Fifty years ago, Ann Holtgren Pellegreno departed Oakland, California, on June 9 in a restored 1937 twin-engine Lockheed 10 Electra. She and her crew followed the “Earhart Trail” eastbound around the world, and returned to Oakland July 7, 1967.
Ann and her crew — mechanic Lee Koepke, the owner and restorer of Lockheed N79237; co-pilot Bill Payne; and navigator Bill Polhemus — had meticulously planned the Earhart Commemorative Flight, as closely as possible, to arrive over Howland Island at the same time and day of the month that Amelia Earhart’s flight would have in 1937.
Finding Howland Island
Ann flew from Lae, New Guinea, to Nauru, and after refueling, took off into the horizonless night sky. The venerable Lockheed 10 droned through the oceanic darkness until morning, with navigator Bill Polhemus taking celestial shots every half hour.
Minutes before their predicted time of arrival over Howland Island, a heavy rain squall obscured the sky and ocean. Descending to 300 feet, they peered intently at the surrounding ocean, but couldn’t detect the island, and continued flying over the area for 20 minutes.
“Suddenly Lee whacked me on the shoulder and pointed. ‘Is that the island under those clouds, just above the right wing tip?’ Bill Payne and I looked. As we flew nearer, we knew Howland had been found. This was the tiny speck, only half a mile wide and 8 feet high, that Noonan and Earhart had tried to locate —the little strip of earth that would have saved their lives…” wrote Ann, in her article “I Completed Amelia Earhart’s Flight” that ran in the November 1967 issue of McCall’s First Magazine for Women.
“Leaving the cockpit, I crawled back in the fuselage and picked up the wreath friends in New Guinea had given me to drop on Howland. Bill Payne guided the Lockheed low over the island, and Lee held me with a bearlike grip. When the island was just below us, he forced the door open with his foot, and I slipped the wreath through the opening,” she wrote. “There is no doubt that it fell on the island. I hope close to where the wheels of another Lockheed should have touched 30 years ago. I felt very close to history, and this was the climax of our trip.”
They flew southeast to Canton Island in the Phoenix Islands, and a day later, to Honolulu. After completing the final and longest leg to Oakland, Ann and her crew were heartily welcomed by a crowd, including some individuals who had known Amelia and her navigator Fred Noonan.
A couple of days later, upon arrival in Amelia’s home state of Kansas, Ann was warmly greeted by Amelia’s sister, Muriel Morrissey.
“She told me that my flight had written ‘Mission accomplished’ to another dream begun 30 years ago,” wrote Ann.
Genesis of the Flight
It was apropos that Lee was the one to spot the island, because the flight had been his dream. The 1967 Earhart Commemorative Flight had its genesis at a small grass airport near Willow Run Airport in Michigan.
Lee was restoring a wrecked Lockheed 10 Electra he’d bought in 1962. Ann and her husband, Don, were friends with Lee, and when Lee asked Ann if she’d fly the Lockheed around the world when the restoration was finished, she laughed. She had only 120 hours flying time in single-engine planes!But Lee encouraged Ann, saying that 1967 would be a good year to make the flight, since it would be the 30th anniversary of the Earhart-Noonan flight.
Within a few years, Ann stopped teaching English and became a flight instructor.
After talking with Lee in January 1967, she felt somehow drawn to the airport to see the Electra.
Ann wrote, “Snow was falling as I pulled up alongside her. No one was around. The door was open … I climbed aboard and sank into the pilot’s seat. … The seed of a dream was planted that day, and it began to grow.”
Preflight Prep and Funding
Prior to departure, Ann, who first learned to fly in tailwheel airplanes, acquired some transition time in Beechcraft D-18s, and logged about 15 hours PIC time in the Lockheed.
The Electra was fitted with long-range fuel tanks. Also, it had to be hand-flown since there was no autopilot. The 1967 state-of-the art navigation equipment included: A gyrostabilized drift meter, a Collins 618-T-3 HF transceiver, a Loran set, two Kollsman periscopic sextants, two King Silver Crown VHF 720-channel transceivers, two King Omni heads, and a KR-80 ADF.
Ann and her crew had no major sponsors for the flight and were largely self-funded. They received about $1,500 in donations; Champion donated $1,000 and iridium spark plugs; and McCall’s paid Ann in advance for her article.
Various other companies helped support the flight by loaning equipment or offering expertise.
“I also got a $4,000 loan using my 1966 Plymouth Valiant as collateral. Basically, we were on a shoestring, going around the world,” Ann recalls. “I owed more than $15,000 when we returned home. But it was worth it. The flight was a very satisfying thing to do. Our goal was to find Howland Island, and we did that on July 2, exactly 30 years to the day after Amelia was supposed to arrive there. ”
Ann still has the highest regards for her flight crew.
“Without Bill Payne and Bill Polhemus, Lee and I couldn’t even have gotten off the ground,” she says. “They were both top-drawer people. Bill Payne received a Harmon Trophy for his 1961 record-setting B-58 flight from New York to Paris and Polhemus was his navigator.”
“We were a totally cohesive crew; it was amazing how the four of us worked together to get everything done,” she continued. “Lee took total care of the airplane; we never had any problems and the engines didn’t miss a beat!”
50 Years Later
Ann’s endeavors have remained within the world of aviation ever since her 1967 world flight. She holds a commercial pilot certificate with instrument, multi-engine, and flight instructor ratings, and lends a hand with her husband Don’s airplane restorations.
They live on a grass strip in Texas, where they keep their 1940 J-3 Cub, 1967 Piper Arrow, and 1947 Fairchild XNQ-1.
Ann has travelled around the country, sharing her world flight experiences with numerous audiences, most recently at the 2016 Cactus Fly-in in Casa Grande, Arizona, and the 2016 National LadiesLoveTaildraggers Fly-in/Splash-in at Sulphur Springs, Texas.
Her first book, “World Flight, the Earhart Trail,” was published in 1971 and received the Nonfiction Book Award from the Aviation/Space Writers Association in 1972.
She served on the Iowa Aeronautics Commission from 1974 to 1975, and on the Iowa Department of Transportation Commission from 1974 to 1976. She was the first woman appointed to any state DOT commission. Ann also served on the Iowa Humanities Council from 1976-1978.
A prolific author, Ann’s articles have appeared in McCall’s, Air Progress, Air Trails, Sport Aviation, Antique Airplane News, The Annals of Iowa, Fly-Low, and the Plymouth Owners Club Bulletin.
She also wrote an exceptionally-detailed trilogy, “Iowa Takes to the Air,” about aviation in Iowa from 1845-2003.
Ann’s honors have been numerous through the years. She has been inducted into four halls of fame and has received many other accolades for various aspects of her aviation career.
As for the glorious old Lockheed 10 Electra, Lee sold N79237 to Air Canada in 1968, and it was restored to its original configuration as Trans-Canada Air Lines CF-TCA. It’s on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.
Though her Lockheed crew members have now “Gone West,” Ann is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Earhart Commemorative Flight throughout 2017, and is currently working on an extensive 50th anniversary edition of her first book.