Famous woman aviator Amelia Earhart stands with a couple of spectators near her biplane – a French Avro-Avian – while the craft sits on a crude runway in the farming community of McNeal in the Sulfur Springs Valley just north of Douglas.
Earhart’s destination was Los Angeles, where a national air meet was in progress. Attempting to avoid publicity, she chose small, out-of-the-way landing fields for refueling stops. Her landing at McNeal on Sept. 12, 1928, was a surprise to the community.
The airport at McNeal had been built a few years before. According to the Douglas Daily Dispatch, there was “a smooth landing field which is rated as one of the best in this part of the west, it being clean of obstacles…”
Few pilots had landed at McNeal, so when residents heard a plane approaching at 11:30 a.m. on the 28th, many went out to the airfield to see what was going on. It was a great surprise when the famous pilot alighted from the plane.
McNeal residents were delighted to have her as their guest. The Lady’s Aid Society was holding a convention at the time and invited Earhart to attend. One resident was quoted “…we not only gave her the key to the city, but tore the gates from their hinges and then dispensed with the necessity of using a key.”
According to the Dispatch article, Earhart did “little talking” but did say she had landed at McNeal to “avoid the rush and hubbub” of larger fields. She also expressed an appreciation for the hospitality of McNeal residents and said she was falling in love with the West.
The plane was refueled during her three-hour layover. Then, without revealing her destination, Earhart took off once more.
She touched down briefly at Tucson, then landed in Casa Grande to stay the night. The next day she headed west but was unable to gain enough altitude to clear the Sand Tank and Maricopa mountains. Instead she took a southern route, following the Southern Pacific railroad tracks. She made a last stop in Yuma before flying to Los Angeles.
In reaching Los Angeles, she became the first woman to fly solo across the United States. But despite her having encountered half a dozen mishaps and overcome all kinds of uncertainties during the journey, she was too nervous to land at Mines Airfield where the show was taking place. Instead, she landed at Glendale field, where she told the press, “I don’t profess or pretend to be a flyer. I am just an amateur, a dub, flying around the country for the amusement there is in it for me. I certainly wouldn’t attempt to participate in any of the events at Mines field when I didn’t have the nerve enough to land there today around a swarm of ships.”
Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932. Three years later she became the first person to fly solo from Honolulu to California. In 1937, she attempted to fly around the world with a copilot, Frederick J. Noonan. Her plane was lost on the flight between New Guinea and Howard Island and her fate remains a mystery.
– Tom Vaughan. Photo courtesy Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum.