When Amelia Earhart's Plane Crashed — in Memphis

Photo courtesy Benjamin Hooks Central Library

Some of you may know that former Wonders director Jon Thompson has embarked on an ambitious campaign to solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart, the famed aviatrix who disappeared while attempting a round-the-world flight in 1937. In a few months he will embark on a search for the remains of her plane on some uncharted islands and atolls in the South Pacific.

But did you know that six years after Earhart vanished, her airplane crashed and burned at a little-known airport in Memphis?

If that sounds like an episode from The Twilight Zone, let me explain. A Lockheed Vega was one of the first airplanes that Earhart purchased, but she replaced it with a larger plane shortly before attempting her doomed flight around the world in 1937. The Vega crashed upon takeoff at Wilson Field south of Winchester Road on August 26, 1943, while it was being ferried across the country by a new owner. Blurry pictures taken right after the crash (such as the one here) are filed away in the Memphis Room at the main library.

The wreckage remained visible for years, joining a fleet of other demolished and dismantled aircraft that caught the eye of anyone driving past the cluster of hangars and dirt runways at the northeast corner of Ridgeway and Raines Road.

Wilson Field was owned and operated by Harry T. Wilson. A self-taught pilot since 1915, Wilson had flown in the Signal Corps during World War I and teamed up with Vernon Omlie, one of this area's first aviators, in the 1920s. He took over Omlie's Mid-South Airways Corporation after the older pilot died in a plane crash near St. Louis in 1938.

Wilson moved the company to Memphis Municipal Airport, but had to relocate several miles east when the U.S. Army commandeered the city's main airfield during World War II. During the war, he supervised pilot training for the military. In later years, he provided flight classes, aircraft maintenance, and other services, and slowly built up a sprawling "boneyard" of vintage airplanes and parts.

In the 1960s, a reporter visited Wilson Field "in the quiet countryside" and noted that "airplanes remain on the field from World War II training days. Weeds and young trees grow through their fuselages. Wilson says one man wants one of the old planes as a plaything for his children."

It was certainly an odd place. Many years ago, I confess to a bit of trespassing, when I went with some friends to explore it at night. At the time, there was even a big old DC-3 parked there, and we climbed through a door, roamed through the cluttered cabin, and sat in the cockpit. Suddenly, a light flashed on in the hangar across the field — we didn't know anyone stayed there at night! — so we got spooked and scurried away, half-expecting to get shot before we reached our cars.

Wilson, hailed by the Memphis Press-Scimitar as "a pioneer figure in aviation in Memphis," died in 1975. I don't really know what became of all the wrecked airplanes, but rows of houses now stand atop the old grass runways of Wilson Field. I bet someone with a metal detector could probably have a field day in some of those backyards.

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Famed Memphis trivia expert Vance Lauderdale answers reader questions weekly here on his blog!

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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