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When Grace McGuire started taking flying lessons at 16, she had never heard of Amelia Earhart. So instructors teased the girl, especially because they thought she looked like Earhart. That was in the late 1960s, at a small New Jersey airport. Within seven or eight years, McGuire joined the crew of instructors; except for a hiatus due to illness, she has been teaching ever since. She also became an Amelia enthusiast, learning everything she could about the pioneering aviatrix.

In 1984, McGuire heard that an aviation museum in Orlando, Florida thought it had an old plane similar to one Earhart had flown on historic flights. McGuire immediately traveled south, where she learned that curators weren’t even showing the plane inside the museum. Instead, they had stuck it out back, to weather the elements. The museum’s owner indicated he was willing to sell the plane, and, with the help of some backers, McGuire bought it. Only after closely reading the bill of sale did she realize what she had.

The twin engine Lockheed L-10E Electra was the last remaining plane of 15 manufactured in 1935 for commercial aviation. The model held 15 passengers and became a carrier for Pan American Airways. It was the same model Earhart flew in 1937, when she mysteriously disappeared in the South Pacific during an attempt to fly around the world. The particular plane McGuire acquired had served Pan Am up and down the west coast of South America.

Now that McGuire had the identically designed plane, she announced that she would repeat Earhart’s effort — successfully this time. News media swarmed over the story. McGuire, who claims to be shy before cameras, says she was invited onto Good Morning America to talk about her plans. Shortly afterward, a company contacted McGuire with financial assistance to fulfill her dream.

McGuire named her plane Muriel, after Amelia Earhart’s sister, who late in life befriended this new champion of women’s flying. But by that time, Lyme’s disease had gained a grip on McGuire, putting her out of commission for the next 15 years. Her backers abandoned the round-the-world project, and McGuire almost lost her plane.

Eventually, the Electra was shipped in parts to the Santa Maria Airport in central California, within reasonable distance from the Oakland Airport, where, as Earhart had done in 1937, McGuire planned to start her journey. There was much work to be done in Santa Maria, but the Transportation Safety Administration was making things difficult by insisting that every mechanic pass a criminal background check before entering the commercial airport.

Late last summer, McGuire thought she’d found an arrangement with the San Diego Air and Space Museum that would solve her problems. She put her plane on a truck and delivered it to the museum’s Annex, on the east side of Gillespie Field in El Cajon. As a noncommercial airport, hired mechanics would not be required to face background checks. Another attraction was that McGuire felt she’d been promised help in completing final preparations to ready her plane for the round-the-world flight. She would test fly the aircraft at Gillespie, and when ready, take off from the airport as well.

But according to McGuire, there are no mechanics in San Diego who can work on the engines of the L-10E Electra. She was sure that the deal she had made with the museum included a promise that such mechanics would be there to help. I asked McGuire if she understands the Electra’s engine. “Of course,” she said. Could she do the mechanical work herself? “No, I only do the brain work.”

Then, her Muriel was assigned to a hangar that the museum occasionally uses for restoration projects, preparing exhibits for show at its main building in Balboa Park (there is a smaller museum in the Annex at Gillespie field).

Not long into McGuire’s stay in San Diego, she discovered her plane covered with sanding dust and a pink overlay of red paint. The substances came from restoration work on a full-scale model Vega, another type of plane Earhart had flown. The Air and Space Museum had received the Vega from the company that produced the motion picture Amelia. The movie was panned as too documentary-like after its release, but did receive lots of publicity; after receipt of the Vega, the museum seemed to have put on a rush to restore it to exhibit-quality appearance. They sent it to the Annex, where alongside McGuire’s Electra, the Vega would have its exterior sandblasted and painted red. 

McGuire also noticed a rip in her plane’s skin, on the underside of the tail section. When she complained at the Annex, “they told me it must have happened on the trip down from Santa Maria. I reminded them that I’d never noticed it, and that I traveled with Muriel the whole time. She’s been my life.” Eventually, several new friends helped McGuire tow the plane to a hangar she’s rented from Safari Aviation on Gillespie’s west side.

Inside the new hangar, I spoke with McGuire, who has a short-cropped Amelia-style haircut and a slim athletic look. She showed me the dust and the pink overlay on the plane’s surfaces, patches of which she’s already rubbed clean. McGuire told me of the media hype that greeted her on September 5, 2009. Her nervousness left much of the event a blur, but she does have one clear memory: Jim Kidrick, president of the San Diego Air and Space Museum, standing next to KUSI anchor Dave Scott as the cameras rolled. According to McGuire, Kidrick was the museum official who’d promised to help her if she brought her plane to San Diego. A part of that deal, she said, was that “if all went well and the flight was successful, I would loan the plane to the museum for a little while after my flight.”

In the following days, when McGuire noticed refurbishing work going on next to her plane, she approached staff at the Annex. Their response (again, according to McGuire) was that she’d been informed of everything that would happen, which she denied. “I said that if I had known that, I would have waited until they were finished before coming down here. They told me, ‘You have a bad attitude.’”

In describing the museum’s Vega, McGuire used the phrase “a mere mock-up produced for the movie. Unlike the Vega, which doesn’t even have an engine, Muriel has all original equipment. I have always resisted taking her to a restoration shop, where they would replace most of her parts with others made of new materials.

“It’s too late anyway,” she said. “One morning I arrived at the Annex, and they were using an air hose to blow the floor dust right at my aircraft. It was getting into everything; I mean, really awful stuff.” She complained that someone had gone into the plane’s cabin and left the door ajar. She said they also took off covers that had been placed over the inner workings of the wings. Without the covers, these workings would be exposed during travel. “The sanding dust has gotten into everything,” McGuire said. “I don’t yet know how much damage has been done to the engines.”

There are approximately 50 volunteers who work at the Annex. For an alternate perspective, I spoke with one of them, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job. The volunteer said he can see both sides. On the one hand, McGuire comes across as very opinionated and talks to people as if she is the only one who knows anything about the L-10E Electra engine. The plane’s “round” engines, he said, were built onto other planes, including one that sits behind the Annex. “Any licensed airplane engine mechanic can work on them, and there are plenty of those mechanics in San Diego.” What happened to McGuire, he said, is that several mechanics, when offered the job, turned her down.

Nevertheless, the volunteer believes that the treatment McGuire received at the hands of the Air and Space Museum was despicable. “Her plane,” he said, “should never have been put in where that spray-painting was going on so close. All the volunteers at the Annex were very surprised when the Vega was put into that hangar for painting. The overspray from that job covered most everything in there, including lathes, drill presses, and other mechanics’ tools.

“There is a small garage attached to the hangar that is normally used as a painting booth. It’s where almost all our painting is done. In fact, there is a law that spray-painting must be done in a painting booth, not in a bigger building, or even outdoors. I think what happened is that Grace’s attitude irritated the staff, and they retaliated.”

I phoned Jim Kidrick, the Air and Space Museum’s president. After listening to McGuire’s complaint, Kidrick would say only, “I wish her well on her project.”

It could be there were misunderstandings when McGuire and Kidrick agreed to cooperate. But whose were they? Did McGuire imagine she would get more than she was actually promised? Her treatment at the Annex might suggest that Kidrick thought of the Air and Space Museum as providing her only the most minimal help.

The San Diego page of AmericanTowns.com tells a different story. On September 5, the site posted the following (which reads like a press release): “from: San Diego Air and Space Museum.” Several paragraphs follow. The first opens: “On Saturday, September 5, The San Diego Air & Space Museum is scheduled to receive Muriel, a sister airplane to the one Amelia Earhart flew on her final flight 72 years ago. The Museum will assist with assembly and restoration of the Lockheed Electra L10-E for Grace McGuire, an aviator with hopes of completing Amelia’s dream of flying around the world.”

Meanwhile, I paid a second visit to Muriel, which now looks much better. And McGuire is enjoying more of the welcome mat at Gillespie Field. She says that Peter Drinkwater, San Diego County’s director of airports, has visited her and offered to “do anything he can to help me.”

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