Derry priest witnessed historic Amelia Earhart landing in Derry

Back in May 2001, the Journal spoke with Rev. Francis Coyle who recalled the historic day in 1932 when Amelia Earhart’s tiny plane landed in a farmer’s field at Ballyarnett.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 20th May 2022, 9:48 am

It happened nearly 70 years ago, but Rev. Francis Coyle remembers it as if it was yesterday, writes Sean McLaughlin.

One bright sunny day in May 1932, a red Lockheed Vega aircraft suddenly emerged from the clouds above a field on the outskirts of Derry.

The plane circled a number of times before eventually landing in the field. Out of the cockpit clambered a slim young woman in a flying suit who walked up to a cottage located at the top of the field, knocked on the door and announced that she had just flown non-stop from the United States of America.

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1932... A young Francis Coyle (circled and looking directly at camera) among the crowds who greeted Amelia Earhart when she landed at Ballyarnett.

The slim young lady was Amelia Earhart and she had just made history by becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

This week [May 2001], the Journal travelled to Ballyarnett with Rev. Francis Coyle where he recalled those historic scenes of 69 years ago.

Father Coyle, a teenager in 1932, was working in a public house at Racecourse Road when he heard the unmistakeable drone of an aircraft overhead.

“It was lunchtime,” he recalled. “I remember having read about Ms Earhart’s exploits and her intrepid flight from Newfoundland to Europe.

2001... Fr Francis Coyle at the historic location where Amelia Earhart landed in 1932.

“Many people were fascinated by the accounts of the hazardous journey - the first of its kind ever undertaken by an air woman.

“Therefore, I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the zooming of an aircraft overhead. In those days, it was a rarity to see a plane in flight.”

However, duty called and young Francis was forced to remain at his post behind the bar and was unable to make the journey to Ballyarnett until the following day.

“I went along with my younger brother,” he said. “We were both very excited. We walked from our home at Stewart’s Terrace to Ballyarnett.

Amelia Earhart.

“As we made our way to the field where Ms Earhart’s plane had landed, I noticed lots of people heading in the same direction. It was a real day out for many people.

“There was great excitement and a real sense of expectation among the crowds. One has to remember that, in the 1930s, a car was a rare phenomenon in Derry, nevermind an aircraft.

“A large crowd had already gathered in the field by the time we reached it. People were just standing around, looking at the aircraft which was being guarded by police. Everyone was eagerly awaiting the moment when they would see Ms Earhart.

“When she eventually appeared, there was a spontaneous round of applause. I recall one man with a very upper class English accent shouting: ‘Three cheers for Ms Earhart!’ However, he said it in such a way that it sounded like: ‘Three chairs for Ms Earhart!’ My young brother was very confused and turned to me and asked: ‘What does she want three chairs for - is she very tired?’

Father Coyle recalls those events of 69 years ago as vividly as if they were yesterday.

He says: “Each time I head out that road, I recall the day when, along with my younger brother, we witnessed history. It was a day I’ll certainly never forget.”