Linda Finch's vintage attempt to finish a legend's journey

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, March 1997

I Was a Middle-Aged Amelia Earhart

Linda Finch's vintage attempt to finish a legend's journey
By Paul Kvinta

For The Record

This One's Mine, Dammit!
Denied two years in a row in her quest to become the most-decorated runner in U.S. cross-country history, Lynn Jennings concedes she was none too confident before the U.S. Nationals last December. "I took three months off after the Olympics," says the 36-year-old, who failed to medal in the 5,000-meter race in Atlanta. "Just four weeks prior to the race, I was in a serious funk." Finally, the urgings of coach John Babington and the lure of unfinished business--garnering a record ninth national crown--got her juices flowing. And by the time she appeared in Stanford, California, Jennings says both her legs and her killer instinct were back on line. "I took the race by the scruff of the neck," says Jennings, who beat 1994 champ Olga Appell by seven seconds over the 6,495-meter course. "It was a statement that I'm back."

Life After Robyn
In 1995, 26-year-old French sport climber Laurence Guyon bounded from obscurity to stardom, nearly denying the retirement-bound Robyn Erbesfield a fifth straight World Cup crown. Which left most observers to assume that Guyon was Erbesfield's heir. But now, one season into the post-Robyn era, it seems the battle for ascendancy is still very much on. No dominant woman emerged in '96, with the major titles split between American teen sensation Katie Brown, France's Liv Sansoz, and Guyon. Entering the season's final contest on December 15 in Graz, Austria, Guyon held a slight lead over Sansoz in the World Cup standings. (The 15-year-old Brown couldn't compete in World Cup events, in which competitors must be at least 16.) However, the 19-year-old Sansoz defeated Guyon to take the title by the slightest of margins, leaving Guyon a hard-luck runner-up for the second straight year. "She was OK with it," says Mia Axon, the top American finisher. "She didn't fall apart and was a strong second on one of the toughest routes I've ever seen." Meanwhile, Frenchman Arnaud Petit, brother of 1995 champion Francois, took the men's overall World Cup crown.

"I just left her out there, somewhere near Howland Island," admits businesswoman-cum-pilot-cum-author Linda Finch. "Lost and running out of fuel." Finch is discussing No Limits, her 1996 biography of fabled aviator Amelia Earhart, and it seems she's proud of the book's one glaring omission: It contains no discussion of Earhart's disappearance. "People are so stuck on what she didn't do and what happened to her," grumbles Finch, "that they ignore her incredible accomplishments."

Finch is so intent on reshaping Earhart's memory that she feels compelled to do the one thing the groundbreaking pilot couldn't: She will attempt to finish Earhart's global circumnavigation for her. On the 17th of this month, Finch--who owns a string of nursing homes in San Antonio, Texas, and has restored and flown historic planes for 20 years--will depart from Oakland, California, and head east, retracing Earhart's equatorial route. She plans to make 26 stops in 20 countries, completing the 24,557-mile journey sometime around May 20.

Of course, since Earhart disappeared over the Pacific on July 2, 1937, many have completed around-the-world flights. But they've all done it in modern aircraft. Finch, striving for historical accuracy, will be taking off in a Lockheed Electra 10E, the same model Earhart flew and one of only two such planes left in the world. As a result, the trip will be decidedly uncomfortable. The 46-year-old pilot will be wedged into a cockpit roughly the size of a broom closet and perched on a nonadjustable metal seat for at least eight hours a day. A navigator will sit next to her during takeoffs and landings, but he'll have to snake around eight giant fuel tanks in the passenger area to spread out his charts and maps. And, Finch admits, the thundering noise from the two antique Wasp R-1340 engines will be "painful." Her only concessions to modernity, she says, will be a GPS unit, a parachute, and a life raft.

Nonetheless, such conveniences can't make the journey worry-free. "The Pacific is still 12,000 miles wide," says Dorothy Cochrane, a curator of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. "And ultimately she's relying on 1930s technology." Finch, of course, says she's not the least bit concerned. "I've got all the survival gear I need. But," she says, true to form, "that's the one aspect of the flight I really don't like talking about."

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