Amelia Earhart – Diver
Words by John Lockwood
Before the famous aviatrix was lost without a trace over the Pacific in 1937, “Lady Lindy” tried her hand at deep sea diving
Amelia Earhart is well known for her aeronautical feats in the 1920s and 30s and, of course, the mystery that surrounds her disappearance during her ill-fated attempt to circumnavigate the globe. But there was one, less famous occasion when she indulged her interest in going underwater as a diver.
In July1929, during a tour of America’s Eastern Seaboard, Earhart visited the resort of Brook Island, Rhode Island. Earhart arrived by amphibious plane from New York City on July 21st, flown by pilot and aircraft designer Grover Loening. Earhart spent the day sword fishing with George Palmer Putnam, the well-known publisher, and his wife Dorothy on their yacht.
The following day Earhart visited a privately-owned submarine, ‘Defender’, built by inventor Simon Lake, which had been hired by the USN for conducting tests on submarine rescue and stationed at Brook Island. Earhart donned a diving kit previously used by Frank Crilly. Crilly was an adventurer in his own right, who had established the record for deep-sea diving a few years previously. He was now a member of the Defender’s crew. The kit included a brass and copper helmet, a diver’s ‘dress’, and a signal rope. Crilly was present for Earhart’s dive.
The July 22nd attempt, however, was cut short. According to early newspaper reports, Earhart “nervously” tugged at the signal rope just as her helmet was about to go under the surface. When she surfaced, she said, “These divers certainly must have their nerve.” She promised to try again the next day, July 23rd. If allowing herself to be rattled in this way doesn’t sound like Amelia Earhart, it’s because it wasn’t. Earhart was irritated by the accounts, all the more since she had hoped to avoid any publicity at all.
The later newspaper accounts got it right. The wrist cuffs of the suit, designed for Crilly, were too big for Earhart’s wrists. Water began seeping in, and either she or Crilly–accounts vary–signaled to pull her back aboard ship.
On July 23rd, new cuffs were used and Earhart tried again, successfully this time. This time, Crilly went down with her. She descended to 35 feet (10.6m) and stayed for 12 minutes. While there, Earhart picked up a clam and brought it back to the surface to check any lingering doubts that she had made the dive.
Earhart was modest about her dive, saying, “It was nothing at all. Plenty of women have been deeper and stayed longer.” She went on to say, “Another time I hope to arrange a real dive sub-surface and sub-rosa.” (The latter phrase indicating no attention or publicity.)
One newspaper, the Evening Star of Washington, D.C., featured a lead headline in its July 24th issue, “Woman Ocean Flyer Stays Under Water 12 Minutes in Dive”. Only in the body of the article did the paper mention Earhart by name.
But there was more to come. Later that same day, the Defender itself went down to 15 feet (4.5m) or 100 feet (30m)–again, the accounts vary. On board were Earhart and Dorothy Putnam–wearing only bathing suits. They were there to test for themselves the submarine’s escape device, a newly-invented “air pressure chamber” (lock-out chamber) at the front of the Defender.
Crilly had tried out the system a few weeks earlier. The Defender had gone down 54 feet (16m) in Great Salt Pond, Block Island’s large natural harbour. Crilly went out by the chamber and made a connection to a pontoon that had been deliberately lowered there, enabling its rise to the surface. A week later he did another such test, at 78 feet (24m).
But tests or no tests, it was still a new technology. Fortunately, both women successfully left the chamber and swam safely to the surface.
In mid-afternoon of July 23, Earhart and the Putnams then were flown by Loening to Long Island. For Earhart, it was back to flying.