Former Saline Teacher Ann Pellegreno Chased Amelia Earhart Around the World

 01/12/2015 - 14:30
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Ann Pellegreno at Oakland Airport upon their return of the world flight on July 7, 1967. L to R: William Polhemus (navigator), Ann Pellegreno, Lee Koepke (aircraft owner and mechanic) and Colonel William Payne (copilot).

"Pellegrenos Crew (4758411773)" by Bill Larkins - Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“We got to fly around it [Howland Island] a couple times and then flew low over the island,” Ann Holtgren Pellegreno said. “I took the wreath that friends in Port Moresby had given us and went back to the door. Lee held the door open with his foot and grabbed me in a tight grip. As soon as Bill Payne hollered ‘now’ we dropped the wreath and there’s no doubt that it landed where a Lockheed 10 should have landed 30 years ago.”

Finding Howland Island and dropping the wreath where pioneer aviatrix Amelia Earhart had disappeared, 30 years earlier to the day, was the climax of Pellegreno’s 28,000 mile Earhart Commemorative Flight. Like Earhart, Pellegreno took off from Oakland, Calif., in a Lockheed 10 Electra and headed east with a plan to circle the globe. Pellegreno completed the trip, touching down at Oakland on July 7, 1967.

Prior to her amazing adventure, Pellegreno taught seventh grade in Saline. She and her husband-to-be, Don Pellegreno, had studied music at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After graduation they married and began working in Saline Area Schools, he as a counselor and she as an English teacher.

Taylor Jacobsen taught at the same time as Ann and remembers her as an excellent teacher and a good friend. He said that the Pellegrenos were “a young couple with a lot of new ideas.”

The couple first lived in Ann Arbor, and then rented a home on Milkey Road south of Saline in what had once been Saline Valley Farms. Early on they developed an interest in flying and in historic airplane restoration.

In August 1960, Ann had her first flying lesson, which was also her first time in an airplane. In 1962, a man named Lee Koepke worked on a small plane the Pellegrenos had purchased. He mentioned to Ann that he was beginning to restore an old Lockheed Electra and wondered if she would like to fly it around the world someday, just as Earhart had attempted. Ann, who had so far accumulated only about 100 hours of flying time, found the suggestion laughable, but it stuck in her mind.

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Postal covers were carried on the flight and postmarked at each stop along the way. They were later sold to raise funds.

 

Koepke had salvaged the gutted airframe of an old Electra and proceeded to rebuild it to flying condition in a Quonset hut at Willow Run Airport. By fall of 1966 it was ready for the first test flight.

 

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Ann Pellegreno arriving back at Oakland after circling the globe to recreate Earhart's flight in a Lockheed 10.

 

That Christmas, Don gave Ann a book called “The Search for Amelia Earhart,” by Fred Goerner. It reminded Ann of her earlier conversation with Koepke. She realized then that the 30th anniversary of Earhart’s flight would be in the summer of 1967. At that time Ann would be 30 years old. The Electra was also 30 years old. It seemed like an omen.

Ann contacted Koepke and the two began to talk seriously about a world flight. At this point they only had five months to prepare. Efforts to raise money met with disappointment. Lockheed not only refused to help, but even tried to discourage them from attempting the trip. Private donations were small, but appreciated.

“A pleasant surprise was a check for $12.76, the proceeds from a book sale held by the seventh grade at Saline Junior High School where I had taught,” Ann wrote in her 1971 book “World Flight.”

A big step forward was contacting Bill Polhemus, an airplane navigation expert from Ann Arbor. He helped them obtain radio and navigation equipment essential to realizing their dream. He soon agreed to go with them as navigator.

Champion Spark Plugs donated money and equipment that helped in the effort. There were other private donations. Still, the Pellegrenos had to borrow to the limit and beyond to fund the trip. Koepke agreed to forego insurance on his airplane, enabling them to afford insurance for other aspects of the trip.

The airplane interior had to be emptied and fitted with fuel tanks to enable some of the long transoceanic legs of the voyage. Removal of insulation made the interior cold and very noisy (they always flew with earplugs). Of course these modifications added to the mounting bills.

In the time since the idea was first broached in 1962, Ann had logged many more flying hours and achieved such milestones as her instrument flying rating, commercial rating, and multiengine rating. Still, she never flew the Electra until just two months before the world flight was to commence.

Ann’s limited experience meant that she needed a copilot. A pilot that they had enlisted backed out late in the planning process. Just a few weeks before scheduled launch they obtained a new copilot, a military man named Bill Payne.

After many last minute preparations and repairs as well as a revised flight plan necessitated by the six-day Arab-Israeli war and uprisings in the Congo, they were ready. The Electra left Willow Run Airport on June 7, 1967 headed west. An unscheduled stop in Cedar Rapids for radio repairs was necessary, but the crew arrived at Oakland in time to launch on the world-circling tour on June 9.

The four person crew, included Koepke as mechanic, Polhemus as Navigator, Payne as copilot and, of course, Ann. The Electra, code named “Rapid Rocket,” performed well. They visited 31 airports in the course of the trip, usually being greeted by well-wishers and the press. They also met many people who remembered Earhart when she had visited 30 years earlier.

Back in Saline citizens were anxiously checking the window each day at Wight’s Cleaners, at the site now occupied by the Pineapple House. A world map in the window plotted Ann’s landfalls.

Landing on tiny Howland Island in the South Pacific was not possible, as the airfield had been abandoned, but the plan included a fly over. They tried to locate the island using the same navigation methods that Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan would have used. Sighting the island was much more difficult than they expected. After some minutes of dread, Koepke finally saw it through a break in the clouds.

“I think it was so fitting that Lee found Howland Island,” Ann said. “The reason he did the flight - he wanted to prove it wasn’t the airplane, and he did.”

The crew finally arrived back in Oakland completing the grand voyage. From there they flew back to Michigan with a stop at Newton, Kansas. At Newton they were greeted by several of Ann’s Saline students, her husband, the wives of her crew, and representatives of the “Ninety-nines,” an organization of woman pilots of which Earhart was a charter member.

“The world flight was one grand adventure and it took the five of us to do it,” Ann said. “It took my crew, me and one grand old Lockheed 10.”

Back in Michigan the state had declared July 15 as “Ann Pellegreno Day.” A ticker tape parade was organized in Saline to commemorate Ann’s accomplishment.

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The Jaycees hurriedly completed a new pavilion at Curtiss Park and dedicated it on Saline’s “Ann Day,” just in time for the Rotary to broil and serve steaks. In the Michigan Avenue parade, the Jaycees hurled pink ticker tape from downtown rooftops. More ticker tape rained down from a helicopter.

Ann was driven at the head of the parade in an open convertible then ensconced on a reviewing stand with various government officials to watch the rest of their parade. The Chamber of Commerce presented Ann with red roses. Students presented her with a globe on which was engraved, “Ann’s World.” She also received a key to the city and various legislative resolutions.

After the hoopla, Ann went on a whirlwind tour of speaking engagements, trying to earn money to pay back the considerable debt she and Don had accumulated. She also wrote stories for some magazines and began writing her book on the adventure.

The Pellegrenos moved to Peoria in 1968 and to Ames, Iowa in 1969. In 1970 they bought a 120-acre farm in Story City, Iowa, a good town for a writer, Ann laughed. On the farm they built an airstrip and a hanger to pursue their love of aviation. They sometimes hosted crowds of friends at fly-ins.

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While in Iowa, Ann researched and wrote a three-book compilation of the history of aviation in Iowa, called “Iowa Takes to the Air.”

In the ‘90s, industrial hog farming moved into their area and by 1997 the Pellegrenos felt compelled to move. They moved south to Rhome, Texas, where they reside today.

Don is still rebuilding airplanes. He rebuilt a Fairchild XNQ trainer, which he recently showed off at AirVenture 2014 in Oshkosh. He is currently working on a 1936 Rose Parrakeet biplane.

Ann is busy researching and writing about aviation. Her current project is to complete a book about the ultimate fate of Earhart that was written by a friend who passed away in October.

The disappearance of Earhart has spawned dozens of books and still fascinates. Speculation runs rampant as to what really happened, and Ann has her own ideas – ideas that are quite at odds with the official story.

At age 78, Ann is amazingly sharp, recalling details at a rapid clip and exuding energy. The audaciousness and spunk that got her around the world powers her still. 

 

 

 

 

Robert Conradi
Bob Conradi Is a retired pharmaceutical scientist who has redefined himself as a photographer and journalist. He has lived in Michigan for 36 years and in the Saline area for 10. He enjoys researching and learning about new ideas. Follow him on Twitter at @RobertConradi.