By Ken Zurski
On April 8 1931, Amelia Earhart , in full pilot jumpsuit mode, stepped into an autogiro, a horizontally propelled winged aircraft she had been testing with other pilots for more than a year. Earhart, who two years earlier had become the first woman to fly an airplane solo over the Atlantic, was trying to break another record, an altitude peak, in the mostly untested autogiro.
At the time, an autogiro, was considered an unstable and unproven contraption. But there were advantages. It could take off from a relatively small space and fly just as high and as long as its front-propelled counterpart. Unlike the airplane, however, It could also stop on a dime and seem to float in the sky. Landing was simply lowering itself to the ground. A large rotor blade sat on top and provided lift. The blade was free spinning and powered by air from an engine-propelled rotor on the side that also provided thrust.
Introduced in the 1930’s, autogiros, was considered a more practical and efficient alternative to the airplane, if only they could be as reliable. Today, a smaller version, called a gyrocopter, is similar to the original design, minus the wings. So when you talk about the pioneer fliers of the autogiro, or the forerunner of the modern day helicopter, one person must be recognized.
One you famously know.
The aforementioned Amelia Earhart.
With a large contingent of press on site and an appreciative crowd, Earhart in her thick insulated overalls gave it a go. Her first attempt failed. Perhaps as some noted, she was testing her own – and her aircraft’s – capabilities. Maybe she would abandon the next attempt, the press speculated. She answered that question by going up again, this time reaching a height of 18,415 feet and breaking – or making –a new record. She safely brought the craft back to the ground.
She was lauded in her efforts, but wanted more. So did the press. They figured she would try a transcontinental trip in an autogiro, the first of its kind, which she did successfully. But her efforts were overshadowed by another pilot named John Miller who quietly attempted the same feat without the fanfare or publicity that Earhart demanded. He completed the route first, although both pilots had no idea of the other’s intentions.
That same year in 1931, Earhart crashed her autogiro at an airshow in Detroit. Her husband, George Putnam, was the first to arrive at the wreckage: “I saw Amelia emerge from the dust and wave her hands in the air,” he said. “She was unhurt.” But Putnam was on the ground, writhing in pain. In his haste to reach the wreck site he tripped, fell and cracked three ribs. “Never had I run so fast,” he described afterwards, “until one of the guy wires caught my pumping legs exactly at the ankles.”
Unaware of her husband’s injury, Earhart happily waved to the crowd.
While she was glad to walk away unscathed and Putman’s predicament was just an unfortunate accident, it would be her last call with the autogiro.
She went back to an airplane.
Tragically, six years later in 1937, we all know how her story ends.
By Ken Zurski
When Amos Root was a boy growing up on a farm in Medina, Ohio, instead of helping his father with the chores he stuck by his mother’s side and tended to the garden instead.
Root was small in size (only five-foot-three as an adult) and prone to sickness. The garden work suited him just fine. But in his teens, for money, Root took up jewelry as a trade and became quite good at it.
Then in 1865, at the age of 26, he found his calling – bees.
Root had offered a man a dollar if he could round up a swarm of bees outside the doors of his jewelry store. The man did and Root was hooked. But Root didn’t want to just harvest bees, he wanted to study them.
Eventually his work led to a national trade journal titled Gleaning’s in Bee Culture. Bees became his business and profitable too, but Root had other interests as well, specifically mechanical things, like the automobile, a blessing for someone who hated cleaning up after the horse. “I do not like the smell of the stables,” he once wrote.
But the automobile was different. “It never gets tired; it gets there quicker than any horse can possibly do.”
He bought an Oldsmobile Runabout, “for less than a horse” he bragged, and happily drove it near his home. Then in September 1904, at the age of 69, Root took his longest trip yet, a nearly 400-mile journey to Dayton, Ohio. Root had heard a couple of “minister’s sons” were making great strides in aviation, so he wrote them and asked if he could take a look. His enthusiasm was evident.
The two brothers granted his wish, but only if he promised not to reveal any secrets. In August of 1904, Root set off for his first trip to Dayton and the next month did the same. The first visit he watched in awe, but revealed nothing. The second time he was given permission to write about what he had seen. It was the first time the Wright brothers and their flying machine appeared in print.
“My dear friends,” Root gleefully wrote in his bee publication, “I have a wonderful story to tell you. “
In the fall of 1927, Ruth Elder, a dental assistant from Lakeland, Florida, attempted to become the first woman to complete a transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. “When [Charles] Lindbergh reached Paris (in May),” the 23-year-old Elder said announcing her intentions, “I made up my mind that I would be the first woman to make the trip.”
But unlike Lindy, who was an experienced pilot, Elder’s daring-do was met with skepticism, even ridicule. “Men in the summer should strive to equal Lindbergh. Women should stay at home,” The Irish News snidely advised. Even Lindbergh, himself, without naming names, warned against dangerous missions without purpose.
Despite this, Elder, an aspiring actress, had no reservations. “I was determined to go as a co-pilot, not a passenger,” she vowed. In Florida, she took lessons from an instructor named George Haldeman. Then on Tuesday, October 11, 1927, Elder and Haldeman took off from New York’s Roosevelt Field in a specially built Stinson ‘Detroiter’ monoplane named American Girl. “Well here goes nothing, that may turn up something,” Elder thought to herself. Thirty six hours later, with over 2,000 miles logged and just a few hours short of Paris, the flight was over.
Caught in a sleet storm and taking on ice, the two pilots ditched the reserve fuel to lighten the load. But when an oil pipe busted, there was no other choice. The ocean would be their landing strip.
Around the same time, in Paris, at the Le Bouget airport, a smattering of press and a few well-wishers gathered for the welcoming party. Elder’s plane was late and her fate, sent by dispatches around the world, was unknown.
The American Girl was missing.
In the Atlantic, however, Captain Goos of the Dutch tanker Barendrecht noticed a plane in distress: “She came rapidly up to us and flying over the ship threw down two messages.” One ended up on the deck. “How far are we from land and which way?” was the inscription. It was signed: Ruth Elder.