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May-June 2010

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Retrospect: May 20, 1932: Amelia Earhart's Solo Transatlantic Flight

Caption: U.S. Weather Bureau Synoptic Weather Map for 13:00 GMT (8:00 a.m. EST), May 20, 1932. Although she took off in good conditions from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, Amelia Earhart would encounter dangerous weather conditions that would slow her progress during her record-setting solo transatlantic flight.

Caption: U.S. Weather Bureau Synoptic Weather Map for 13:00 GMT (8:00 a.m. EST), May 20, 1932. Although she took off in good conditions from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, Amelia Earhart would encounter dangerous weather conditions that would slow her progress during her record-setting solo transatlantic flight.

When Amelia Earhart became the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean by airplane in June 1928, she suddenly found herself an instant celebrity. She would be the first to admit, however, that she did not deserve all of the attention and publicity she received. Although already an accomplished pilot, she was merely a passenger aboard the aircraft Friendship, piloted by Wilmer Stultz and Louis “Slim” Gordon.

“I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes,” she later said in an interview. She felt that real recognition would be earned only by piloting the plane herself—preferably alone.

At the time, the only person to have successfully flown an airplane solo on a nonstop flight across the Atlantic was Charles Lindbergh, whose 1927 flight from Roosevelt Field on New York's Long Island to Le Bourget Field in Paris earned him a permanent place in the annals of aviation history. (For more on Lindbergh's solo transatlantic flight, see “Retrospect” in the May/June 2005 issue of Weatherwise.)

Five years to the day after Lindbergh's achievement and nearly four years after the Friendship flight, Earhart set off to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and the first person ever to cross the Atlantic twice by airplane.

Earhart spent weeks “brushing up on her navigation and meteorology,” The New York Times reported on the eve of her flight. She also enlisted the expertise and assistance of Dr. James H. “Doc” Kimball, of the U.S. Weather Bureau office in New York, who had a keen interest in aviation weather and had advised transatlantic pilots since Lindbergh. In December 1928, a year-and-a-half after Lindbergh's solo flight, Kimball told a radio audience in New York that he believed transatlantic flights would continue to be possible, due in part to the availability of weather reports.

“The weather risk is high,” he said. “But not prohibitive if the hazards are known and appraised, as is possible with an ocean weather map.” In preparation for Earhart's solo flight, Kimball prepared maps by analyzing reports from some 40 ships at sea (four times the number he relied upon for Lindbergh's flight), and included data from as far away as Iceland, Greenland, England, France, and Germany.

As Earhart waited at her starting point of Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, her husband, publisher George P. Putnam, who had spent the day poring over data at the New York Weather Bureau office, sent her the following telegram containing Kimball's latest weather report:

Dated: New York, NY 12:24 p.m., May 20, 1932

To: Amelia Earhart, Hr. Grace, NF

Noon EST looks satisfactory. Only possible difficulty thought possible extending from eastern Atlantic low south westward to latitude forty longitude forty seven probably considerable cloudiness. Forecast Hr. Grace longitude thirty five will be forwarded soon. Eastern situation apparently clearing up satisfactorily. Following just received from London outlook tomorrow eastern Atlantic fresh northwestern or westerly winds. Sky half to heavy covered. Clouds fifteen hundred feet showers visibility good. British Isles wind south or southwest twenty to thirty miles at two thousand feet but variable in eastern district. Variable clouds perhaps thunder and rain. Local fog Irish Sea English Channel. Western Europe wind southwest or west moderate to fresh variable clouds perhaps thunder showers.

G.P.

2:50 p.m.

In addition, Kimball received information from a ship “whose name he did not get,” according to The New York Times, “that light westerly winds at the surface prevailed 1,400 miles due east of Harbour Grace.” With this information in hand, Earhart took off in her bright red Lockheed Vega just after 7:00 p.m. local time. “The weather looked pretty good and Amelia got away so that she would have several hours of daylight,” Putnam told the Times.

Earhart had learned to deal with sudden changes in weather early on. While on a practice flight with her first plane several years earlier, she experienced a transition from good weather to clouds at an altitude of 10,000 feet, then to sleet at 11,000, and finally what she referred to as “dense fog” at 12,000 feet. “This was an entirely new experience, and very disquieting,” she later wrote. As it turned out, she would draw upon that experience not long after she took off from Newfoundland, as she sailed the skies over the Atlantic. As complete as Kimball's weather reports were, they could not accurately predict the storm Earhart would encounter just 100 miles into her flight. “She had looked for fair skies,” The New York Times later reported, “but found, she said, that the reports from both sides of the ocean ‘were 100 percent wrong.’” Recalling the experience for the Times, Earhart seemed to take in stride the sudden changes in weather conditions.

“Until midnight it was smooth sailing for me,” she said. “The rest of the time—well, you've got to expect bad weather out in the Atlantic. I ran into a severe thunderstorm and then ice conditions when flying high, so I had to come down pretty quick.”

As she attempted to make the most of the weather situation, other problems developed. About three hours into the flight, her altimeter suddenly stopped working. Then, the gasoline gauge in the cockpit broke, spilling gasoline down the back of her neck. On top of that, she noticed flames shooting out of her exhaust manifold, due to a collector ringer that had malfunctioned. Contemplating a return to Newfoundland, she decided to press onward. She spent most of the flight skimming the ocean surface to avoid icing on her wings and added pressure to her exhaust manifold. “I felt I'd rather drown than burn up,” she later said.

After flying nonstop for nearly 15 hours and covering a distance of 2,026 miles, Earhart finally set her plane down in a field outside of Londenderry, Ireland, at 1:46 p.m. local time (8:46 a.m. EST) on May 21. She had been hoping to land at Le Bourget Field, outside of Paris, where Lindbergh had landed exactly five years earlier. “Tell my friends in New York I am very glad to have come across successfully,” she told reporters, “but I am sorry I didn't make France.”

Earhart recognized the need for more complete meteorological data for aviators—especially those flying across the Atlantic. She underscored this point and advocated for greater funding for the Weather Bureau in her book 20 Hrs., 40 Min., which she wrote following her 1928 flight aboard the Friendship. “Reports six times daily, say from a hundred different vessels, would permit experts on both sides of the Atlantic to lay out weather charts of incalculable value,” she wrote, with a prophetic eye toward the future. “Ultimately, the exact positions of storms and their movements will be determinable. With such information, the fast-flying sturdy airships of the future can set their courses so as to avoid these storms, and to take advantage of favorable flying conditions.”

Weatherwise Contributing Editor Sean Potter is a New York-based Certified Consulting Meteorologist (CCM) and science writer with an interest in weather history.

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