Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings

Amelia Earhart Visits Hampton Roads

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Amelia Earhart
from Wikipedia Commons

Amelia Earhart (1897-1939) was an American Aviator, the Queen of the Air. A Midwesterner by birth, she was a Kansas native growing up on the open plains. As a girl she saw many barn-storming pilots coming through her area and watched these pilots do their amazing feats. She too became fascinated with flying.

She loved the adventure of flying and later would write best-selling books about her flying experiences. Also she later started a female pilot club called, Ninety-Nines.

In 1928, she became the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic by airplane. Charles Lindbergh would become the first male pilot to cross the Atlantic non-stop the same year.

However, in December 1928 Earhart and a group of flyers landed at Langley Field, Virginia. This was her first trip to Norfolk. The event was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Wright Brothers historical flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17th 1903.  The pilgrimage was led by Orville Wright.

Two hundred men and women, prominent in the field of aviation, were in our area. As the Virginian-Pilot stated, “The Elite of the Air” were in Norfolk making their trip to Kitty Hawk. On hand for this event were Parker Cramer of the Rockford filers who attempted to fly to Sweden and Greenland, Major Caproni the Italian designer and Igor Sikorsky known as the father of giant airplanes.

Mr. Orville Wright had not been to Kitty Hawk in many years. The last time was in 1911. To a reporter he mentioned, “I like to see my old friend Capt. Bill Tate who is now keeper of the government Lighthouse depot at Coinjock, N.C. It was at Tate’s home that Orville and Wilber Wright stayed while conducting their experiments for their first flight.  The Norfolk Southern Railroad with 8 coaches took the party to Kill Devil Hills. The event was to lay a corner stone atop Kill Devil Hill from which the two Wright brothers made history in their flying machine.

Amelia Earhart's second trip to Norfolk and our area was when she crashed her Lockheed Vega plane on September 25, 1930. Her plane landed up-side down (a nose dive) at the Naval Air Station flying field. Many men, called Bluejackets, came to her aid to flip her plane on its top side. Amelia received a scalp wound covered by a large bandage, while her passenger Carl Harper of Washington suffered a broken finger. The plane was heavily damaged. The cause of the accident was a faulty latch on the interior of the plane giving way and causing her to lose her balance while trying to land. However, in spite of the accident her spirits were high when she kept her engagement with the Norfolk-Portsmouth Traffic Club.

To introduce Amelia to the Norfolk-Portsmouth Traffic club was Mayor S. Heth Tyler of Norfolk, and J. H. Treadgill, president of the new Ocean View Country Golf Club. In her photograph with Mayor Tyler & President Treadgill, one can see her very stylish, sheik bandage shaped like Greta Garbo’s turban, and wearing an unusual brooch. The next day the Naval Station flew her onto Washington while men packed up her plane to send back to the manufactures.

Amelia Earhart was introduced to the Traffic club by Holcombe Parkes of Roanoke, Virginia, the advertising director for the Norfolk & Western Railroad and an old school mate of Amelia. Amelia had kept her engagement despite the fact her father, a well-known attorney in Los Angles, had died the day before. She also make a joke about her accident that morning at the Naval Air Station, stating, “The accident was nothing.” She was apparently more humiliated by the accident than frightened. Her subject that night was “Commercial Aviation and What it Means to Norfolk” following a nice dinner and dancing. She had been the first female to receive a pilot’s license and the 17th to be awarded an international pilot’s license. After the program and a nice meal, she and her co-pilot Lieut. Carl Harper retired. They were the guests of Capt. Kenneth Whiting.

On September 24, 1930, Amelia Earhart was again in our area, this time in Virginia Beach. The Queen of the Air was invited to attend the Woman’s Air Derby featuring women’s aviators. One such woman who piloted Amelia Earhart's plane was a socialite from New York, Miss Tiny Goodard, and a well-known flyer. They landed at the Rifle Range Airport here in Princess Anne County, now Virginia Beach.

The Woman’s Air Derby event with all the fliers was held at the State Military Reservation, now called Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach.
Once on Virginia Beach soil, Amelia was met by Ralph Pool, a reporter from the Virginian-Pilot

When asked a question by Mr. Pool about women aviators, she responded with this, “Women have a definite place in aviation, just as they have in all other industries – for aviation is an industry now, you know. I don’t see where the question of sex enters into it at all. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be, and aren’t, just as good pilots as men.”

Amelia was very much at ease that warm day in September, strolling about chatting with acquaintances, casually inspecting different planes at this airfield. At one time she was seen sitting on a wing of a plane and later just sitting on the grass enjoying the festivities.  Later she was called up to the podium by Mary Alexander, who organized this event (Woman’s Air Derby) to talk to the crowd by amplifier. She made a short statement to the crowd, “Your airfield is very attractive,” she said. “The last time I was here, I rolled my own plane over at your Naval Air Station, so this time, I thought I’d be safe with a woman to pilot me.” This statement brought on a few laughs.

Amelia told how much she enjoyed her short stay, but she was sorry she could not stay for all the events. She had a tight schedule. In closing, Amelia Earhart, now Mrs. Putnam, praised the beauty of Virginia Beach from the air and urged that all her listeners to, “Go up in a plane and enjoy the view.”

Unfortunately one of the main events was called off due to smallness of the crowds attending.

The Women’s Air Derby, with its all-female flyers, practiced their air races, parachute jumps, aerial contests and stunt flying, giving the spectators at Virginia Beach a succession of thrills. Circling the field in their “flying boudoir,” these women flew, “And gave it all” to the audience below.

Amelia Earhart Putnam never returned back to our area. In July 1937, at the age of 39, she disappeared on route to Howland Island from Lae, New Guinea. She was attempting to be the first female to complete a circumnavigation flight of the globe. It never happened.

Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic twice by plane, and the first woman to fly solo from California to Hawaii. She set many flying records and championed the advancement of women in aviation. In her flying career she received many awards, including the American Distinguished Flying Cross and the French Legion of Honor. However, in 1929, her greatest achievement was when she helped found a group of women flyers called, “The Ninety-Nines,” an organization promoting women aviators. Amelia Earhart was truly “The Queen of the Air.”

Miss Amelia Lockhart's Lockheed plane landed upside down
on the Hampton Roads Naval Air Station flying field

After suffering a scalp wound when her plane turned over on
landing, Miss Earhart kept her engagement with the Norfolk-Portsmouth
Traffic Club, on the left Mayor S Heth Tyler,
on right club president J H Treadgill


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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com