Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lost: Mysteries in the Air

Read Charlotte Canelli's column in the March 27, 2014 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

           As I compose this column, there has been no news about the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 that went missing on Saturday, March 8.  Searches are continuing in the Indian Ocean, numerous miles from the Australian coastline.  Families are frustrated with grief and disbelief. 26 countries are included in the search that now covers millions of square miles.

            Possibly by the time of printing of this column, some kind of explanation will have been determined.

            Of course, most of us have been baffled by this mystery.  Some ask how their cellphones disclose their actual location in Norwood, MA, but there is no means of finding the wreckage of this Boeing 777. Others ask why there is no tracking device for this immense jet other than its elusive black box.

            There have been other mysteries in the air that have captivated the world’s attention. Yet, little of that mystery has still aroused our interest – no sensational movies or bestselling books were published about most of them. Mark Johanson writes in the International Business Times that “according to the Aviation Safety Network, more than 80 aircraft have been declared missing since 1948.”

            On June 23, 1950 a Northwest Orient DC-4 was progressing from New York to Seattle on a regular, daily run with its normal stop in Minneapolis.  Somewhere over Lake Michigan, Flight 2501 vanished from radar and seemingly from the earth. No wreck was ever found although there was possible evidence of traces of the fifty-eight souls on board, along with indications of the evidence of the inside of the propeller plane.  Interestingly, The Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates (funded by author Clive Cussler’s Underwater and Marine Agency) explore Lake Michigan each year for data from either shipwrecks or Flight 2501.  Debate surrounds the disappearance and family members suspect that passengers were quietly buried on the shores of the lake, without notification to the families.  A book was written about the flight, “Fatal Crossing: Mysterious Disappearance of NWA Flight 2501 and the Quest for Answers” by V.O. Van Heest. That book, however, is unavailable and no Minuteman Library Members own it.  A book owned by a few Minuteman libraries focuses on the complete and checkered history of Northwest Airlines (beginning as Northwest Airways, changing to Northwest Orient, and finally merging with Delta).  That book “Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines" 2013, was written by Jack El-Hai.

            The loss of Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 on March 16, 1962 remains a puzzle, as well.  The plane, a Lockheed chartered by the United States military, was carrying 93 American soldiers and three South Vietnamese from Guam to the Philippines. Search for it may have been as great at the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight – it involved air and sea over and in the Pacific.

These fascinating mysteries of the air really began, of course, with the disappearance of Amelia Earhart’s plane on July 2, 1937. 

Amelia Earhart was dramatic enough without having to disappear over the ocean. Friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and other celebrities and high society, Amelia had a mind of her own. When she married, she refused to take the name of her husband, George Putnam. Her marriage itself was slightly scandalous after it followed the public divorce of George from his wife, Dorothy Binney, an heir to the Binney & Smith crayon fortune. Amelia’s fashion captured the world’s attention, especially women hoping to emulate her. Amelia’s life was captured on film in 2009 in “Amelia” starring Hilary Swank, Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor. While the movie did not get stellar reviews (a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes), Hilary Swank’s resemblance to the original footage on news reels in the 1930s was uncanny. I liked the movie; I often disagree with reviewers anyway.

Both Amelia’s husband and her sister penned books about her.  George P. Putnam actually arranged excerpts from Amelia’s letters, diary and dispatches in the form of a book with Amelia as the author. “Last Flight” was first published in 1937 and has been republished several times since.

Amelia’s younger sister Muriel (Muriel Earhart Morrissey) lived most of her life only 28 miles from Norwood in Medford, Massachusetts. She taught English at Medford and Belmont High Schools and spent much of her life volunteering for community organizations in Massachusetts.  In 1963, Muriel wrote Amelia, “Courage is the Price", a biography of Amelia.  “Amelia, My Courageous Sister” was first published on the 50th anniversary of Amelia’s disappearance in 1987.  A graduate of Smith and Radcliffe Colleges, Muriel died in 1998 at the age of 98.

There are countless biographies about Amelia Earhart in the collections of the Minuteman libraries.  Two that received good reviews were both published in 1989 (fifty years after Amelia’s death was officially declared in 1939).  They are “Amelia Earhart: a Biography” by Doris L. Rich and “The Sound of Wings: The Life of Amelia Earhart."  Library Journal reviewer William A. McIntye claimed that both books are “exceedingly well-researched and clearly written” and include assumptions of her disappearance.  A recent biography, “Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon” was written by Kathleen C. Winters in 2010.

There are many hypotheses, of course, and many authors have written books claiming their own theories.  Ric Gillespie’s book and DVD, “Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance” was published in 2006 by the Naval Institute Press.  “Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved” by Elgen and Marie Long was published in 1999.

There are dozens of biographies of Amelia’s courageous life in the children’s and young adult collections of the Minuteman libraries.

No one may ever know the truth about Earhart’s disappearance just as some other airline mysteries have never been solved.  We can only hope that the modern technology will somehow solve the disappearance of MH370 over the Indian Ocean.