Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, one of the great, unsolved aviation mysteries of the past century. To mark it, an expedition has set sail from Hawaii in an attempt to find out what happened to Ms Earhart on that fateful day: July 2, 1937.
My long-term interest in bravery quickly led to a fascination with the courage of our early flyers – not just those who risked their lives in military combat, but also those who tested the boundaries with some of the first long-range flights.
Ms Earhart was a quite remarkable woman. Her achievements are all the more astonishing because they took place only three decades after the first (and extremely brief) flight by the Wright brothers – Orville and Wilbur – on 17 December 1903.
Ms Earhart was the first woman to receive the US Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC): the decoration was awarded for her becoming the first aviatrix to fly solo across the Atlantic.
She set many other flying records, wrote best-selling books about her flying experiences and was instrumental in the formation of The Ninety-Nines, an organisation for female pilots.
Not contend with these accomplishments, Ms Earhart set off in 1937 in an attempt to make a then-rare circumnavigational flight of the globe. Her aircraft disappeared over the central Pacific short of Howland Island on July 2 of that year and neither her body, nor the aircraft, was ever found. She was officially declared dead nearly two years later.
Now a team of some 30 scientists and other experts has set off in a research vessel from Honolulu Harbor bound for a small island, just south of the equator, called Nikumaroro. Within a month, they hope to discover Ms Earhart's final landing place.
The team will be using robotic and sonar equipment to scan one square mile of the sea floor off the deep waters of Nikumaroro. They believe they have pinpointed the area where Ms Earhart's aircraft went down based on radio bearings from her distress calls.
Ms Earhart, then 39, was in her twin-engine Lockheed Electra and in the later stages of her ambitious round-the-world flight following the equator when she and Fred Noonan, her navigator, disappeared.
"There are no guarantees out here – the only guarantee we can make is to do the best job we can do to find whatever there is to find," said Richard Gillespie, the expedition leader with The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).
He hopes Mr Earhart may even have survived her crash-landing. "If there is a final chapter in her life, a chapter as a castaway on an uninhabited island, struggling to survive, ultimately failing, but a heroic effort. That needs to be known. We need to finish that story.”
I have briefly written of Ms Earhart’s accomplishments in my new book, Heroes of the Skies, which is due out in two months’ time. The book concentrates on military gallantry but there are many references to aviation pioneers and test pilots.
I fully support the decision to embark on this mission to try to solve the Earhart mystery. The project will cost $2.2 million, all of which is privately funded.
We owe it to Ms Earhart’s memory to try to locate her remains and to understand how she perished. If this can be achieved, we should then give this courageous, inspirational aviation pioneer a final send-off worthy of her numerous and wonderful achievements.
* Lord Ashcroft’s latest book, Heroes of the Skies, will be published by Headline Review on September 13 and can be pre-ordered at www.amazon.co.uk. The author is donating all his royalties to the RAF Benevolent Fund, the custodian of the new Bomber Command Memorial in central London.