, often turn to the public and ask for help in solving crimes and disappearances. They set up tip lines and offer rewards. I wonder why this couldn't have been the case with Amelia Earhart, and why no one thought that one girl's precious notebook was worth examining.

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