First to FlyA Historic First, Coinciding with a First for Me

      My entry into this world, on May 20th, 1932, was an event of little notice.

      But there was something else that happened that day, that was an event of great notice –- an event of magnitude -- so much so, that newsmen were standing by to hear firsthand news of it, and its accomplishment brought cables or calls from such notables as President Roosevelt, the Prime Minister and Charles Lindbergh and his wife. It even brought a ticker tape parade of welcome in New York.

      That day Amelia Earhart began her flight, alone, across the vast expanse of the Atlantic, flying from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, to land in Ireland the following day.

      And while I share in nothing of Amelia's historic achievement, a first for a woman, yet by the calendar, it happens to coincide with a first for me, my first day among the born of the earth. 

      If I amuse myself by partaking of the imaginary idea that the stork brought me and since they are identified with Holland I might say that I'd crossed the Atlantic that day, before she started out.  She was carried across the ocean in a red Lockheed Vega, whereas, imaginatively, I might say I was carried across by a white stork, hanging from its beak.  Had she taken off at dawn on that morning of the 20th, I could humorously comment that the stork, westbound, met her flying east over the ocean, but I didn't see it happen because I was pinned in.

 I was born at 9 o'clock in the morning, and at Harbor Grace, it was then 11:30 a. m.   It would be 2 hrs. and 45 min. before Amelia would reach there at 2:15 p. m. from St. John's, New Brunswick, being flown by Bernt Balchen. Meanwhile she rested behind the extra tank with Eddie Gorski, a mechanic. After her arrival in Newfoundland, she rested again while Gorski and Balchen checked the plane and its engine. It was past 7 o'clock that evening, Newfoundland time, when she gunned her Pratt & Whitney engine, sped down the runway and took off from Harbor Grace. A minute later she was out over the open water of the sea, heading to Europe. I imagine Gorski and Balchen watched as her plane grew smaller and disappeared into the distance.

      A cable was sent, saying “AE TOOK OFF 712 NFLD PERFECT PERFORMANCE.” Those latter two words would not endure.

      The first few hours of her flight were without event, and in good weather. The sunset lingered, and then, the moon rose over a bank of clouds. She flew in moonlight at 12,000 ft.

      Then, her troubles began.  Her altimeter registering altitude suddenly failed, its hands swinging around the dial.

      The moon disappeared behind clouds, and shortly after that she flew into a lightning storm which buffeted her plane for about an hour. She said the storm was “one of the most severe I've ever been in.” Amelia reported she “milled around” but kept on course with difficulty.

      But the flashes of lightning outside weren't the only light he noticed outside. About four hours into her flight, the seam of the exhaust manifold, separated, owing to a bad weld, and caught fire. She noticed a vibration from the manifold, and saw a fiery glow under the rim of the engine covering, called a coweling.  She knew it was caused by fuel and air, burning under pressure. The flames appeared worse at night than they would've during the day.

     As she flew on and time passed, the vibration became worse, growing in intensity. At this point, she considered turning back to Newfoundland, but elected not to. It would be a night landing with a load of fuel. There were no lights, so she would be coming down in the dark, a peril in itself.   She flew on.

      Her altimeter wasn't her only instrument problem. Her gas gauge broke which wouldn't let her know how much fuel she had left, and her tachometer froze, preventing her from estimating her speed or distance.

      She flew into clouds and tried to fly over the top of them, but found her plane was becoming sluggish. She noticed a film of slush on the windshield, alerting her to icing.   Suddenly, her plane went into a spin, dropping in the night toward the Atlantic below.   Fortunately her descent, brought her to warmer air in time, to began melting the ice.   She was able to right her plane before she plunged into the ocean.  She glanced a her barograph, showing she'd dropped 3,000 ft.   She had been at something over 3,000 ft. and had gone down to something over the water.   Through the dark of night, she saw the broken crests of waves forming whitecaps on the surface of the ocean, that were “too close for comfort.”

She then flew under the clouds until she ran into fog, when it became “too dangerous to fly so low without visual checks.” She climbed, trying to fly between fog and ice, going for hours by instruments alone, those that were working.

      Flying eastward toward Europe, she was flying to meet the sun heading west. When the sun rose, she was between two cloud cloud layers, one high up at maybe at 20,000 ft., and the other near the ocean, consisting of fluffy, white ones. Soon the white clouds were packing together in what resembled a snow field to her.

      When the upper layer thinned, the sun shone through, dazzling, and it was too much for her eyes, so she dropped down through the lower layer, to get into shadow. “Anyway,” she said, “ten hours had passed, and I wished to see the water lest I was passing a boat.”

She switched on the reserve tank, but then a new problem arose. The cabin gauge leaked, dripping gasoline on her left shoulder.  By now her exhaust manifold had split even further and was vibrating more.   She was concerned about the fumes in the cockpit, being ignited by the flames she knew were out there.   I think it must've been a harrowing experience for her. While she had planned to fly to Paris, Amelia decided she “should come down at the very nearest place, wherever it was.”   She headed east for Ireland.

      About a hundred miles from the coast, she saw a fishing vessel and decided to circle it, to let everybody know that she'd gotten that far.   She saw the steam from a whistle, acknowledging her.

      She made landfall in northern Ireland, County Donegal.   She couldn't pinpoint her position, and without a working altimeter, was unwilling to continue on unendingly, not knowing the height of mountains that might be in her path.   She was flying in the midst of thunderclouds.   The Blue Stack Mountains also known as the Croaghgorms were inland in southern Donegal.  

      She flew along the Irish coast, then turned north where the weather seemed better.   She spotted a railroad track and thought it might lead her to a major city having an airfield.   She followed it, but the city she came to didn't have an airfield.   This was the city of Londonderry.   She decided to land her plane anyway.

She saw a large pasture, and with several low passes, reconnoitered the ground.   Then, she brought her plane down, landing on a sloping meadow with shamrock, hoping to avoid the cattle that grazed there. As it was, she scattered the herd, frightening “most of the cows in the neighborhood.”

      A farmhand named Danny McCallion saw her come down.  He must've feared she might crash, as he crossed himself in a prayerful gesture.  I can visualize him making the Sign of the Cross on himself, as her plane is coming down.   But she descended safely, her wheels touching down and rolling on the meadow.   The Lockheed had a high landing speed, so I would think she landed upslope, to slow it down.  She had landed at Culmore, near Londonderry.

      Amelia exited her craft and met the approaching farmhand, who couldn't tell whether she was a man or a woman.   She asked him where she was.   McCallion replied precisely, “In Gallegher's pasture.” He asked her if she'd come far.  Amelia replied, “From America.”  McCallion was stunned.  And, of course, she had come far...and, as it turned out, in far too dangerous circumstances.

      When she landed near Londonderry, on May 21st, she had flown 2,026 miles in 14 hrs. 54 min. Back in Iowa, it was 7:36 a.m. on May 21st.  All of this happened during the first hours of life, on my own, when I cried, was bathed, held, fed a bottle, slept in a crib and maybe had a gas problem of my own.  

When she landed on Irish soil, I was not yet a day old.      John Riedell                          


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