Do You Remember Fred Noonan’s Flight? (May-Jun 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

By Shawn Tyler
May-June 2002

I would imagine most people don’t remember Fred Noonan. He set out in 1937 to circumnavigate the world at its widest point, the equator. No man had yet done so, and the record books were waiting for the first person to finish this 29,000 mile odyssey. It was only ten years earlier, 1927, that Charles Lindbergh had bravely flown solo across the Atlantic – a feat in which 14 other pilots died trying to accomplish in the following year. The limits of air travel were being pushed and records were being set in all kinds of ways. A U. S. Army Air Service team circled the globe in 1924 and Wiley Post did it twice in 1931 and 1933. But all these trips took advantage of the shorter flights between islands in the northern hemisphere. No one had yet traveled around the world at its widest point – the equator. It was on this record that Fred Noonan set his sights.

His plane was a Lockheed Model 10E Electra. It was a sleek, full-metal plane that shimmered in the sun. Designed to carry ten passengers, engineers modified it with fuel tanks in the wings and fuselage to increase fuel capacity from 250 to 1,150 gallons. This gave the Electra a theoretical flying range of 4,000 miles.
Starting in Oakland, California, Fred navigated his flight east to Burbank, then to New Orleans, Miami, San Juan, Capripito, and eventually to Natal, Brazil. A diary describes the South American jungle as the “least desirable of all possible landing places.” Checking the airstrip at 3:15 AM with flashlights, Fred left Natal’s grassy runway and set down 13 hours and 12 minutes later in Saint-Louis, Senegal. Gas fumes left him nauseated and rainstorms had buffeted the Electra most of the way. Still Fred was one fourth of the way around the world. From Senegal, Fred went due east across the African continent. A pattern developed. Fred got up by 4:00 AM every morning and began his flight before dawn. He would land somewhere by mid afternoon to care for the plane and meet with officials. He seldom got more than 5 hours sleep a night.

New landscape passed before Fred’s eyes each day. As he continued east, he reached Assab, Eritrea. Fred was forbidden to fly over the Arabian peninsula, so he made a 13 hour, 1,920 mile flight from the Red Sea, around the peninsula, to Karachi, Pakistan. Over India, blinding rain literally beat the paint off the Electra from Calcutta to Rangoon. Still the trip continued through Siam, Malaya, and Australia. On June 29, almost six weeks after starting, Fred reached Lae, New Guinea. From Miami, Fred had made 24 flights covering 19,000 miles in only 30 days.

On the morning of July 2, 1937, Fred rode the heavily laden Electra down the runway toward a rocky sea embankment that marked the airstrip’s end. The plane dipped a bit, but then climbed into the air and headed for a small island called Howland some 2,556 miles away. Fred never made it to Howland Island. A Coast Guard cutter, named Itasca, was standing off the island and made radio contact with the Electra at 8:44 AM. The radio signal gave Fred’s position as “being on the line of 157-337.” After that the radio went dead. A massive search by air and sea found nothing. Fred and the Electra disappeared mysteriously. The flight was so celebrated in America that a commemorative flight retracing the stops was made in 1967 and 1997. And you still don’t remember Fred Noonan?

You probably don’t remember Fred because he didn’t fly alone. In fact, he made the trip, in a 5X5X5 cockpit, with someone who enjoyed much more notoriety – Ameila Earhart.

Anonymity is the point of this article. Jesus teaches, in Matthew chapter six, that his disciples should do their good deeds in secret rather than to be seen by men. If we do everything we can to lift up the name of Jesus Christ in Mbale, Uganda (as we should), I would imagine no one will remember us 60 years from now. But that is all right, because our purpose for serving as a missionary in Mbale should be for the cause of Christ and not to gain notoriety from men. In fact, if we do it well enough, we might just take the same kind of place Fred Noonan has taken in Ameila’s famous flight around the world.

On the same subject, Leonard Bernstein was once asked what instrument was the most difficult to play. He said, “Second fiddle.” Second fiddle may not receive much notoriety, but there is no harmony without it.

(I am indebted to National Geographic for its article on Ameila Earheart in the January 1998 issue pp. 112-135. Many of the facts for this article came from there.)

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This author published 1598 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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