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Happy landings: Crowd welcomes pilot recreating Earhart flight

Thursday, September 06, 2001

By Johnna A. Pro, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Amelia Earhart can still capture the imagination decades after her death.

She can also draw a crowd.

At the Allegheny County Airport yesterday, more than 200 people greeted Dr. Carlene Mendieta, a California periodontist who is repeating Earhart's 1928 record-setting cross-country trip and portraying the woman who disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937.

Mendieta, flying a duplicate of Earhart's plane from the 1928 trip, plans to land at 23 airstrips across the country. Pittsburgh was the second stop on the trip that began outside New York City early yesterday.

Carlene Mendieta greets some of the 200-plus admirers who watched her land a 1927-vintage Avro Avian at the county airport in West Mifflin yesterday, Mendieta is trying to duplicate Amelia Earhart's 1928 flight across the country in the same type of plane Earhart flew. Pittsburgh was one of 23 stops Earhart made. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Among those asking for autographs and posing for pictures with Mendieta and the 1927 Avro Avian biplane she pilots were members of the Aero Club of Pittsburgh, the same organization that greeted Earhart after she crash-landed at the old Calbraith Rodgers Field in O'Hara on Aug. 31, 1928.

"We met her -- well, we didn't, but members of the club met her in 1928 -- so we thought it only fitting that we show up here today," said Aero Club President Donald Rhodes, 69, of Plum, a flight instructor.

"I personally thinks it takes a lot of courage to fly in a wooden airplane. I generally don't like to fly in airplanes that are older than I am."

Mendieta, 47, is making the trip in a plane that was assembled in England just three weeks before Earhart's Avian was built.

The plane, owned by Greg Herrick, president of HistoricAviation.com, is a duplicate of Earhart's plane, right down to the silver and blue colors, decals and registration numbers.

The Aero Club members, including former Pittsburgh broadcasters Don Riggs and Adam Lynch, presented Mendieta with souvenirs and a proclamation that read in part:

"Your trip today serves as a tribute to Amelia Earhart and to the thousands of women across this nation who have followed in her footsteps."

Mendieta had a cloudless, bright blue sky when she arrived in West Mifflin, about 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

Dressed in period clothing including jodhpurs, a 1927 aviator watch and a white cloth helmet, Mendieta seemed a bit overwhelmed.

"Truly, I want all of you to know you're the reason this is being done," said Mendieta, who spent two hours shaking hands with a seemingly never-ending line of well-wishers, autograph-seekers, aviation buffs and Earhart fans.

The purpose of the trip, she said, was to honor Earhart and show people "what she was, what she did and what she stood for."

"Amelia's last flight was the Omega. This is the Alpha," said Herrick, who conceived the idea for "Amelia Earhart's Flight Across America: Rediscovering a Legend."

At 1:35 p.m., about an hour after she arrived at the county airport, Mendieta climbed back into her plane. After Herrick made more than a dozen attempts to spin the propeller so she could start the engine, he finally succeeded with a little help from fellow pilot Paul Lien.

"Hey Greg, you gotta wind it up," Mendieta called out at one point from her seat in the open cockpit.

The cheering crowd watched as Mendieta taxied down the runway and headed into the sky. She flew over West Mifflin, then treated the crowd to a fly-by before landing to take more questions and pose for more photographs.

One of those in the crowd was Terry McCallan of Plum, a great-nephew of the late Regis J. Willwohl. Willwohl was one of four men who worked overnight in 1928 to repair Earhart's Avian after it hit a ditch at Rodgers Field and tipped onto its nose.

Willwohl died in 1999 at age 91.

"I kind of felt like I should show the people the pictures and perpetuate what my uncle did," said McCallan who had original photos of Earhart's 1928 landing and wrecked plane to show Mendieta.

Unlike Earhart's landing so many years ago, Mendieta's was flawless.

Just as Earhart did in 1928, Mendieta took off from Westchester County, N.Y., yesterday morning and landed in Bellefonte, Centre County, where she was given the key to the city.

From there, Mendieta, followed by a modern chase plane piloted by Herrick and Lien, cruised at 87 mph at an altitude of around 3,500 feet.

"It was chilly and I was cold," said Mendieta.

Mendieta said she couldn't help but think of Earhart, who flew in a time when navigation systems were nonexistent, landmarks were few and far between, and airports were not much more than grassy fields.

"She had only a compass and rudimentary charts that often weren't correct," said Mendieta, who flies with a hand-held global positioning system and a radio to contact her chase plane. "I was thinking how incredible she was to fly with such rudimentary equipment."

Even so, Mendieta said, it's hard not to feel a pang of jealousy for Earhart, who could simply "meander through the skies."

"I envy the freedom she had in her flight, but I'm thankful for the safety I have."

Mendieta will depart at 9 a.m. today and fly to Dayton, Ohio. To follow her progress, visit the Web site www.Ameliaflight.com.



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