Willow Run’s Own ‘Amelia Earhart’

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Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart in 1928.

Before Rosie the Riveter, women were inspired by celebrated female pilot Amelia Earhart.

Amelia Earhart was a pioneering aviatrix known as the first female aviator to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean, for which she received the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross in 1932. She set several speed and distance records, and was instrumental in popularizing aviation with the general public.

In 1937, Earhart embarked upon an solo flight around the world… and vanished without a trace on the final leg of the journey across the Pacific Ocean. The remains of Earhart, her co-pilot Fred Noonan, and her Lockheed 10 Electra airplane have never been found.

30 years after Earhart’s disappearance, in 1967, 30-year-old Michigan schoolteacher and pilot Ann Pellegreno took off from Ypsilanti’s Willow Run Airport on a quest to recreate — and complete — Amelia Earhart’s fateful journey.

The Journey Begins at Historic Willow Run

Donate NOW to help save Willow RunWillow Run Airport, where Ann Pellegreno’s journey began, was originally built as an integral part of the historic World War II-era Willow Run Bomber Plant, workplace of thousands of patriotic “Rosie the Riveters.” The Airport was where Willow Run’s B-24 bombers were tested and then flown away for active duty in the war. Willow Run Airport still functions today as a busy cargo hub, with its historic WWII-era hangar intact. A portion of the Bomber Plant itself has been saved from demolition, and funds are being raised right here at this website, www.savethebomberplant.org, to turn it into the future new home of the Yankee Air Museum.

Ann Pellegreno with crew members Col. William Payne and engineer Leo Koepke at Willow Run Airport. Image source: Ann Arbor News/Ann Arbor District Library

Ann Pellegreno with crew members Col. William Payne and engineer Leo Koepke at Willow Run Airport. Image source: Ann Arbor News/Ann Arbor District Library

Ann learned from friend and aircraft engineer Lee Koepke that he was in the process of rebuilding a Lockheed 10 Electra, the same model that Amelia Earhart flew on her famous and fateful 1937 around-the-world journey. It was Koepke’s idea for Ann to recreate the Earhart flight, using his vintage Lockheed, to celebrate the flight’s 30th anniversary.

Recalls Ann, “Lee and I said, ‘Well, if we don’t make it, we’ll give it all we have. If we make it, fine. If not, we tried…’ We knew nothing about doing a world flight and we were really innocent.”

In another interesting connection to the Yankee Air Museum’s “Save The Willow Run Bomber Plant” campaign, Lee Koepke was one of the very early founders of Yankee Air Museum! (Lee, along with the Yankee Air Museum’s Norm Ellickson, was the owner of the Detroit Institute of Aeronautics, which has now become the MIAT aviation mechanics and maintenance school. Lee hosted the first couple of “idea” meetings at DIA, where the founders came together and the Yankee Air Museum was “born.”)

A Team Effort Led by a Modern-day Amelia

With a female pilot and vintage aircraft in place, the planning began. Special large-capacity gas tanks were installed in the old Lockheed in Wichita, and radio equipment for the long-distance flight was procured on loan from Ann Arbor aviator Bill Polhemus. “It took a village,” Ann said. “I had a little box and I told all of the guys who helped that I’d carry something for them” on the historic flight.

The 4-person flight team consisted of Ann Pellegreno as pilot, Lee Koepke as engineer, Bill Polhemus as navigator, and Colonel Bill Payne of the US Air Force as co-pilot. Unlike Amelia Earhart in 1937, the 1967 crew did not have autopilot, so they all took turns flying.

“We were a real team, the five of us,” says Ann, “four people and a wonderful airplane.”

In order to follow Earhart’s route, Pellegreno and crew first had to fly from Willow Run to Oakland, CA, where Earhart had started her fateful trip 30 years before. Pellegreno and crew took off with much fanfare from Willow Run Airport, then departed Oakland on June 9, 1967. Following Earhart’s original east to west around-the-world route entailed several refueling stops on an eastward trek back across the US. After that came a series of landings in South America followed by the Atlantic crossing from Brazil to Senegal, on June 16. Due to political unrest in Africa, they deviated at this point from Earhart’s route, flying over Europe to rejoin the Earhart trail at Pakistan.

The most eagerly anticipated portion of the journey was part of the final leg: the approach to remote Howland Island in the Pacific, where Earhart had disappeared 30 years earlier. Ann Pellegreno was hoping to gain some insight into Earhart’s mysterious fate.

What Happened to Amelia Earhart? Recreating Her Final Moments

Recalling the approach to Howland Island, Ann says, “It’s so small that you can go right to the exact spot and miss it, not knowing which way to turn, right or left. We ran into rain squalls, just like Earhart had, and we couldn’t find it. Finally, there was a break in the clouds and Lee saw the island… I think it was so fitting that Lee saw it first because the whole thing had been his idea from the start.”

30 years earlier, Amelia Earhart made radio contact on approach to Howland Island, and while voice transmissions were received from her, she was unable to hear transmissions in return. Although transmission strength indicated that Earhart was in the immediate area, she was unable to see the island and personnel on the Island were unable to guide her in. Among her final words on July 2, 1937 were, “We must be on you, but cannot see you — but gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.” Soon after, the famous aviatrix vanished forever.

Pellegreno and her team, however, landed safely on Howland Island on July 2, 1967, exactly 30 years to the day after Amelia Earhart was scheduled to land there.

Ann Pellegreno lands at Willow Run Airport after recreating Amelia Earhart historic flight

Ann Pellegreno lands safely at Willow Run Airport after recreating and completing Amelia Earhart’s fateful 1937 around-the-world flight. Image source: Ann Arbor News/Ann Arbor District Library

After just a few more island hops, including Honolulu, Ann Pellegreno, modern-day Amelia, succeeded in honoring Earhart by completing her historic flight… and once again shining a spotlight on the capabilities and commitment of female aviators.

Willow Run’s Own Pioneering Aviatrix Takes a Bow

The experience has stayed with Pellegreno. “Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night thinking you’re in that airplane again,” she says. “I wish we could do it all over. It was just great.”

Ann Pellegreno, who currently lives in Texas and is still flying at nearly 80 years old, went on to mentor and inspire many young pilots, and has gotten other women started in flying. “I think that’s what you do” she says, If you have the privilege of doing something, you have to pay it forward.”

Information in this article, including quotes from Ann Pellegreno, originally appeared in the article “Earhart’s “Air” Apparent” by Alan Glenn, originally published in Michigan Today, a University of Michigan publication. You can read Alan’s full article here. Alan Glenn is the president of the Michigan History Project, and author of the book “WOLVERINE: A Photographic History of Michigan Football“

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