Monday, July 2, 2012

# 30 ~ Toronto and the Amelia Earhart Mystery, Then and Now

THEN : Amelia and her Lockheed Electra 10E NR16020, circa 1937.

Seventy-five years ago today, Amelia Earhart embarked on her last flight, before disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean, and creating perhaps the greatest mystery in aviation history.  Any number of theories have grown up surrounding her disappearance, but few people realize that, in a way, the mystery of whatever became of her began nearly a century ago in Toronto.

Even before her disappearance, Earhart had become an iconic cultural figure in America and across the globe.  Her contributions both to aviation and to the role of women are undeniable.  She is often cited as the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic, but this was just one of the many aviation records that she set.  She became involved in the womens liberation movement, joining the National Woman's Party and supporting the American Equal Rights Amendment.  In 1935, just a few short years before she died, she became a faculty member at Purdue University, and often counselled other women, advising them as to their career choices.  She helped set up an organiztion for female pilots, and was the first woman to ever receive America's Distinguished Flying Cross.

Born in Kansas on July 24, 1897, Earhart was something of a “tomboy” growing up, and had an unconventional upbringing, as her parents, particularly her mother, did not expect her to conform to the behaviour exemplified for young girls at the time. Along with her younger sister, the young Amelia Earhart would spend long hours on rambling explorations of the countryside around her home, getting into mischief, climbing trees, and even hunting rats with a rifle. It was in her childhood that she was nicknamed “Meeley”, or sometimes, “Millie”, and longtime friends often referred to her by this nickname even when Earhart grew into an adult. For the first several years of her life, Amelia Earhart was schooled at home, by her grandparents. It wasn't until she was twelve years old, and entering the seventh grade that she attended public school for the first time.

Earhart described her childhood as coming to an end in 1914. Her father's career had suffered due to alcoholism, and the family fortunes were cast in to jeopardy. The loss of a family home had a profound impact on young Amelia Earhart. With the family forced to relocate, young Amelia found herself attending high school in Chicago. By this point, she was already fascinated by the prospects of breaking down boundaries – she'd started a journal, and collected press clippings of women who had become successful and prominent in traditionally male dominated occupations. Engineering, mechanics, law, advertising, film production – they all seemed to draw Earhart's attention, simply because, nearly a century ago, they were all considered to be “jobs for men”.

The First World War years brought Amelia Earhart little stability, as she travelled, took on odd jobs, and failed to complete any post secondary academic programme. In 1919, she applied for entry at Smith College, but changed her mind and moved to Columbia University. She attended there for only a year before quitting and moving back to California, to be with her parents. It was at Long Beach, California, on December 28, 1920, that Amelia Earhart, along with her father, visited an air field. There, they met Frank Hawks, himself a renowned early pilot. Her father paid $10 and Amelia got a ten minute ride in Hawks' plane. Amelia Earhart became infatuated, and the rest is history. She worked odd jobs and did whatever she needed to, in order to put together $1,000 for flying lessons. Her lessons began in January of 1921 at Kinnear Field, which required Earhart to take a bus to the end of the line and then walk six kilometres (four miles) to the airfield. Her instructor was Anita Snook, another pioneer female pilot.

THEN : Frank Hawks charged Amelia Earhart's father $10 to take her up on her first airplane ride, which lasted ten minutes.  Hawks would go on to become a celebrity pilot himself, breaking many speed records, before dying in an experimental airplane crash in 1938, the year after Earhart vanished.

THEN : Frank Hawks as mentioned in the "Hall of Fame of the Air".
THEN : Anita Snook photographed at Kinnear Air Field in 1921.  She was a groundbreaking female pilot in her own right, but is destined to be remembered as Amelia Earhart's teacher.  She was teaching Earhart at Kinnear Field during the same year that this photograph was taken.  Snook died in 1991 at the age of 95 years old.

Earhart was prepared to do anything that she needed to in order to make it as a pilot. She cropped her hair short and spent three nights sleeping in her new leather aviator's jacket, in order to give it the “worn in” look, and thus pass the unofficial inspection and judgement that she knew she was bound to receive from male pilots. Her lessons continued, and on October 22, 1922, Earhart broke the first of many records, by flying to an altitude of 4,300 metres – the highest altitude a woman had ever achieved, at that point. Amelia Earhart got her pilot's license (license number 6017) on May 15, 1923, and in doing so, became the sixteenth woman to receive a license to fly. The rest was history.

Earhart's life has been well chronicled in countless biographical books and documentaries and as it the case with many iconic symbols, several biographers have built careers around studying and sharing the details of her life. After she set the record for the highest altitude flown by a woman in 1922, she would, as mentioned, set a number of other records, too. She spent the 1920s and 1930s raising the bar of aviation accomplishment and some of her other breakthroughs are listed here.

In 1928 she became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Charles Lindbergh had flown solo across the Atlantic the year before, in 1927, and this led the way for interest in future such expeditions. Earhart left Newfoundland on June 17, 1928, but was accompanied by two men – pilot Wilmer Stultz and mechanic Louis Gordon. Earhart is credited as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean during this voyage, but did no actual flying herself, and was essentially little more than a passenger. The trip took just under twenty-one hours, before the plane set down in Wales. Despite the fact that she contributed little to the flight, she was feted by the mayor of Southampton, England, and she returned home to a hero's welcome, attending a White House reception with American president Calvin Coolidge, and serving as the centre of attention in a ticker tape parade in New York. As for the possibilities of her making her own attempt, she quipped, “Maybe someday I'll try it alone”.

THEN : Earhart greats the Mayor of Southampton, Mrs. Foster Welch, on June 20th, 1928, after having become the first woman to be flown across the Atlantic.

In 1931, she set a speed record while transporting a cargo of 230 kilograms. That same year, she became the first woman to fly an autogyro and also set an altitude record for the same sort of aircraft, taking hers up to over 4,500 metres.

In 1932, she became the first person to cross America in an autogyro, and also in 1932, made good on her vow to cross the Atlantic again, becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic solo, and the first person to fly across the Atlantic twice. That same year, she became the first woman to win the Distinguished Flying Cross.

THEN : Earhart poses in front of an autogyro in Rock Springs in 1931.

In 1933, Earhart became the first woman to fly non-stop across America, and set the speed record for a transcontinental flight.

In 1935, Earhart became the first person to fly solo between Honolulu and Oakland, California, the first person to fly solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City, and the first person to fly non-stop from Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey.

It was her flight – albeit as a passenger – across the Atlantic in 1928 that secured Earhart's future and her role as a celebrity. She was already lecturing across America in 1928 and 1929, and was dubbed the “Queen of the Air”. Her lectures continued, she published a book, and she made money by endorsing several product lines, including clothes, luggage and “Lucky Strike” cigarettes. The cigarettes tarnished her image in some circles, although she donated $1,500 from that campaign to a scientific expedition to the South Pole. “Modernaire Earhart Luggage” and “A.E.” brand clothing for women – all of which was washable, wrinkle proof and made for “active living” - became popular household brands.

THEN : Earhart gave her name to "Modernaire Earhart Luggage" in one of many product lines, all of which brought in financial sponsorship.

THEN : Earhart's advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes, which apparently calm your nerves on long flights but don't bug your throat.

Early pilots like Amelia Earhart began to show the world that flying was not just for daredevils anymore, and they helped capture acceptance for the new technology. It's hard for us, who take to the concept of flying in an airplane so naturally, to understand what an exclusive club it was eighty years ago. But by the mid-1930s, one major accomplanishment remained for Amelia Earhart and other pilots : aerial circumnavigation of the globe. Amelia Earhart took up the challenge, and by the start of 1936 was planning a circumnavigation of the globe by following the equator, which represents, of course, the earth at its widest point. With expedition funding from Purdue University, a specially constructed Lockheed Electra 10E was built, and dubbed a “flying laboratory” although it contained little in the way of scientific equipment. Amelia Earhart's first attempt to fly across the world began on March 17, 1937. With her was copilot Fred Noonan, as well as two other crewmen. They flew from Oakland, California and made it as far as Honolulu, Hawaii. There, the plane required maintenance, and upon take off, a few days later, there was a malfunction on take off involving a tire and landing gear. The plane was shipped back to California for overhaul and Amelia Earhart's first attempt to fly across the world was scrapped.

THEN : The proposed route for Earhart's flight across the globe, which more or less followed the equator.

The plane was soon repaired and plans were made for a second attempt. This time, Earhart would be accompanied just by co-pilot Fred Noonan. They left Oakland, California and flew to Miami, Florida, and announced there plans to try again. The trip officially began when they departed Miami on June 1, 1937, and the world watched and listened as they made several stops in South America, across Africa, India, Pakistan, southeast Asia, and finally arrived at Lae, New Guinea on June 29, 1937. At this point, over two-thirds of the journey was complete. Earhart and Noonan had come 35,000 kilometres and had 11,000 kilometres left to go. But the last leg of the voyage was the most dangerous, as it was all set over the vast, remote expanse of the Pacific Ocean. In 1937, there was no such thing as radar, and the plan had to navigate by radio signal – and Amelia Earhart was known for her lack of efficiency and prowess at radio operation. Her and Noonan would rely on a single device – a battery operated radio – to help them find their way from one tiny island to the next, where they would need to land and refuel.

After their stopover at Lae, New Guinea, their next intended stop was Howland Island. They'd need to cover over 4,000 kilometres to get there, and then identify the island using radio signals and eyesight. The island was only 2,000 metres long and just 500 metres across. At it's highest point it soared less than six metres out of the water. A coast guard ship, the Itasca, was stationed near Howland Island, and the crew had orders to stay in contact with Earhart by radio, and use the plane's radio signals to help guide Earhart to the island.

The enduring mystery that has become a part of the Amelia Earhart legend stems, of course, from the fact that her and Fred Noonan never made it to Howland Island. To this day, what happened remains unclear, but it seems to hinge on failings in radio communication. Some theories claim that the antenna on Earhart's plane was lost or damaged on take off. Others cite Earhart's lack of profficiency in operating the radio equipment. It seems clear that Earhart and Noonan were unable to identify Lake Howland. It was a cloudy day, and the dark reflections of clouds over the waters would have made telling them apart from the actual island difficult. Earhart and Noonan took off from New Guinea at midnight, Greenwich Mean Time (7:00 p.m. Toronto time) on July 2, 1937. There were confirmed radio communications between their Electa airplane and the Itasca as late as 7:42 and 7:58 the next morning. The panic in her voice was building. They were running low on fuel, and running low on time. Because of the more primitive nature of radio communication, there were shadow messages, hisses and pops, that may have come from Amelia Earhart, or may not have. There was also confusion of which frequency she was broadcasting on. But according to most sources, the last known and confirmed broadcast from Amelia Earhart came at 8:43 a.m. With the panic audible in her voice, she said, "We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait."

At some point shortly after, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan flew their Electra into thin air, and disappeared into the annals of legend and mystery. Within an hour of her last known transmission, search efforts for Earhart and Noonan began. They had an inflatable life raft and emergency provisions on board. Had they ditched in to the water of the Pacific they might have survived for some time. 390,000 km2 were covered, and $4-million were spent, on what was at the time the largest search and rescue campaign the world had ever seen. But the search was eventually fruitless, and was called off, at least officially, on July 19, 1937. Armchair historical detectives and theorists have been spent the last seventy-five years in the quest to discover what happened to Amelia Earhart.

Naturally, several theories on what actually happened to Earhart and Noonan have surfaced. The most widely accepted theory is perhaps the simplest – they crashed due to lack of fuel, and either the couple sank with the plane or they died at sea in some other circumstance. In this theory, their flight was just poorly planned and carried out. There has been decades of investigation and study that seem to hold up this theory. As it is unclear where exactly the plane would have struck the ocean, and as the floor of the Pacific lies as deep as five kilometres in some areas around Howland Island, the search and raising of Earhart's plane still evades searchers. But if it is ever discovered, the raising of the plane would be a watershed event in the annals of one of the twentieth century's most enduring mysteries.

THEN : Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan in May of 1937, less than two months before they flew into thin air.

There are several other theories, all of which contain at least small amounts of evidence to substantiate conjecture. Some suggest that Earhart and Noonan landed on Gardner Island, about 500 kilometres from Howland Island, and later perished there. Several expeditions have been mounted to Gardner Islands, with claims of the discovery of several inexplicable artifacts. In 1937, Gardner Island was uninhabited, but there were reports in 1940 of the discovery of a skeleton on the island. An examination of the remains concluded that they were the remains of a male, but a later analysis in 1998 suggested that the bones had in fact come from a tall female of northern European ancestry. It's all conjecture, anyway, as the skeletal remains were somehow lost in Fiji sometime after 1941. Other uncovered artifacts include a metal panel, which may have come from an Electra type plane, a size nine shoe heel, and a piece of plexiglass that matches the description of one of Earhart's Electra windows. The Gardner Island theory has become the second most commonly accepted explanation of whatever happened to Earhart and Noonan, but it remains unsubstantiated.

There are a lot of popular culture myths and legends to explain what happened after Earhart and Noonan disappeared. There is generally a lack of evidence for any of these theories, and they remain largely dismissed. A theory that Earhart was spying on the Japanese for President Roosevelt made it into a 1943 movie called “Flight For Freedom”, but a search through the records of both the American and Japanese governments after the Second World War has disproved this theory. A related theory was that Earhart and Noonan were captured by Japanese military forces, and executed as spies, either on the island of Saipan (which was under Japanese occupation) or less often, the island of Tinian. Several American troops, who served in the Pacific during the Second World War, claimed to have come up against some evidence to support the Japanese prisoner theories, but none of these claims have been substantiated. Excavations of suggested grave sites have proven fruitless. Photographs of Earhart that claimed to show her in captivity were proven to either be fake or to have been taken before her final flight.

In 1990, the popular American television series, "Unsolved Mysteries", aired a segment on the Saipan theory of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.  Claims made by those contributing to the Saipan theory have never received significant support.

Other claims that Earhart was captured and forced to make anti-American propaganda broadcasts have also been discredited. Just like her physical appearance, Earhart's voice was well known to many, and the supposed propaganda broadcasts, Earhart's voice was never identified.

There are organizations, and websites, that chronicle the Second World War era aircraft wrecks all throughout the Pacific region. Over time, there have been various claims that particular wrecks belonged to Earhart, but none of these claims have ever been substantiated.

Perhaps one of the most bizarre episodes in the quest to prove what happened to Earhart involved the supposition that she somehow survived her ordeal, moved back to New Jersey, and sought anonymity. How or why she would do such a thing was never specifically dealt with, but in 1970, and author named Joe Klaas published a book called “Amelia Earhart Lives”, and he put forward the suggestion that Earhart was actually living under an assumed identity, and was now going by the name of Irene Bolam. Professional forensic experts studied the facial structure of both Bolan and Earhart, debunking this claim. Bolam's life was thoroughly studied, and was substantially documented, proving that she was not Earhart. Most damning of all was that Bolam herself denied these claims and filed a lawsuit for $1.5-million in damages.

THEN : A book published in 1970 claimed that Earhart (left) had somehow survived, returned to New Jersey, and taken on a new identity, and was living as Irene Bolam (right).  Pretty soon, just about everyone discredited this theory, including Bolam herself, who sued for $1.5-million.

Amelia Earhart's accomplishments as an aviatrix have, in many ways, been overshadowed by her fame as a missing person. But few people seem to be aware of the early connections she had with flight while residing in Toronto. It was in those tumultuous years during and just after the First World War, when she was travelling, and prior to her 1920 return to California and her first ever ride in an airplane. In December of 1917, Earhart visited her younger sister, who was living here in Toronto. Moved by the plight of injured Canadian soldiers who were coming home from the battle front, Earhart signed up for training rom the Red Cross, and began working as a nurse at the Spadina Miltary Hospital (located at 1 Spadina Crescent, just north of College Street). There, she assisted with the preparation of meals and the handing out of medicine to the patients. 

NOW : 1 Spadina Circle, where Amelia Earhart worked as a nurse at the end of the First World War, is pictured in this contemporary and (appropriately) aerial photograph.

THEN : A seldom seen photograph of Earhart while serving as a nursing aide in Toronto.  It's often overlooked that her chance encounter with some Canadian soldiers on King Street inspired her to get into nursing in Toronto, and that her subsequent stay in Toronto inspired her to become a pilot.

With the outbreak of the Spanish Flu, and a world wide pandemic, Earhart soon became a patient. She developed pneumonia, and had a slow recovery, spending months convalescing. Her sinuses became infected, too, and although she received a small operation, she would experience related problems all of her life, which sometimes impacted her career as a pilot. But it was in Toronto tha she developed her love of flying. She began attending air shows put on by the pilots of the Royal Flying Corps, at the Armour Heights air field, located near today's Avenue Road and Wilson Avenue. Then, in 1919, she joined a friend in a visit to the Canadian National Exposition, where together they watched an airshow performed by a First World War flying ace. According to the stuff of legend, Earhart and her friend had a good vantage point, in a clearing away from the crowds. The pilot saw them, and dove down to “buzz” the pair. Earhart would later say, “I am sure he said to himself, 'Watch me make them scamper,'. I did not understand it at the time,but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.” Earhart stood her ground in the face of the daredevil pilot. 

THEN : During her convalescene in Toronto from pneumonia, Earhart attending flying demonstrations put on by members of the Royal Flying Corps at Armour Heights air field, pictured here.  The airfield was located near Wilson Avenue and Avenue Road, and fell into disuse after 1921, however, it was there long enough to inspire Amelia Earhart.  The site of the old air field is now home to the Canadian Forces College.


THEN : An air show at the Canadian National Exposition, circa 1907.  A dozen years later, Earhart would attend a similar air show, and would soon be thrilled by the possibilities of flight.

It's often overlooked, but Amelia caught the “aviatrix bug” here in Toronto. In 2009, the film “Amelia”, a biopic of Earhart's life, was released. It was largely filmed in Toronto, with scenes shot around the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, Union Station, and the Elgin and Winter Garden theatre centres, amongst other locations. Toronto was a fitting back drop for the movie, as it was also the back drop for Earhart's initial love affair witht he airplane. It's hard to imagine that a chance encounter with a group of Canadian solders on King Street inspired Earhart to work as a nurse, and that her convalescence in and around Toronto included an airshow, which lay the seeds of her inspiration to become a pilot. 

THEN : Richard Gere and Hilary Swank filming the 2009 biopic "Amelia" outside Toronto's Royal York Hotel.

THEN : Richard Gere and Hilary Swank filming the 2009 biopic "Amelia" outside Toronto's Union Station.

THEN : Front Street, between Union Station and the Royal York Hotel, gets a makeover for the 2009 film "Amelia".  It's terribly appropriate that the film was made her, given Earhart's early connections with Toronto.

Earhart became a feminist icon, as well as a leading figure in aviation, and the mystery of her fate still captivates us. As Tom Crouch, a senior curator at the (American) National Air and Space Museum, said, “... the mystery is part of what keeps us interested. In part, we remember her because she's our favourite missing person.” Recently, there has been a resurgence in finding out whatever happened to Amelia, with American leaders like Hilary Clinton throwing support for stepping up the search. Seventy-five years ago tonight, Earhart embarked on her last ever voyage, but it was nearly twenty years earlier that Toronto inspired her to become a legend.

THEN : Amelia Earhart in the cockpit of her Electra in 1936.  Whatever became of you, Amelia, you have left us with one of the twentieth century's most enduring mysteries!


  1. Another fantastic post. I had no idea that she lived in Toronto.

    I enjoy your posts immensely.

  2. Thanks for your feedback! I'm glad that you enjoy checking out the stories.

  3. Very cool. Learned a lot from this. Been to 1 Spadina so many times as a student of UofT. Had no idea.

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