By 1937, five years after she became the first female pilot to fly solo over the Atlantic Ocean, Amelia Earhart was an international celebrity and one of the most recognizable women in the world. Not content to rest on her laurels, she continued to push boundaries in the male-dominated aviation field. Though she wouldn’t be the first pilot to fly around the world, she set her sights on becoming the first to circle the globe via a longer, more challenging equatorial route. With financing from Purdue University, Earhart bought an Electra L-10E model plane, built to her specifications at a Lockheed plant in Burbank.
Earhart made her first attempt at a round-the-world voyage in March 1937. She took off from Oakland, California, but made it only as far as Hawaii, where she crashed during takeoff on the second leg of the journey and was grounded at Pearl Harbor. Her plane was shipped back to California for extensive repairs before Earhart flew from Oakland to Miami that May. On June 1, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, departed from Miami on a second attempt to fly around the world. As we all know, the voyage ended catastrophically—after taking off from Lae, New Guinea, for Howland Island on July 2, 1937, the plane dropped out of contact the following morning. Despite massive search efforts, the fate of Earhart, Noonan and the Electra has remained a mystery for the past 78 years.
While the never-before-published footage from Burbank Airport (now Bob Hope Airport) in 1937 provides no clues about Earhart’s doomed voyage, it does offer a rare glimpse at a more personal side of the famous aviatrix. In the 3.5-minute-long film, possibly shot by John Bresnik, Earhart walks on the tarmac, climbs into the cockpit of her twin-engine Electra L-10E and shows off the plane to nearby onlookers, all while Al Bresnik takes photographs. Dressed not in her usual flight jacket but an elegant pantsuit, Earhart is wearing a wide grin, an expression she rarely put on in official photos.
According to John Bresnik’s son (also named John), the footage from that day remained on a shelf, in a box marked “Amelia Earhart, Burbank Airport, 1937,” for more than 50 years, until he found it after his father’s death in 1992. Not realizing its significance, the younger Bresnik placed it in a drawer at his home in Escondido, California, for another 20 years. He then gave it to a publishing company, Paragon Agency, which digitized the film and is releasing it along with the 80-page companion book this month.
Richard Gillespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recover (TIGHAR)—an organization that has been searching for Earhart’s lost plane for decades—says the film is most certainly authentic. However, he disputes the conclusion of the book’s author, Nicole Swinford, that the film dates to May 1937, immediately before Earhart’s second round-the-world attempt. Instead, he says it must have been taken in March, before Earhart’s first flight. Gillespie points to the lack of repair plating on the plane as evidence for his conclusion, as well as the fact that Earhart headed for Miami to begin her second voyage amid relatively little fanfare, so there was most likely not a photo shoot at that time.
Gillespie and TIGHAR made headlines of their own last October, when they announced that a scrap of aluminum found in 1991 on the uninhabited Pacific atoll of Nikumaroro appeared to be one of the metal patches used to repair Earhart’s Electra after a bad landing in Miami. Based on that metal scrap, as well as a sonar anomaly in the water near Nikumaroro and some other artifacts turned up in their investigations, Gillespie and his colleagues believes Earhart and Noonan might have landed on the tiny island and ultimately died there.
Though critics believe TIGHAR lacks adequate evidence to back this theory, the organization remains undaunted. Earlier this week, Gillespie and 15 volunteers set off on a five-day, 1,000-mile voyage from Fiji to Nikumaroro to conduct further investigations.