Sixty years ago this spring, Amelia Earhart stuffed herself in the cabin of a noisy, overweight Lockheed Electra 10E and set out on an adventure that has become a part of American myth.
Now, Linda Finch, a pilot and aviation historian, hopes to complete that odyssey, which ended tragically with Earhart’s disappearance in the vast Pacific Ocean, by circling the world in a lovingly restored Electra.
Finch says people talk with her almost everywhere she goes about how Amelia Earhart has touched their imagination. She recalls with a smile one school appearance when a small girl tugged her elbow after a talk about her trip. “Amelia Earhart died,” the girl warned.
Finch hopes the flight will be a living memorial to Earhart’s courage and skill and will encourage young Americans to “dream big dreams and live large lives,” something that Earhart clearly did.
To that end, Finch plans to set out March 17 to travel more than 29,000 miles through heat and cold in a cramped 4-foot-by-4-foot cockpit that echoes deafeningly with the noise of two air-cooled Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines.
Her average speed is expected to be 150 mph, a snail’s pace in this era of jet travel, and she expects to make more than 30 stops in 20 countries on five continents in a grueling three-month journey that is to begin and end in Oakland, Calif.
Finch will climb no higher than 12,500 feet because the silvery Electra won’t carry oxygen she would need to survive at higher altitudes. But she will carry modern navigation equipment and a radio which will relay her position to a satellite every hour so students can track her on the Internet.
Involving students is an important part of the adventure for Finch. She talked Pratt & Whitney into providing $5 million to pay for the plane’s restoration, the trip, called “World Flight 1997,” and a related $3.6 million “You Can Soar” educational effort.
“World Flight was created to share Amelia Earhart’s vision with young people,” said Finch. “The heart of … the project is its outreach to inner-city and at-risk youths with her message about reaching above and beyond perceived limitations.”
The program’s organizers hope to send study guides to every middle school in America linking the trip to exercises in math, history, science, geography and leadership. And its World Wide Web site will offer interactive exercises, including sending electronic mail to classrooms along the route of Finch’s flight.
A special display on Finch’s adventure has been set up at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, which the pilot visited Thursday.
Finch clearly shares Earhart’s energy and capacity for large dreams. A successful nursing-home operator from San Antonio, Texas, she commutes to work in a Beechcraft Baron and has made a hobby of restoring and flying World War II-era fighters.
She’s taken a year and a half out of a busy life to pursue the Earhart expedition - finding the Electra in pieces in the back of a Wisconsin warehouse, arranging for the giant air-cooled engines to be rebuilt from Pratt & Whitney parts and plans, piecing the plane back together rivet by rivet in a hangar near her home and plotting elaborate support for her global journey.
Finch said she still was busy this week arranging changes in her route to avoid potential political trouble in Libya and Sudan.
Traveling thousands of miles in the classic silver Electra will have its drawbacks, Finch acknowledged.
The noise of the engines is incredibly loud, its high nose and large engines obscure vision, making every takeoff an adventure, and it responds to controls with a stateliness that can be alarming to modern pilots.
She said she expects the worst of it in Africa, where cockpit heat could reach 120 degrees.
Still, compared with Earhart, Finch expects her journey to be a piece of cake. In addition to the modern navigation equipment, she’ll be carrying parachutes and will travel at a significantly slower pace - stopping four times during the trip for overhauls and rest.
In contrast, Earhart traveled 22,000 miles and 23 legs of her round-the-world trip in just six weeks before disappearing on the leg from Lae, New Guinea, to tiny Howland Island in the Pacific.
There has been more than a half-century of speculation on Earhart’s fate. The prevailing theory is that she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, crashed on or near a lonely desert island and starved to death.
Finch says she’s not interested in the mystery of the pioneering pilot’s fate, only the adventure of her life. She plans to fly over Howland Island and drop a wreath in Earhart’s honor.
MEMO: Information about Linda Finch’s aroundthe-world flight is available on the Internet at http://worldflight.org/youcansoar.