R.D. “Bo” McKneely’s connection to Tennessee began in 1958 when he met prominent Rutherford County resident Sara McQuire Bell, widow of the late Ed Bell, former publisher of the Daily News Journal.
Amelia Earhart and her plane. (Photo from Special Books)
“I went out with her through a friend arranging a blind date,” Bo acknowledged.
The flight pioneer moved to Murfreesboro in 1987, after retiring from Lockheed corporation in Houston. Murfreesboro retired Army Gen. Thomas Farmer, husband of Bo’s stepdaughter Emily, described the late Bo McKneely.
“He was his own man, with a great allegiance to his employer of 30 years, the Lockheed corporation,” noted Farmer. “And as one of the pioneers of aviation, he had a very interesting life.”
That interesting life included serving as American frontier aviator Amelia Earhart’s mechanic.
McKneely, as a talented mechanic, endeared himself to the famous Earhart so much, that she publicly acknowledged him as her “good luck charm.”
But what the modest McKneely would not share when he gave this exclusive interview at age 85, just four years before his death in 1998, was the fact that he too was an early flight pioneer, tweaking and even inventing new flight gadgets, including fuel tanks, that helped early pilots soar with eagles.
Although shy about tooting his own horn, McKneely knew all the early American aviators who flew during the seat-of-their-pants development phase of early man’s flight to leave the surly bonds of earth.
It was Paul Mantz, a famous California movie stunt pilot in the 1920s era, who took the then 20-year-old McKneely “under his wing” and ultimately recommended him to the legendary aviatrix.
“I had gone to California and was hanging around the airport in Burbank in hopes of landing a job similar to what I had back in Patterson, La.,” McKneely shared. “Mantz one day said ‘Don’t leave, I have someone I want to introduce to you…’ Two hours later, up pulled this automobile, and out came this lady. Paul said ‘I want you to meet Amelia Earhart.’”
McKneely had not previously heard of Amelia Earhart.
“I had been brought up in a Louisiana logging camp way back in the swamps and didn’t know who she was,” McKneely confessed.
Earhart took Mantz’ advice, and hired McKneely on sight as her “personal airplane mechanic.”
It was a visionary early aviation man back in the swamps of Louisiana that set the stage for McKneely to be qualified to help launch Amelia Earhart into early flight history annals and into immortal worldwide legendary flight pioneer stratosphere.
But before becoming Amelia’s “good luck charm,” he had to get out of the swamps of Louisiana.
“Harry Williams was the owner of one of the earliest airports opened in the deep swamps around Patterson, La., a small logging community,” McKneely described. “He had the most influence on my career, since he set my aviation mechanic career in motion.”
McKneely was motivated to contact Harry Williams in 1929, when he and 29 other Western Union telegraphers were laid off in America’s greatest economic downtown now known as the “Great Depression.”
“Mr. Williams not only owned the airport, he owned the bank and just about everything else in Patterson, La.,” McKneely noted. “He also had a plane repair operation in conjunction with the airport.”
But McKneely didn’t aspire to be a pilot himself.
“We people of the swamp always worked hard. I’d get in the vehicle leading from Patterson to the airport each morning, and do any job I could find to do. Eight-hour days were unheard in that era. We worked morning, noon and night.”
His willingness to work patiently for long hours finally paid off.
“We did all types of repair work, and after several months of my hanging around the airport, Harry asked: ‘Boy, are you on the payroll?’ I said, ‘No sir.’ And Harry said, ‘We’ll see about that.’”
McKneely went to work as an airplane mechanic for $65 a month, a good wage during the Great Depression.
This set the stage for McKneely to step into the pages of early flight history. Earhart made McKneely’s importance clear in this public statement following a dangerous plane crash in Honolulu: “I’m all out of superstitions. The good luck charm most important to a pilot, is the mechanic. I’m fortunate to have both…my mechanic (Bo McKneely) is my good luck charm.”
McKneely recalls last seeing Amelia Earhart on the day June 1, 1937 she flew a two-engine plane out of Florida, attempting to be the first woman pilot to circle the globe.
By this time, Earhart was famous for being the first woman to cross the Atlantic by plane in 1928. She was the first person to fly alone from Honolulu in 1935. It was in 1937, she attempted, with co-pilot navigator Fred Noonan, to fly around the world.
“I remember the day well when she took off in the Lockheed Electra, with enlarged fuel tanks at the airport in Miami,” McKneely confirmed. “She came out, and we got the airplane out of the hangar.”
The lanky Earhart was clad in a flight suit.
“She routinely wore slacks and a blouse on flights,” McKneely recalled. “To board the plane, she had to climb over the cumbersome fuel tanks that I had helped design and build, in order to carry extra fuel for the world flight.”
The extra fuel’s weight caused Earhart problems in handling the plane, he confirmed.
“I remember that the overload of fuel had caused an earlier dangerous mishap in Honolulu a few weeks before the fateful attempt to circle the world in flight,” McKneely accounted. “A tire blew out on the plane in Honolulu when fuel began sloshing from side to side, which caused the plane to fish-tail back and forth in the take-off attempt.”
History annals report federal flight officials voicing concern about Earhart’s plane carrying 1,151 gallons of fuel at six pounds per weight, per gallon.
“The weight was cause for concern regarding balance and the plane’s center of gravity,” McKneely confirmed. He recalled seeing his history-making friend for the last time.
“As she prepared to take off, I got in my old Ford car with another fellow,” recalled McKneely. “We had the car loaded down with fire extinguishers in case there was problem with takeoff with all that fuel on board. But, the old car wouldn’t keep up with the twin-engined Lockheed that finally became airborne out over the ocean.”
While traveling back to California by car McKneely, along with millions of other Americans, was charting Amelia’s progress across the globe. But her plane was lost on the flight between New Guinea and Howland Island.
“I was stunned by her disappearance,” McKneely confirmed.
“When news flashed around the globe that Amelia’s plane was missing, me and my friends spent countless hours monitoring short wave radio signals in hopes of picking up transmissions from Amelia over her call letters, KHAQQ, designated for frequencies 500, 3105 and 6210 KC,” he added. “We never heard a transmission.”
He shared his theory of what went wrong.
“I think they ran out of fuel,” McKneely noted. “It’s that simple to me.”
But like thousands of historians, McKneely went to his own grave (he died in 1997) not knowing the reason her plane went down.
“I wish I could answer the question about what happened to her,” McKneely shared.
When asked if he had any regrets in life, the aging aviation pioneering mechanic responded slowly, but emphatically: “I wish I had been on the plane with her. Maybe I could have made a difference.”