Aviator Logs Milestones Re-creating Earhart Flight

AROUND THE WORLD IN 10-1/2 WEEKS

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Aviator historian Linda Finch is set today to complete her re-creation of Amelia Earhart's 1937 flight around the world, but a scene here in a local park might satisfy her even more than that dramatic mission.

"Are you an eagle?" says a passerby to young Shelly Bledcoe, whose arms are spread like wings for takeoff from a grassy knoll. "No, I'm Amelia Earhart," says the freckled kindergartner, whose class has tracked the flight from the beginning.

The scene would make Ms. Finch proud. When she took off March 17 from Oakland on the 60th anniversary of Earhart's departure, her goal was to spotlight Earhart's pioneering life.

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As she finishes what Earhart began, Finch's flight will mark aviation and communications milestones. It will also expand the growing, post-modern-era tendency to re-create history as a way of recovering national identity.

"Historical reenactments have become one of the best ways for Americans to participate in a collective experience that is important to them," says Jim Stewart, a history professor at Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minn.

The collective aspect of the experience is important to Finch, a mother of three. "Linda wants everyone to remember that Amelia preached to the young constantly that they didn't have to accept the limitations that society ... placed on them," says Jennie Riggs, Finch's on-ground flight navigator. "She was a tremendously brave and forward-thinking human being."

By stopping to engage school children on several continents - and have classrooms follow her every move on the Internet (www.worldflight.org) - the Texas aviator also wanted to show young people that "with hard work, you can have your dreams."

Finch's success is already being heralded for reaching beyond limitations in several ways. Even though she had the advantages of advanced radar equipment and, at times, chase planes, the trip was a staggering technological feat. Technicians spent months restoring a Lockheed Electra 10E, one of only two left in the world, for the flight. The sleek plane's air-cooled, radial design engine was a breakthrough when it was designed in 1934, and its power-to-weight ratio led to the development of modern commercial flight.

But it is deafeningly noisy and, because of fragile cockpit windows that cracked in several places, Finch had to use duct tape to keep out wind and rain that might destroy her sophisticated, on-board tracking equipment.

The 10-1/2-week trip was also a test of personal endurance. Besides flying stretches of up to 19 hours, Finch made 36 stops in 18 countries on five continents. Many stops included trips to local schools or visits by schoolchildren to Finch's landing sites.

"Unlike Amelia's flight, CNN and reporters were everywhere," says Ms. Riggs. Finch wanted such coverage to show girls everywhere that an airplane cockpit is as legitimate a place for women to be as an office. The message is being seen as a timely counter to wide media coverage of the US Air Force's decision to discharge its first female B-52 pilot.

"This flight has hit home a message that very talented women are out there in every field of aviation from military, to commercial, to astronauts," says Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at Washington's National Air and Space Museum. She notes that despite Earhart's worldwide fame, inroads for women didn't really begin until the civil- and equal-rights movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, about 6 percent of commercial pilots are women.

As she flew an average 150 m.p.h. over oceans and deserts to places like Al Fashir and Surabaya, Finch's saga also marked a communications milestone. "As far as we know, this is the first time a moving plane has been tracked live on the Internet," says Robert Katz, of COMSAT Mobile Communications.

Professor Stewart says this is part of the flight's appeal. "The idea is to somehow make the world believe you can do something new while at the same time reinvent something old," he says. "People find it to be life-enriching, educational, and even of service to a strong feeling of nationalism."

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