Amelia Earhart’s SOS heard in the panhandle


In the wee hours of July 3, 1937, a woman in Amarillo listened to missing aviator Amelia Earhart’s desperate radio call for help from halfway around the world. This would be the last of the many connections of the “Queen of the Air” to the Lone Star State.

At the time of her disappearance, Earhart was one of the best known and most popular members of her gender in the United States, second only to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. But fame and fortune did not drop into the risk-taker’s lap by accident.

Earhart’s family owned a good chunk of Atchison, Kan., including the biggest bank in town, and was ruled over by her maternal grandfather, a former federal judge. With money to burn, the young woman could have been just another carefree “flapper” in the Roaring Twenties had it not been for a life-changing experience in December 1920.

Earhart, then 23 years old, went with her father to a Long Beach, Calif. airfield, where a barnstormer was selling 10-minute flights for $10.

“By the time, I had got 200 or 300 feet off the ground,” she later said, “I knew I had to fly.”

The following week, she took her first flying lesson from Neta Snook and unknowingly provided the title for the pioneer aviator’s autobiography I Taught Amelia How to Fly. Ten months later, she set the women’s altitude record of 14,000 feet and in May 1923 received only the 16th pilot’s license issued to a female in the United States.

The first confirmed sighting of Earhart in Texas was in 1929, the year after her trans-Atlantic flight in the passenger seat. (In spite of a ticker-tape reception in New York City, she was embarrassed by the fact that she never touched the controls, adding, “I was just baggage like a sack of potatoes.”) While in Brownsville for a course on instrument flying, she watched Charles Lindbergh get air-mail service to Mexico City off the ground.

Earhart may have been underwhelmed by the ocean odyssey, but the public was excited beyond belief. Endorsement offers poured in, resulting in her own brand of women’s clothing and luggage and a lucrative deal with Lucky Strike cigarettes.

Earhart’s next appearance in Texas was sometime in late 1929 or early 1930 during one of her frequent cross-country jaunts. Soon after leaving Sweetwater, her map blew out of the open cockpit, forcing her to fly blind. She ended up in Hobbs, N.M. and gave townspeople the thrill of their lives by landing on the main street.

Filling her tank with what proved to be tainted fuel, she reached Pecos by noon the next day which put her back on course. After stretching her legs, she took to the skies again only to develop engine trouble that forced her down near the tiny community of Toyah. Helpful locals towed the crippled craft back to Pecos, where she spent the next five days having the engine overhauled.

In the summer of 1931, Earhart was on a coastto-coast promotional tour for the Autogiro, the revolutionary forerunner of the modern helicopter invented eight years earlier by an Italian engineer. The company that bought the rights to manufacture the Autogiro in the U.S. paid Earhart handsomely to publicize their product, which photos show looked like a standard single-wing aircraft with primitive chopper blades stuck on top.

On her return trip that June from Los Angeles to the Autogiro plant in New Jersey, Earhart made a scheduled stop in Abilene. The 1,500 spectators WHO gathered the following morning at the small airfield to give the celebrity a proper sendoff lined the runway and parked their cars at the end of the landing strip.

Earhart later described what happened to the Abilene News-Reporter: “I underestimated my distance (and) possibly did not take a long enough run,” she admitted. “I saw the ship lacked [the] altitude to clear the line of cars, and I picked the only place available to drop the ship.”

Earhart climbed out of the wreckage and assured the concerned crowd that neither she nor her mechanic were hurt. The Autogiro company shipped a replacement to her next stop, Oklahoma City, and she went on with the advertising campaign.

Earhart’s last Texas visit was to Denton in 1936, the year before her tragic attempt to circumnavigate the globe and four years after successfully soloing the Atlantic. She gave students at the Texas State College for Women, today called Texas Woman’s University, these encouraging words: “I believe every woman should do things contrary to what is considered her sphere.”

Mabel Larremore stayed up late on July 2, 1937, the first night of Earhart’s reported disappearance, glued to her radio. Her vigil was rewarded at two o’clock in the morning by the missing aviator’s clear and urgent rescue request.

In the official statement she gave to government investigators, Larremore said, “I listened to her for 30-45 minutes. She stated her navigator, Fred Noonan, was seriously injured [and] needed help immediately.”

Larremore, however, did not come forward until months later. She assumed the authorities had heard the transmission too, which was not the case.