At 13, I discovered Amelia Earhart. I fell in love with airplanes and the whole idea of women in flight. That day, I began a journey that, 51 years later, led to publication of my first book — The Originals.
Our ninth grade English textbook contained biographies of famous Americans. Amelia was the lone woman included. “The Girl in Brown Who Walks Alone” told the story of the painfully private yet conspicuously public woman who helped set my feet, and those of so many young women, on the path to flight. Like fellow aviator Charles Lindbergh, in the ’30s she had captured the imagination of Depression-weary, hero-worshipping America.
That Halloween. I dressed as Amelia — my riding jodhpurs and boots (both appropriately brown), a 1930’s-vintage, leather flying helmet and goggles, a newly purchased cloth imitation of a leather flight jacket that I wheedled out of my mother, and a white nylon scarf — square, not the long, flowing, silk number worn with such panache by early aviators.
A Mysterious Disappearance
I read everything I could find on the ill-fated Amelia and her mysterious disappearance July 2, 1937, off Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. Rumors suggested her around-the-world flight was cover for a spy mission; that she was checking on Japanese defenses for President Roosevelt.
Had she been shot down? Was she taken prisoner by the Japanese? Was there a clandestine romance between Amelia and her navigator Fred Noonan? What we know is she, Noonan and her twin-engine Lockheed Electra disappeared without a trace.
After World War II, the search for her began anew. The hunt continues to this day.
To a 13-year-old, Amelia’s life was the stuff of which adventure and romance was made. Then 40 years after encountering Amelia between the pages of a book, within the space of a few hours, I moved, irrevocably, into the world of women in aviation.
“Did you leave the local newspaper?” Joan Hrubec — administrator for the International Women’s Air and Space Museum — asked.
“Yes.” A wannabe novelist, I had — after considerable soul searching — resigned my editor’s job.
A Chance to Fly!
Joan offered me work writing and promoting the museum. Saying “yes” changed my life. A year later I started flying lessons. I needed to prove myself, to walk the talk — to be and feel a part of women in aviation, women who, like Amelia before them, had so captured my imagination.
“You need to be videotaping your lecture series,” I urged them, “for posterity. You need to film these pioneering women while you have them.”
I went to the program director at the local public access Cable TV station. He, Joan and I formed a team. We planned three lectures a year to be taped in the studio and shown to the community on Public Access channels.
Joan, Dave Gordon and I produced twelve shows in all. The first featured the museum’s indomitable president Nancy Hopkins Tier, then 81 and still flying. In November 1929, 20-year-old Nancy Hopkins joined Amelia and 97 other women pilots to form the women’s flying organization the Ninety-Nines — so named for their charter membership and, with roughly 5,000 members, still thriving today.
We featured individuals like aerobatic champion Patty Wagstaff and the first woman jet airliner pilot, Emily Warner. We hosted panels: WASP from WWII, women corporate pilots, a panel from the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. A Medevac helicopter pilot, her flight nurse and a woman tanker pilot talked about their roles in Desert Storm. They were some of the earliest women pilots to see combat.
I overcame my aversion to the probing eye of the TV camera and moderated several panels — incredible learning experiences.
And I Met Nancy
Through the WASP panel, I met my mentor, Nancy Batson Crews. What became The Originals was born the night I picked her up at the airport. Later, I asked if I might write her biography. Her answer: “Sarah, I want you to write about Nancy Love and the WAFS” (the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, the first WASP squadron, of which she was a member).
No resource existed that explained the historical difference between the WAFS and the WASP. Nor was there a biography of Nancy Love. Both were mine for the writing. “Do it,” Joan urged.
Nancy Crews and I formed a partnership and I began writing. The WAFS’ story — The Originals — was published July 2001, the second edition in 2017.