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It was not even 7:30 am, and she already felt the warmth of the sun on her face. That’s what you get out here, even in early December, thought Amelia, as she swung her Plymouth convertible out onto the flight line, past a long line of olive green P-40s, parked wingtip - to - wingtip. Stupid really: those planes were sitting ducks that could be blown to bits by a monkey throwing a stick of dynamite from a balloon.
She drove up to her plane, a brand-new Curtiss P-40E, with more engine power and a heavier armament, a damn improvement over the P-40Bs and Cs stationed here at Hickham Field and elsewhere around Pearl Harbor. Amelia drove the jeep around to the side of the plane and stopped it where the ground crew was finishing pumping fuel from the back of a tanker into the ship’s fuselage fuel tank. “Did you arm her?” she called, walking over. She slung her parachute over her shoulder.
The crew chief nodded. “The Colonel’d kill me if he found out I was doing this, Miz Earhart.” The tanker crew reeled the hose back to the truck.
“Can’t demonstrate the plane without a full combat load, sergeant,” she said, climbing onto the fighter’s wing. “And that includes both fuel and ammunition. At least that’s what the good people at Curtiss-Wright are paying me to do.”
The crew chief handed Amelia her goggles and helmet. “How many more of these demonstration flights they paying you to do, anyhow?”
“One more; that’s on Monday when I’ll be showing the pilots just what this new plane of theirs can do. You can call this my check ride,” she said, taking her goggles and fitting them over her short curly hair. She settled into the cockpit and looked around her. “Clear!” Amelia touched the starter switch and the big Allison in-line rumbled to life on the first try.
The crew chief smiled. He’d almost forgotten today was Sunday. Nothing happened around here on Sundays.
Amelia kept the canopy open as she climbed over Pearl Harbor in the humid morning air. Between the engine pounding in her lap, and the wind blowing in her face, the feeling was almost… sexual. Below her, the slumbering dreadnoughts along Battleship Row, then Ford Island and Luke Field, where she and Fred Noonan had taken off, back in ’37 to start the Pacific leg of their west-to-east round-the-world flight. Almost ground-looped the Lockheed, there and then. She shuddered. Can you imagine what would’ve happened if we’d crashed and had to postpone the flight? There was some thought at the time of making the flight from the opposite direction, east-to-west. Sure glad we never faced the prospect of going down because we’d gotten lost or ran out of fuel if we’d made the last leg over the Pacific…
Over the harbor, she turned northwest and pointed the plane’s nose west and began to fly along the southern coast, the rich green hills merging with the brown sand below her. And then blinked. There was something on the horizon. She blinked again. It seemed to be a swarm of black dots. Planes. And lots of them. She keyed her radio. “Hickham Tower, this is Curtiss Test. I’ve got a large formation of unidentified aircraft approaching Pearl from the west. Over.”
For a second, nothing. Then a burst of static in her ear. “Ah, those are probably that flight of B-17s coming in from the mainland, Curtiss. Over.”
“Roger, Hickham. But those should be coming in from the east. I say again: these are coming in from the west. And there looks to be a lot more than just a flight of ‘em.” Amelia felt a rising sense of dread in her gut.
Silence, then: “Curtiss, this is Hickham. Can you try for a visual intercept? Over.”
“Roger wilco.” Amelia opened up the throttle and pulled back on the stick. The P-40 began to climb, its engine revving louder. She flipped a switch and charged the fighter’s six wing-mounted .50 machine guns and slid the canopy shut with a clunk. The plane climbed to 10,000, and then, through a layer of light cloud, to 15,000 feet, where she leveled off.
Her earphones crackled. “Curtiss, this is Hickham. Can you see anything, over?”
Amelia looked through the canopy and through the plane’s nose-mounted ring gunsight. “I count multiple single-engined aircraft inbound, Hickham. These are not, repeat –are not –B-17s. Over.”
“Hickham, if I were you, I’d call an alert and fast! Those planes’ll be on top of you in minutes, over… Hickham?” But she couldn’t wait for a reply. The black dots were quickly resolving into full-fledged aircraft. Even as she imagined sailors manning battle stations and pilots dashing to their planes below her, more out of faint hope than anything else, she could see several of the closer aircraft peel off towards her. They’ve seen me. She pushed back on her stick and poured on the power, her fighter clawing for more height. Have to get above them. She banked the plane, even as the first white radial-engined fighter slid by her, close enough for her to see the round red circle of the rising sun glinting on the wings.
She reeled as if she was slapped in her face. Japanese. Gripping her stick, Amelia rolled away, even as she saw flashes of light over the nose and on the wings of the second Japanese fighter, coming head on. They’re firing, dammit. Amelia could imagine the bullets buzzing by her canopy, like a swarm of angry bees. Lining the enemy up the ring-sight, she gripped the trigger button on top of her stick for all she was worth.
The acrid smell of fresh cordite filled the cockpit.
From Infamy and After, by John Toland, Henry Holt and Sons, 1955:
… One thing the planners of the Pearl Harbor attack didn’t account for on that Sunday morning was the presence of the single P-40 flown by Earhart. Had the pilot of this lone plane sounded the warning? At 7:49 am, as Lieutenant Commander Mitsuo Fuchida directed the lead element of his Zeros towards the American plane, his heart was heavy. The attack would go in, regardless, but he couldn’t take the chance. He sent a terse signal to Admiral Nagumo: Surprise lost.
Amelia threw her stick over hard. As her fighter winged over and dove, she lined up a Val dive-bomber in her sights and blazed away at it. The bomber’s tail gunner got off a wild burst before he slumped over. She pounded away. The Val blossomed a long trail of black smoke and nosed towards the ground. Two down. She caught another Val and raked it in a single pass. As she bore over the Val, still firing, she saw a wing separate from the plane as it fireballed. Three.
Whup. Whup. Whup. Bullets whipped by her, as she felt their supersonic whipcrack slamming into the plane’s fuselage. In the rear-view mirror, she could see two Zeros lining up on her. She yanked back hard on the stick and poured on the steam, black smoke blasting from her engine’s exhaust stacks. Only hope; they’re faster, more maneuverable, Gotta get up and behind ‘em. She climbed. Kept climbing until she hung upside down in the cockpit. Then righted the plane at the top of her Immelmann, and dove on the enemy fighters like an avenging angel, all guns blazing. She put her fire directly into the cockpit of the wingman; it spun out of control. Amelia went for the leader and pounded at the Zero as it began to disintegrate, bits and pieces flying past her. Two more away.
Now she looked up and saw two olive-drab P-40s flash by her nose. And then a silver P-36. Tearing into the enemy formation. She exhaled a cloud of tension. Fear to joy. They heard me. They...
It was only then that she noticed the smoke beginning to pour from out of her engine.
From Infamy and After, by John Toland, Henry Holt and Sons, 1955:
… When she safely bailed out of her stricken plane that morning, Amelia Earhart was already America’s first ace, with five kills in ten minutes. There were other heroes that day, including Lieutenants Welch and Taylor, but Earhart stood out. She captured the America’s attention at its darkest moment. Possibly because she always already famous. Probably because she was a woman.
Three Months Later:
At least the crowd was appreciative. The aircraft plant workers applauded and called out her name as Amelia mounted the “stage,” the wing of a just-completed B-24 Liberator, parked in front of the factory hangar. She’d done this sort of thing before so much now that she swore she almost knew that they were thinking… that’s her… It’s Amelia! Dimly aware of the gentle flapping of the Buy War Bonds banner behind her, she looked out on the crowd of workers, their wives, and children. With the news from Europe and the Far East still relentlessly bad, they were starved for any sign of victory. They looked up at her wide-eyed and almost worshipful like she was some kind of hero. But was she?
“Hey Amelia, when’s FDR gonna let you fight?” a gruff male voice called as she walked up to the microphone. A wave of gentle laughter and applause washed through the audience. She'd heard that before, too and only smiled. How many times had she written and telegraphed the President, pleading with him to let her go to war? How frustrated she was that she could do more than this… She waved the crowd applauded again, anxious to bathe in the glow of a real hero.
Amelia waved. The crowd roared again, drowning out any attempt by her to speak. So she waved again. The crowd went wild. And as the band struck up “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and she found herself being whisked offstage by a man in civilian clothes. The natty suit and tie didn’t fool her; her new friend had G-man written all over his purposeful face. He wordlessly escorted her to an idling black Packard limo and opened the door for her. She climbed in.
“Hello, Amelia, dear,” said Eleanor Roosevelt.
“M- ma’am?” Amelia scrunched down into her seat. She gulped as the First Lady picked up a telephone handset and spoke into it. The car began to effortlessly move. What did she want? Not just to give me a ride to the train station.
The First Lady adjusted her glasses. “Now, I’ve been reading some of the correspondence you’ve sent to Franklin…”
Oh oh. So now it comes.
“… and I must say, I’m impressed by the case you make.”
“What?” Amelia realized she let the word slip out and reddened.
The First Lady smiled softly. “But before I put my support behind you and take your case for woman fighter pilots to my husband, I want to know why I should.”
The words flew out of Amelia’s mouth. “Ma’am, wasn’t it you, not too long ago, who only allowed woman reporters to attend her press conferences, making sure every daily newspaper that mattered had to hire at least one more woman reporter? And aren’t we now training Negroes to fly fighters?”
“Yes to both those things, but you still haven’t made your case, young lady.” Amelia suspected every woman the First Lady met was a “young lady.”
“Even the Reds have women fighter pilots!” said Amelia, smiling. “…It’s a matter of equal treatment, went it comes down to it. I want to serve my country in the best way I know how; just like I know you do, but the old boys’ network prevents us. Did you ever wonder how things would’ve worked if they were just a little different?”
“Well, if things were just a little different, why couldn’t you have been President?”
Eleanor Roosevelt raised an eyebrow. She smiled.
One Week Later:
“Amelia, be reasonable!” George Putnam glared across at the table at her, an exasperated look on his face. He put the fork with down, eggs still on it.
“I am George dear. It's you who aren't being reasonable. We're at war, after all.”
“You know how I feel.” He frowned, dabbing a napkin on his mouth. “I've never tried to restrain you in any way in our marriage, Amelia, but this time, I must insist: you damn near got yourself killed at Pearl Harbor and now this! It's foolishness!”
“About as foolish as you joining up?”
“Yes, I'm considering it. But, in your case, darling, it's different.”
“How? George, don't you see? Not only are we fighting for democracy, we're also fighting for equality!”
“Oh, I see. I just wish they had someone else to lead them.”
“They don't. It's my idea, after all. They need me.”
“They you have a choice to make, don't you?” He got up and left the table in silence.
Amelia looked down at the remains of her breakfast, suddenly tasteless and cold. No, I don't have a choice.
Twelve Months Later:
“I didn’t like sending Negro pilots into combat,” growled General “Hap” Arnold, “and I like this idea even less.” He watched as a formation of four twin-engined P-38 Lightning fighters peeled off over the airfield. Arnold turned to Amelia, the sun glinting off his aviator’s sunglasses. “In fact, Colonel, I positively hate the idea.”
“With all due respect sir,” said Lieutenant Colonel Amelia Earhart to the commander of the Army Air Forces, “We’re combat ready and if we wait any longer we’ll miss this war! All we need is your orders confirming our operational status, sir.”
Arnold gave her a slow, hard look and stiffened visibly to match his pressed khakis. “I said I didn’t like this idea, Colonel. Send women into combat and you’ll demoralize the men who should be there. But you have a friend in a high place, Colonel, and her husband has been chewing my ass over you gals. He paused as a second flight of fighters roared low overhead, the sun glinting off their silver wings. Arnold sighed. “I don’t like ‘em, but I have my orders and you’ll get your orders tomorrow confirming your status.” He snapped her a quick salute. “And may God help us all.”
Amelia returned her salute, barely suppressing a giddy smile. “Yes, sir!”
If Arnold noticed, he said nothing. He was walking back to his waiting staff car, still grumbling to himself.
“Well, sir?” Amelia’s second-in-command, Major Jacqueline Cochran, who’d been standing at a respectful distance, came over. “What did he say?”
“It’s a go, Jackie,” Amelia whooped. “We get our orders tomorrow!”
A single P-38 came in low over the east. More than anything else, Amelia thought its droning engines sounded like the long steady roll of a drum.
Armed Forces Radio Broadcast, week of November 12th, 1943:
“We're speaking with the Commander of the 324th Fighter Squadron, our first all-female unit, Lieutenant-Colonel Amelia Earhart. Colonel, how many kills have you so far?”
“I've just got my 18th kill today: it was a Messerschmitt.”
“That's great! I hear you've got a friendly rivalry going with Major Cochrane.”
(Laughs) “Well, she's got 12 kills – 13 if you count what she also got today.”
(Laughs) “A real bunch of femme fatales! The Krauts are going to be hard-pressed to keep up with you!”
“Keep your eyes open, ladies,” said Amelia, scanning the sky through the cockpit. “It’d be bad if we got bounced this time out.” A layer of thin clouds stretched out above them, scattering the weak winter sunlight. Below them, the white fields of France stretched out, now almost four years under the Nazi jackboot. Soon, Adolf. On either side of her, the rumble of her P-38’s twin Alison engines kept her alert, on the edge.
“Bandits! Three o’clock!” That was her wingman, Nancy Harkness Love, one of Amelia’s original pilots, going back from their days as “Ninety Nines,” with Jackie. “Closing fast.”
“Roger. Wingmen stay with your leaders.” She cranked her head to her port wing. “Break !” As she banked her plane, Nancy’s P-38 matched hers, move for move. She could see them now, a line of radial-engined fighters –FW 190s, and coming head-on. Took guts to do that. Her finger found the trigger. We’ll see where that gets you. “Hold fire ‘till they get into range.”
Suddenly, they were together, mixing it up. Amelia’s thumb gripped the trigger and she felt the stabbing recoil of the big 20 mm cannon and the .50s in her fighter’s nose as she banked and twisted to keep with an enemy plane that was wildly trying to evade her. No good. The blunt-nosed plane began to smoke and slowly drop and Amelia banked and rolled away. “Love?” She did a shoulder-check. “Nancy?”
“Got someone on my tail.” Nancy’s voice crackled over Amelia’s headphones, with just a hint of desperation. “Can I get some help? This one’s real good.”
“On my way.” She opened up her throttles and her engines screamed, black smoke pouring from their exhaust stacks. She could see Nancy’s fighter now, bobbing and weaving, trying to shake a single Focke-Wulf that stuck with her like a vulture. Trying, but not succeeding: smoke streamed from Nancy’s starboard engine. “Shake ‘em!”
“Get out of there! Bail out, Nancy!”
“I…” Nancy’s fighter blossomed in a red and black-tinged flower. Nancy… Amelia’s gut tightened as she bore down on the Focke-Wulf, which she could now see had a large what was that on the fuselage –a winged helmet? – painted under the cockpit. Her guns thundered as she the trigger, but the Nazi pilot deftly pulled up and climbed out of her way. Amelia banked and tried to stay with the FW, but it climbed away from her. Damn it…Can’t afford to let him get in behind me. She pulled on her stick tighter, but out of the corner of her eye, she saw the FW slide in behind her, gun flashes dancing on its nose and wingtips. Shit! Her fighter rocked as her starboard engine exploded in fire and smoke.
“Amelia!” That was Jackie. “Bail out! Bail out!”
“I’m not going to go like Nancy, damn it!” Her Lightning was sluggish as she nosed it down. Smoke piled from the stricken engine; the other was straining. One chance. Maybe I can lose him in a dive… The plane began to shake, scream, and then howl, as the ground grew from an indistinct blur into definite objects that were roads, homes, and fields. She pulled on her stick. It wouldn’t move. Controls have locked up. Heart thumping in her ears, she tugged at her parachute harness… I’m too close to jump. Again Amelia tried and pulled back on the stick. Somewhere, an angel or even God smiled: the stick moved back and the plane slowly began to level off as the air whistled over the wings. The P-38 flared out low over a small town, as a church steeple whistled by her wingtip. She pulled the stick gently back and began a long slow climb up. Amelia looked at the blackened starboard wing – she'd lost an engine but the fire was out, thank God.
“Amelia,” said Jackie, falling alongside her with the rest of the squadron. “Great flying! We thought we’d lost you.”
“I’m a little harder to kill than that,” said Amelia. “Come on, let’s go home.”
Two Days Later:
“Who’s that?” Amelia sat in a darkened room, looking at a picture of a woman on a screen. It wasn’t that she was especially pretty; it was the fact she was dressed in a Luftwaffe uniform and wore an Iron Cross around her neck.
“Hanna Reitsch,” said the RAF intelligence officer beside her. “Top German test pilot, one of Hitler's favorites and now your opposite number, I’m afraid.” He pushed a copy of Signal, the German propaganda magazine across the table to her, under the dim yellow light of a small lamp. The cover photo showed Reitsch in standing with other young women in Luftwaffe uniform in front of a parked fighter. The headline read, Die Walküre.
“The Valkyries.” Amelia flipped her way past the pages. “That’s who worked us over the other day?”
The RAF officer nodded. He stubbed his cigarette in the ashtray.
“Jeezus,” said an American officer behind her in the dark. “That’s all we need. We’ve just lost whatever advantage we had. I vote we ground the squadron, now.”
“With all due respect, sir.” Amelia got her feet. “We aren’t here for propaganda; we’re here to fight. And if we get our noses bloodied, that’s part of war, sir. It would look even worse if we retreated after this.” She picked up the magazine and dropped it on the floor.
“It’s not your decision to make, Lieutenant Colonel.”
“It’s not your decision to make either, Colonel.” The lights came on. General Carl Spaatz, the Eighth Air Force commander, walked to the front of the room, studying the face on the screen. “No, we’re not backing away from this one bit.” He looked at Amelia. “Colonel, Hitler’s issued you a direct challenge. Feel up to it?”
Amelia stood to her feet. “Yes, sir!”
The new planes had come in.
Amelia walked up the row of silver P-51D Mustangs, noting with satisfaction the four-bladed props that marked the business end of their Packard Merlin engines. She’d miss the Lightnings, but now with Hanna Reitsch fighting for the Nazis, General Spaatz figured that her squadron needed planes that could better meet the FWs on their own terms. More level speed, more maneuverability, which the Lightnings lacked. The Mustangs’ eight wing-mounted fifties didn’t hurt either.
“Sure are pretty things, aren’t they?” she said, slowly running her hand down a propeller blade.
“Truth be told, “said Jackie, “I liked the Lightnings better. We’re going to miss that cannon.”
“Maybe yes, maybe no.” Amelia suddenly felt tired. But it was fleeting, only long enough for only her to notice. She turned to Jackie and managed a smile that wasn’t quite as forced as it seemed. “One way or another, we’re gonna clip those Valkyries’ wings…”
From Famous American Fighter Squadrons, by John Bowen, The Military Institute Press, 1987:
… both sides’ propaganda machines quickly focused on the almost personal battle between Earhart and Reitsch. They had never met, yet it had seemed they had been lifelong enemies. One was born and bred steeped in democratic ideals, the other a die-hard Nazi. Yet both were remarkably similar: already famous fliers before the war began, who had done much to promote the cause of women in aviation. The similarities were simply too close for anyone not to notice.
But similarities or not, the grinding course of battle and losing so many friends soon began to exact a toll on Earhart…
“Get her! Get her!”
“Watch your tail! Wingmen, close up.”
“Look at her go!”
A blazing Focke-Wulf 190, minus a starboard wing, corkscrewed across the nose of Amelia’s Mustang. Not even bothering to give it a perfunctory burst from her guns, Amelia banked her fighter and rolled away. One more down; one more woman dead. Every day this war went on, she found herself less able to look at herself in the mirror. I wanted to get women like her into flying… and I just killed her. Maybe it would’ve been better if we’d crashed somewhere in the Pacific, back in ’37, instead of all this…
“Amelia, behind you!” Jackie’s voice screamed hoarse over her headphones. Amelia jerked around in her heavy parachute harness, gasping for breath under her oxygen mask as bullets zipped by the all-too-thin glass of her bubble canopy.
Reitsch, thought Amelia. God damn you and God damn me. Taking her stick with both hands and kicking the rudder bar with her boots, she rolled her P-51 away as the FW continued to draw a fine bead on her, pumping streams of machine gun fire past her. Amelia felt the Mustang’s engine throbbing in front of her as she fed power to it. She threw her plane into a climbing bank as bullets whipped by her again. Cursing, she snapped the Mustang into a wingover and the FW shot past. Amelia slid in behind and thumbed the trigger button atop her stick. Her wing-mounted guns shuddered as they bit into the tail of the Nazi plane. See how you like it. Now, Amelia saw Reitsch's plane begin to climb, even as she imagined her rounds striking home. What are you doing? She gunned the fighter and yanked back on the stick between her legs to climb in pursuit. Not getting away that easily.
What the…? Partly in admiration, partly in horror, Amelia looked up at Reitsch's FW. It hung there in space for a second, nose pointed straight up, propeller blades clawing at the air. Hammerhead stall. And then, suddenly, diving, firing, diving on her. Amelia yanked her stick back as far as it would go and stabbed the trigger button for all she was worth. She could feel her Mustang shudder and tear apart with the impact of Reitsch's hits even as she saw her own fire shred into the Reitsch's plane.
“Amelia… what the hell are you doing?” demanded Jackie’s voice in her headphones. Amelia hardly winced as a round grazed her bulletproof windshield, creating a star pattern in cracked glass, which like a prism split the oncoming plane into a thousand fragments. “Pull away… she’s going to ram!”
“Amelia, can you hear me?” Seconds before the two planes collided, Amelia’s last thoughts were how funny Reitsch's plane looked in her windshield.
“can you Amelia hearing”
“hear me, Amelia?”
“Amelia, can you hear me?” She smelled antiseptic and felt the coolness of linen sheets against her. Gradually, her world lightened as with great strength, she managed to force her eyes open. She blinked again, this time forcing her eyes open longer as bright white light flooded into her eyes.
“Nurse!” shouted a woman whose voice was somehow familiar to her. “Lieutenant Colonel Earhart’s awake!” Jackie Cochrane smiled, running a warm hand across Amelia’s forehead. “Take it easy… can you hear me, Amelia?”
“Y-yes,” Amelia croaked. She was startled by the weakness in her voice. “W-what…?”
“Take it easy,” said Jackie. “You’ve been out a while…”
“Dead. You got her, Amelia.”
Amelia smiled and sank back into her pillow.
The next few days were hazy. By time Amelia was beginning to feel like her old self, it was already mid-October, according to the front page of the Stars and Stripes. She put the paper down. That meant she’d spent the better part of the last six weeks drifting in and out of a coma. She’d never noticed the fact that her right leg was in a cast up to her hip until her first full day awake. Broken in two places, said the doctor.
She picked up the paper from her bed and began to leaf through it again. The news was, of course, of the upcoming presidential election in November. President Roosevelt and his new running mate (the selection had raised a few eyebrows) had a handsome lead in the polls over Senator Dewey… so that really was no news. And besides the big war news of MacArthur’s return to the Philippines, there was also a somewhat smaller story on how the newly promoted Colonel Earhart was reported to be in good spirits as she recovered from her wounds suffered when her fighter collided in combat with Hanna Reitsch's plane.
She seemed to be a hero, which surprised her. Cards, letters, mostly from women wanting to know how she made a difference in their lives. A big difference, judging from some of the things she’d heard. There was the short note and campaign button from a woman from Vermont who was running for Congress in November. And then there was the get-well telegram from the commander of an all-female Navy fighter squadron from the USS Lexington. She smiled. Imagine the problems they had getting women on flattops.
Unofficially, there was talk about a Distinguished Flying Cross with a one-way ticket home attached to it. If only Amelia could somehow find a way to delay. She put down the paper and looked at the bedside table where a notepad and pencil lay. If writing a letter worked once before…
She needed a break.
Two Months Later:
The RAF intelligence officer slid the grainy black and white photos –obviously taken from a gun camera –across the table. Amelia picked up the photo and looked at it. Taken from the rear, it showed a high-tailed aircraft silhouette with two monstrous bulges under the wings. She picked up another, from a different, angle of the same machine, now clearly showing its swept wings. “What are those under the wings… engines?” asked Amelia, finally. She whistled softly.
The RAF officer nodded. “This is Jerry’s newest secret weapon… the Messerschmitt Me 262. It’s like our new Meteors, only a little faster.”
“A jet, then?” asked another U.S. officer at the table.
“Correct. It’s been entering squadron service in numbers for some time now, but it’s only become operational in the last few weeks. It has a combination of speed and firepower that frankly, ladies and gentlemen, puts our own machines to shame.”
General Spaatz stood up. “The only saving grace is that this thing is just becoming available now… think what would’ve happened if it had been ready for D-Day. That’s why we need all our best pilots to knock these things down as soon as the krauts put them up. The question is, how?”
“They’re not invincible.” A tall lanky American lieutenant –Amelia thought his name was Yeager –stood up. “I nailed one of those bastards as it came in for a landing at its field. I just circled around and waited…”
“Smart,” smiled Amelia, looking at Yeager. She’d heard he knocked down five German fighters in one mission. Amelia felt an instant kinship towards him. That’s the right stuff. “Those jets are probably pretty thirsty and so the pilot must be pretty low on fuel…”
Yeager nodded. “He was just gliding in.”
“Do whatever you have to do,” said Spaatz, pointing at the swept wings on the screen. “That’s our priority now.”
Two Weeks Later:
“Jeezus, look at that bastard go!”
“Get up on top of him,” snapped Amelia, giving the spurs to her P-51. It was the first real, live 262 she’d seen, and although she never would admit it, she was impressed. Not only by its speed, but also by the way those gracefully swept wings seemed to knife through the air. That’s the future, damn it. “Can’t catch ‘em by tail-chasing him; we have to get on top of him!”
“Roger that. I’m climbing.” That was Jackie.
Amelia climbed, too. She smiled as she eased her stick back and her fighter’s nose rose. Couldn’t let Jackie beat me to this one. Ever since Amelia had been released from the hospital and sent back to her unit, she’d felt better. Life seemed to be less of a grind and had more purpose. Hell, even the Nazis finally seemed to be on the ropes. Obliging bastards. She climbed until she was almost on top of the enemy fighter, rolled her ship, then nosed down until she lined up the swept-winged shape in her gunsight.
Amelia pressed the trigger on her stick gently, almost reverently. Exhaling, releasing, as her tracers arched out, bright phosphor darts biting into the wings and fuselage of the Nazi plane that seemed to grow as she fell on it. She saw one of its jet engines explode and suddenly, the Messerschmitt was behind her. Amelia pulled up and looked over her shoulder through her Mustang’s bubble canopy. The enemy fighter was tumbling, a bright ball of fire against the sky.
“Amelia,” said Jackie, “You’ve got to be plumb crazy to fly that thing.” That thing was small, about as small as the Aeronca lightplane Amelia sometimes flew back in the States. But there the resemblance ended: The Messerschmitt ME 163 Komet – anther one of Hitler’s wonder weapons— was a rocket-powered dart, with sharp swept-back wings, and perhaps most alarmingly, from Jackie’s point of view, no tail.
“No, it’s a real rocket ship.” Amelia smiled as she surveyed the sharklike craft on as it sat on its wheeled ski undercarriage in front of a hanger on a former Luftwaffe airfield in western Germany. She ran a hand approvingly along a wing. “Over 600 miles per hour.”
“It could kill you, almost like that crash did in ’37!”
Amelia’s smile broadened. “Yeah, but with some work, I bet it could break the sound barrier.” She knew the Army Air Force and the Bell Aircraft people were working on their own project. Hell, she also knew the British were working on something and she was willing to bet the Soviets weren't sitting on their hands. Amelia looked at the little rocketplane again: it could work, dammit. She smiled again.
Amelia smiled again. Fastest woman alive. Yes, it could work. But it would take help. Fortunately, with a new President, she definitely had friends in high places…
Twelve Months Later:
The lumbering B-29 climbed over the California coast, heading out over the Pacific. The bomber’s four big Wright engines pounded rhythmically in Amelia’s ears and competed for her thoughts, even with her bulky headphones on. She sat back in the Komet’s padded leather seat and inhaled deeply. The tangy smell of the hydrazine mixture that made up one-half of the ship’s rocket fuel combined with the usual oil and dust smell of the bomb bay filled her nostrils.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Jackie looked down at her from the catwalk to the bomb bay where the little rocket plane was snugged, like a baby in its mother’s womb. The Komet had been rebuilt from the ground up; in fact, it was almost a new plane. Stripped of all excess weight, the ship now boasted such improvements as a bubble canopy, a more dramatically swept wing, and the rocket motor that had been planned for an advanced version that had never flown. And thank God for that, thought Jackie, Thing’s dangerous enough as is. “We don’t even know if this damned thing will fly after we put it back together again!” She sniffed. “Smells like it’s leaking fuel someplace.”
Amelia fastened the chinstrap on her helmet. “How much further ‘till the drop zone?”
“Uh… ten minutes.” Jackie checked her watch. There was no stopping Amelia now. Not after all the lobbying in Washington. The Army had balked at her idea, but after she threatened to go the Navy, they reluctantly went along with it. They were indeed going ahead with the Bell project; this was a sideshow. That made Amelia more determined than ever.
“Better get up front, then. I’ll see you downstairs.” She smiled and slid the canopy shut. It locked with a solid clunk. Fastest woman alive. It did have a nice ring to it. She slipped on her oxygen mask and turned on the flow. Cool, rubbery-smelling air filled her nostrils. “Communications check. Do you read me, Mother?”
“Roger,” came Jackie’s voice, now coolly professional. “Stand by for release in eight minutes.”
“Eight minutes, roger.” The Komet jostled a bit as the bomber rode through some minor turbulence. She tensed for a second, but just. Have to be careful with how much she bumped around. Any accidental mixing of the rocket engine’s two fuels would spell trouble. She smiled again. She’d seen worse during the war.
It’s funny how it all went, she thought, my being at Pearl Harbor at exactly the right time. That led, on an arrow’s path, right to this very moment.
Or even before, how somehow she and Fred Noonan narrowly avoided that ground loop taking off from Luke Field. She smiled. They would’ve tried again, but any accident would’ve left a shadow over the attempt. It would’ve been a very a bad sign.
“Five minutes. Opening bomb-bay doors.”
Her cockpit was flooded with bright light. The Komet bounced again on its cradle, as air rushed up through the open doors. The rumbling of the bomber’s engines was now louder, sounding like an express locomotive idling right beside her.
“Four. Check tank pressure.”
"Looks good." Her eyes scanned the gauges.
Everything led to this moment.
This was the way it was meant to be. She knew that now.
“Begin one-minute countdown to drop."
Her hands gripped the control stick.
Amelia Earhart felt the sky open up to receive her.
“… The nation grieves today for the loss of one its greatest heroes — Amelia Earhart. I do not use the feminine term heroine; as to do so would commit a grave injustice to her memory. She has done much to rebalance the way the sexes see each other; this can only be for the good. She has inspired and pointed the way, not only in aviation and the military but also in so many other walks of life. That she died trying to break one more barrier — the sound barrier — should not be considered as a failure, but as a fitting testimony to a life well-lived.”
— Funeral remarks by the thirty-third President of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, July 14, 1946.