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By: Captain Hilton H. Railey

[A] Year ago on a world-circling flight, Amelia Earhart and Navigator Fred Noonan streaked over the tiny islands that freckle the South Pacific, [and] were not heard from again. Jealously the South Pacific guards the secret of their fate. America lost its First Lady of the Air. Of Miss Earhart’s prelude to fame, Captain H. H. Railey, advisor to Commander Byrd, Sir Hubert Wilkins, Lincoln Ellsworth and other heroes, writes in the article below.
On the slight pivot of my casual conversation with George Palmer Putnam turned the whole career of Amelia Earhart—her transformation from an obscure social worker, absorbed in the lives of polyglot gamins at a Boston settlement house, to a world figure in aviation and the honored guest of Kings and Queens.

Photo of Amelia Earhart ©1935 Amelia Earhart Air-Light LuggageIf it hadn’t been for that conversation, the chances are Amelia Earhart would still have become a constructive factor in the industry to which she was so passionately devoted—and that she would be alive today.

It was in the spring of 1928 that I dropped in to see George in New York. I had always liked G.P. in a mellow mood; on this occasion he was particularly ingratiating.

He told me that Commander Byrd had recently sold is tri-motored Fokker to “a wealthy woman who plans to fly the Atlantic.” He didn’t know her name or anything more about it, except that he believed floats were being fitted to the plane at the East Boston airport. Why not investigate?

“What if it’s true?” I asked. “What then?”

“Well!” said he. “If it’s true, we’ll crash the gate. It’d be amusing to manage a stunt like that, wouldn’t it? Find out all you can. Locate the ship. Pump the pilots.”

At the Copley Plaza in Boston, before midnight, I had cornered Wilmer (Bill) Stultz, the pilot, and Lou (Slim) Gordon, his co-pilot and mechanic. Stultz admitted he was getting ready for a transatlantic flight, but stoutly maintained that he knew only his backer’s attorney, David T. Layman.

In New York, some days later, I got in touch with him and learned that Mrs. Frederick E. Guest of London and New York, whose husband had been Secretary of State for Air in Lloyd George’s Cabinet, was the mysterious sponsor who had planned to be the first of her sex to fly the Atlantic. Her family, said Mr. Layman, was much concerned. Soon it was agreed that if I could find the “right sort of girl” to take her place, Mrs. Guest would yield.

On the merest hunch, when I returned to Boston, I telephoned my friend Rear Admiral Reginald K. Belknap, U.S.N., retired. “Why, yes,” said he, “I know a young social worker who flies. I’m not sure how many hours she’s had, but I do know that she’s deeply interested in aviation and a thoroughly fine person. Call Denison House and ask for Amelia Earhart.”

Guardedly, when Miss Earhart came on the wire, I inquired whether she’d like to participate in an important but hazardous flight. I had to come out with it because she had declined an interview until I stated the nature of my business. That afternoon, accompanied by Miss Marion Perkins, head worker at Denison House, she appeared at my office.

At sight I was convinced that she was qualified as a person, if not as a pilot. I asked forthwith, “How would you like to be the first woman to fly the Atlantic?”

Only a flicker in her cool eyes betrayed the excitement this question must have aroused; calmly she asked for details—whatever I was at liberty to tell her. Miss Earhart had owned several planes and had flown more than 500 hours. She said the role of passenger didn’t appeal to her much, and hoped that, weather conditions permitting, she could take her turn at the controls. At the time, however, she was unable to fly with the aid of instruments alone, and her experience with tri-motored ships had been inconsequential.

With intense interest I observed and appraised her as she talked. Her resemblance to Colonel Lindbergh was so extraordinary that I couldn’t resist the impulse to ask her to remove her hat. She complied, brushing back her naturally tousled, wind-swept hair, and her laugh was infectious. “Lady Lindy!” Most of all I was impressed by the poise of the boyish figure at my desk. Mrs. Guest had stipulated that the person to whom she would yield must be “representative” of American women. In Amelia Earhart I felt that I had discovered not their norm but their sublimation.

In the light of subsequent events—in the tragic shadow of the last—I quote a letter addressed to me by Amelia on May 2, 1928:

“It is very kind of you to keep me informed, as far as you are able, concerning developments of the contemplated flight. As you may imagine, my suspense is great indeed.

“Please, however, do not think that I hold you responsible, in any way, for my own uncertainty. I realize that you are now, and have been from the first, only the medium of communication between me and the person, or persons, who are financing the enterprise. For my own satisfaction may I add, here, that you have done nothing more than present the facts of the case to me. I appreciate your forbearance in not trying to ‘sell’ the idea, and should like you to know that I assume all responsibility for any risk involved.”

Satisfaction that I had not attempted to persuade her was reward enough then; today it is immeasurable. Her formally explicit note relieved me, but how did she herself feel about it? Had she no qualms as to the outcome? Some weeks after Mrs. Guest had retired in Amelia’s favor, Julie, my wife, in daily touch with our secret preparations, broached the subject and, woman to woman, urged her to back out if she felt in the slightest degree uneasy. Her reply was characteristic:

“No, this is the way I look at it: My family’s insured; there’s only myself to think about. And when a great adventure’s offered you—you don’t refuse it, that’s all.”

As a rule, when gate crashers are caught in the act they are thrown out, as well they deserve to be; George and I enjoyed the unique experience of being asked, instead, to manage the performance—and cast a new leading lady. Indeed, at Mrs. Guest’s request, G.P. agreed to act as the producer—to step into the spotlight, when the curtain rose, as the “backer” of the flight. It was at Amelia’s request primarily, that I agreed to see her through the rumpus in Europe. About the middle of May, accompanied by A.K. Mills of my own organization, I set out for London. Mrs. Guest had preceded us.

Fortunately for our purposes, the attention of the newspapers was focused on the aspirations of “the Diamond Queen of Broadway,” Miss Mabel Boll, whose preparations for an Atlantic hop had been more or less openly conducted. Stultz and Gordon, the press still believed, were Byrd’s men—grooming the giant Fokker “Friendship” for the trip to the South Pole.

Toward noon on June 17 the “Friendship” cracked the ill luck which had glued her pontoons to the “steps” of the bay at Trepassey, Newfoundland, for more than two weeks. News of the take off was flashed to the world. That night, Allen Raymond of the New York Times, young Mills and I motored to Southampton.

Early the next morning we heard that the “Friendship” had circled the S.S. America, a few hundred miles out, to get her bearings; silence through the night—one of the longest I’ve ever endured—had meant only that her radio was out of commission. After some hours I received direct word from Gordon that they had come down safely at Burry Port, Wales. I telegraphed them to remain aboard ship until I arrived, and then chartered an old flying boat from Imperial Airways.

That afternoon, landing a few hundred yards from the “Friendship,” I caught a glimpse of Amelia—seated Indian fashion in the doorway of the fuselage and with Indian composure indifferent to the clamor ashore.

“Congratulations!” I sang out as our dory drew near. “How’s it feel to be the first woman to fly the Atlantic?”

She smiled philosophically. “Oh, well, maybe some day I’ll try it alone.”

The next morning we boarded the “Friendship” and fled to Southampton, where, for the first time, Amelia met Mrs. Guest, the generous woman to whom she owed the position which, thereafter strengthened by her own steady hands, she was to turn to such brilliant account.

Aboard the Mayor’s yacht “Macon” during Amelia’s welcome in the harbor at New York, Commander Byrd told he that he needed help in the financing of his projected expedition to the Antarctic, and urged me to join him as soon as I could cut loose from the Friendship’s show. After a day or two I did.

In the years that followed, with pride and sure knowledge of Amelia’s motivations, but with a tinge of fear as to the outcome, I watched her gain distinction in aviation.

Genuinely as a tribute to her sex rather than for her own glorification, she accepted the honors that accrued—for the participation of women in aviation, which at all times she strove to encourage and pace, was the obsession which lured her to her death. After she had flown the Atlantic as the first woman passenger, it was inevitable she would attempt to fly it alone. Having done so—having established, seriatim, transcontinental records of one kind or another—there remained the Pacific. Long before she mentioned it I knew that next, and perhaps fatally, must come her globe-circling adventure. Why—when even to her it must have seemed a stunt without constructive benefit to the aeronautical industry—did she attempt the hazardous expedition?

She had to. She was caught up in the hero racket which compelled her to strive for increasingly dramatic records, bigger and braver feats that automatically insured the publicity necessary to the maintenance of her position as the foremost woman pilot in the world. She was a victim of the era of “hot” aeronautics which began with Colonel Lindergh and Admiral Byrd and which shot “scientific” expeditions across continents, oceans and polar regions by dint of individual exhibition.

In: This World, Vol. 2, No. 21
San Francisco Chronicle
September 11, 1938

See also: “Amelia Earhart Seach Continues,” and

“Radiomen Comb Air for Signals from Amelia Earhart.”

Read details on the flight from the U.S. Naval Historical Center

U.S. Navy Amelia Earhart Records

Amelia Earhart Bibliography