Age-old aviation mysteries spotlight a local connection

When the American economy was stumbling through the Great Depression of the 1930s, air travel remained an exotic and remote possibility for most. Commercial aviation was growing during the pre-World War II years, however, and the American public demonstrated intense interest in each industry advance, along with every milestone and adventure achieved or attempted by daring aviators.

The mystique of those aviation pioneers has not faded despite the passage of time and a decidedly more blasé contemporary attitude toward commercial aviation. So, it’s exciting news that a notable local resident is playing a part in efforts to solve two enduring aviation mysteries: the July 1937 disappearance of Amelia Earhart and the January 1938 crash of an innovative Pan American Airways plane called the Samoan Clipper.

Explorer Robert Ballard, a Lyme resident best known for finding the sunken luxury ocean liner Titanic, teamed with National Geographic to search this month in a remote area of the central Pacific Ocean for Earhart’s missing plane. Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan were attempting an around-the-world flight in the summer of 1937. Those who have analyzed the flight have focused on the likelihood that they died when their plane crashed after leaving Papua New Guinea en route to Howland Island.

Besides assisting in the search for Earhart’s plane, Ballard’s Ocean Exploration Trust and its research vessel E/V Nautilus, searched for the Samoan Clipper in July. The airboat crashed an hour after taking off from Pago Pago on Jan. 11, 1938. Pioneering aviator Capt. Edwin C. Musick and his crew of six were killed in that crash. The Samoan Clipper, a Pan American Airways Sikorsky S-42B flying boat, was seeking to inaugurate airmail service between the United States and New Zealand at the time. No surviving examples of the innovative aircraft type exist.

The Samoan Clipper expedition ended July 20 without locating the lost aircraft. The full details of the Earhart search will be revealed during a two-hour show on the National Geographic channel Oct. 20. That expedition also reportedly did not lead to blockbluster discoveries.

Still, taking even small steps toward demystifying these cases is both exciting and important for aviation history and the local connection enhances interest. Earhart’s disappearance caused decades of speculation, rumor and intrigue. While more is known about the final moments of the Samoan Clipper − the aircraft developed an oil leak after takeoff and an explosion occurred as the crew was dumping fuel − the final resting place of Musick and his crew, along with the exact cause of the explosion that led to the crash, is unknown.

Russ Matthews, who is president and co-founder of Air/Sea Heritage Foundation and who led the expedition, wrote about the experience in his blog. “We may not have achieved our goal, but that was not our sole aim,” he wrote. “We’ve viewed and recorded remote areas of the planet previously unseen by human eyes. We’ve mapped and characterized a large swath of unexplored territory.”

Most important, Matthews writes, the expedition reintroduced the world to the Samoan Clipper and its era, a time when aviation was young and full of possibilities and outsized personalities.

We are fortunate a local resident has helped bring this world of exploration and discovery right to our doorsteps.

 

 

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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