Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Adventure classics -- First flight to make Earhart famous

20 Hrs., 40 Min.: Our Flight in the Friendship

by Amelia Earhart


“There’s a lot of books about her,” the bookstore clerk told me, “but I can’t find anything by her.”

“Her” was Amelia Earhart, and I was trying to locate a copy of her book, 20 Hrs., 40 Min., that I’d heard National Geographic Adventure Classics had reprinted.

Earhart didn’t have time to write many books, of course. She was too busy flying, too busy living. 20 Hrs., 40 Min. was her first, a memoir of her life in aviation from her early viewings of Canadian fliers as a nurse during the First World War through the flight that first made her famous, as the only woman crew member aboard the 1928 trans-Atlantic flight of the seaplane Friendship.

Earhart had already established the woman’s altitude record of 14,000 feet, been elected to the Aviation Hall of Fame, and served as the first woman officer of a chapter of the National Aeronautic Association. Still, she first dismissed an invitation to join the three-person crew of Tri-Motor Fokker previously owned by explorer Richard Byrd as a prank.

Still unfamiliar with the instrument navigation needed for ocean flight, Earhart was put in charge of the logbook and photography. She jotted notations of time, distance, speed, weather (“We are bucking a head wind and rain. Heaviest storm I have ever been in, in the air.”). She also noted other impressions: “One of the greatest sights is the sun splashing to oblivion behind the fog, but showing pink glows through apertures in the fog.”

With poor visibility, loss of radio contact, and low fuel, the crew watched anxiously for signs of land as they neared the British Isles. “Soon several islands came into view, and then a coast line. . . (the pilot) picked out the likeliest looking stretch and brought the Friendship down in it. The only thing to tie to was a buoy some distance away and to it we taxied.”

Earhart’s account of the historic event is almost as brief as the flight, its length reflected in the book’s title, and told with the offhand humor and courage that would characterize her. “As I look back on the flight,” she wrote, “I think two questions have been asked me most frequently. First: Was I afraid? Secondly: What did I wear?”

In an age when thousands of people cross the world’s oceans by air, it becomes difficult to take the first question seriously. But the same year, five other women had attempted a trans-Atlantic flight, all as passengers. Three died.

“It would sound more exciting if I only could admit having been shockingly frightened,” Earhart wrote. “But I honestly wasn’t. . . Obviously I faced the possibility of not returning when first I considered going. Once faced and settled there really wasn’t any good reason to refer to it again.”

“To herself she was not a hero,” wrote National Geographic editor Anthony Brandt in his introduction to 20 Hrs., 40 Min. “She was a flier who was using her fame to help women advance and to open opportunities for others. She vanished in 1937, nine years after the flight recorded here, and in a sense the glory days of aviation vanished with her. . . Not until the astronauts did we have anyone like her, so gracious and casual, so brave, so beautifully heroic.”

Although I didn’t find 20 Hrs., 40 Min. at either my local bookstore or library, it is readily available on Amazon. And for more about Earhart, see her official website,

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics ends a January of true adventures with Robert Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra.)

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