In the summer of 1931, all eyes turned skyward as a bizarre machine passed over the Village, making a noise no one had heard before.
“Weird Machine Flies Over Skaneateles” the Skaneateles Press reported. It was July 14, and the Pitcairn autogiro — which combined an airplane’s engine and fuselage with a four-bladed rotor system like that of a helicopter — was touring for Beech-Nut Packing of nearby Canajoharie, its pilot probably using Route 20 for navigation. The noisy autogiro “provided a source of wonderment to the local population.” But it was just as well the craft did not touch down. Landings and take-offs were not its pilot’s forte, and she was having a wild summer.
On April 8, she had flown to a record altitude of 18,415 feet over Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, in an autogiro borrowed from the Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro Co. In June, she set out to complete her first solo cross-country flight to California in an autogiro owned by the Beech-Nut Packing Company.
What was the hurry for Amelia Earhart? She was the first woman to fly the Atlantic, but not one to rest on her laurels. In 1930, young Elinor Smith had been named the best female pilot in the United States of America, because she was. Earhart needed something to keep her name in the news. Her husband, who was also her press agent, ordered an autogiro a week after their marriage in April of 1931, but Earhart did not wait.
She was offered a Beech-Nut autogiro and accepted. In June of 1931, she received national acclaim for her nine-day transcontinental flight — but upon landing in Glendale, California, she learned that pilot John Miller had accomplished the feat in his own Pitcairn autogiro 10 days earlier. “I made it out and back,” he said later. “She crashed it on the way out, then totaled it on the way back!”
Indeed, on the way home from California, Earhart had crashed the autogiro in Abilene, Texas, when, as she put it, “The air just went out from under me.” She took out two parked cars and damaged the craft’s rotor and propeller. It was replaced by another Beech-Nut autogiro, and she continued her return trip east.
She got home, but her troubles weren’t over. On another trip for Beech-Nut, on September 12 in Detroit, she dropped her autogiro in from 20 feet. Quoted in the New York Times, she said, “Nothing to it… I just didn’t level off soon enough.”
Although lacking in skill at landings and take-offs, and somewhat cavalier about navigation and communication, Amelia Earhart did not lack for spunk or charisma. She once said, “Women should do for themselves what men have already done — and occasionally what men have not done — thereby establishing themselves as persons, and perhaps encouraging other women toward greater independence of thought and action.”
And so in June of 1937, she began a flight around the world. With her navigator, Fred Noonan, she made it to New Guinea in 21 days, and then they departed for Howland Island, a tiny dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Earhart and Noonan last communicated on July 2, 1937. There were no roads below, no Route 20, no villagers tipping their heads back and shielding their eyes from the sun, nothing but water. They were never heard from again.
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June 3, 1931, headed west, Amelia Earhart lands her Beech-Nut Pitcairn autogiro in Denver, Colorado. Mrs. Carlos Reavis welcomes her with a bouquet. Photo by Harry Mellon Rhoads, from the Collection of the Library of Congress.