Determined to set a new flying record, Amelia heads to Harbour Grace
This is the third article in my Downhome series, "Amelia Earhart in Newfoundland." Unlike the first two articles about Amelia in Trepassey, this one has a more personal connection. It began when I decided to write my family history and found Amelia hiding there.
My father, Billy Ross, and my aunt, Ginny Ross, had died, but I still had many questions about my Newfoundland roots. I returned to Harbour Grace and began talking to my extended family and Ginny’s friends.
From their stories and old black-and-white photographs, I discovered that my great uncle, Harry Archibald, was the Harbour Grace airstrip supervisor. His sister, my great aunt Rose Archibald, owned the Archibald Hotel where all the pilots stayed, or at least rested, before their transatlantic flights.
Uncle Harry and Aunt Rose met Amelia when she arrived on May 20, 1932, to make her solo transatlantic flight. According to Ginny’s friends, she met Amelia, too.
Following the Lindbergh Trail
Amelia Earhart’s second trip to Newfoundland was four years after her 1928 transatlantic flight from Trepassey. Thanks to her husband George Putnam, whom she married in 1930, she had become a household name. George had joined the Trepassey team because of his skill in planning and then writing about expeditions around the world.
After the Trepassey flight, he continued to keep Amelia’s name in the public eye. In 1928, he published a book with her account of the Friendship flight, titled 20 Hrs. 40 Mins. Her growing reputation led to many speaking engagements, both nationally and internationally.
Although she’d jumped at the chance to be part of the Friendship flight, there was something about it that always bothered Amelia. “I was only baggage,” she said. Bill Stultz, the pilot, and Slim Gordon, the mechanic, had done all the work but she got all the credit. At times she had to pull them into photos because the press was more interested in her as the female passenger. From that time forward, she’d thought about a solo transatlantic flight to prove her ability as a pilot.
By 1931-32, the field of women hoping to do the same was growing. As with the Trepassey flight, her competitors announced their plans to the press. In the spring of 1931, Ruth Nichols was ready to “follow the Lindbergh Trail,” in a solo transatlantic flight. On her way to Harbour Grace, a crash landing in Saint John, New Brunswick resulted in five broken vertebrae and a badly damaged plane. By the spring of 1932, she had recovered and was planning another attempt from Harbour Grace.
Elinor Smith vowed to beat Nichols across the Atlantic. In an interview in April 1932, she announced her plans to fly “from Harbour Grace to Dublin, Ireland in early May.” A third aviatrix, Laura Ingalls, also threw her hat in the ring. She planned to follow “the Lindbergh Trail” from New York to Paris and had worked throughout the winter of 1931 and spring of 1932 to reach her goal.
Amelia knew she had to act soon if she wanted to use a second transatlantic crossing to prove her credibility as a pilot.
As they had done with her Trepassey flight, George and Amelia worked in secret. She carried on with her usual flights and speaking engagements to hide their transatlantic plans. They didn’t want to put pressure on the competition to take off ahead of her, and it kept pressure from the press away from her. She wanted to focus all her energy and attention on the actual flight.
George and Amelia hired Bernt Balchen - a pilot, navigator and engineer - to prepare a flight plan and modify her Vega for the long distance flight. Ed Gorski became their chief mechanic. Amelia stayed away from the airfield in Teterboro, New Jersey, while the two men prepared and tested her plane.
They added braces that ran from one side of the fuselage to the other, replaced the passenger seats with gas tanks and added gas tanks in the wings. The Vega originally had two wing tanks that held 100 gallons of fuel. It now had eight tanks that held 420 gallons - enough for a 5,000-kilometre (3,200-mile) flight. For additional power, they added a new 500 horsepower Pratt and Whitney Wasp D engine.
Bernt Balchen had previously been working with Lincoln Ellsworth to prepare for his flight to the South Pole. George and Amelia used this information to make it seem as if the Vega was being prepared for his expedition and not for anything she was planning. They had used the same tactic before her Trepassey flight, when they implied the Friendship was being prepared for Commander Byrd’s Antarctic expedition. It had worked then and they hoped it would work again.
Throughout the preparations, George’s talent for publicity came to the fore. He suggested Amelia leave Harbour Grace on May 20, 1932, the same day Lindbergh left New York for Paris five years earlier. Her red and gold Vega carried a registration number but no name. George wanted people to remember Amelia’s name, not the name of the plane. She got in the habit of calling it her “little red bus.”
As the date for the flight drew closer, the weather was the ultimate unknown. According to Doc Kimball at the New York, US Weather Bureau, the forecast leading up to the 20th wasn’t looking good. But on May 19, they got a break. There was clear weather over the Atlantic and the visibility was good as far as Newfoundland. “By tomorrow the Atlantic looks as good as you’re likely to get it for some time,” Kimball informed George.
Amelia hurried home and changed into her flying clothes. At 3:15 p.m., she, Balchen and Gorski took off for Saint John, New Brunswick. Balchen flew the plane while Amelia rested in the back. After spending the night, they left for Harbour Grace and George announced Amelia’s transatlantic crossing.
It’s at this point that Amelia’s history and my family history intersect. As the airstrip supervisor, Uncle Harry was among the first people to learn that Amelia was on her way. He rushed to the Archibald Hotel to tell Aunt Rose and Ginny.
Amelia landed at 2:01 p.m. and was welcomed by a local crowd. A few reporters and photographers had had time to get there, but not the usual number. Marjorie Davis, a classmate of Ginny’s, remembered writing an exam in the morning and then being dismissed to see Amelia land at the airstrip. Marjorie recalled Aunt Rose standing at the railroad tracks with the bullhorn she used at most Harbour Grace celebrations. “Hurry up now!” Aunt Rose shouted to them. “Lift those knees and run! You’re going to miss Amelia’s landing!” Aunt Louise (Archibald) remembered similar details about Amelia’s arrival and added, “The day was overcast and cool.”
Once on the ground, Amelia spoke with Uncle Harry (the airstrip supervisor), Balchen and Gorski about the servicing and refuelling of the plane. The men decided to stay at the airstrip while Amelia left by car to file their flight plan at the customs office. A photo taken in the doorway at the courthouse is part of the historical record of Amelia’s arrival.
The local crowd at the airport saw Mike Hayes’ taxi arrive. They assumed Amelia was going straight to the Archibald Hotel, as most of the pilots did. Pat Cron, one of Ginny’s friends, claimed that was where Ginny and Aunt Rose met Amelia.
Ironically, Ginny never mentioned the meeting. Whenever she and I got together, we looked at family photographs and talked about her life in Harbour Grace, where she and my father lived with my grandparents and great-grandparents above Joe Ross’s store on Water Street.
We followed lists of questions I had for her, but none of them included Amelia. At that time I knew nothing about early aviation in Harbour Grace. Our visits occurred over a period of about two years and then she died. Given more time, she may have included Amelia in her memories, but my questions kept us focused on our family history.
Even without Ginny’s confirmation, I believed Pat’s story. I knew Ginny was working at the hotel at that time - and I knew Aunt Rose and Uncle Harry. Both were close to Ginny and looked out for her best interests. They wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to introduce her to Amelia.
-By Heather Stemp