Synopsis:It’s present day, and RICHARD RILEY (93), our narrator, recounts his experience on the USS Charleston. We go to 1935 where the advancements in aviation have been magnificent, including the U.S. Navy’s Airships — as big as a couple football fields and able to fit up to one hundred men and officers. The men on the USS Charleston are as follows: CAPTAIN MONTGOMERY, COMMANDER BRAD HIGGINS (the ship’s executive officer), LIEUTENANT COMMANDER BUCK STERNER (35), PETTY OFFICER RICHARD RILEY (18), the airship’s helmsman, and the enlisted men: SIMPSON, KOWALSKI, DANIELS, and PAROLI.
Sterner’s men talk to him about how he should be promoted as the airships Commanding Officer any day now. Sterner tries to quiet his men down, as it seems he knows something they don’t. Just then, a message over the loud speaker reveals that a plane is due to land on the airship soon. Making quite an impressive entrance, COMMANDER CLAUDE HOLMES (38) arrives on board. Shocking the crew, Holmes introduces himself as the airship’s new Commanding Officer. Captain Montgomery lets Holmes know off the bat that he would have promoted Sterner to Commanding Officer if it weren’t a higher up who had other ideas. Riley narrates that Montgomery, Sterner, and Riley himself had a history together of surviving aircraft disasters which included the Akron and Macon. As a publicity stunt, Holmes and Sterner fly across the Manhattan skyline. While trying to make it to the Newark airport runway, Sterner has engine trouble. Preoccupied, Sterner fails to notice a plane about to land on top of him. Sterner barely misses the Vega only because Holmes is able to get his attention before it’s too late. To Sterner’s surprise, a FEMALE PILOT steps out of the plane calling Sterner’s plane nothing but a Cracker Jack prize.
Back on the ship, LENNY shows Riley a new type of gun he’s devised. It has more than one barrel and can shoot up to three thousand rounds a minute. Sterner walks in on Lenny and Riley and orders Lenny to immediately destroy the gun. Holmes lets Sterner know of his poor performance earlier that day and he also wants Lenny transferred off the ship — he doesn’t know how to obey orders properly. At the Newark airport, during a terminal dedication AMELIA EARHART speaks. Sterner and LIEUTENANT JAMES VAN HORN (30) watch from afar. Sterner is turned off by Amelia, feeling she is rather full of herself and that women shouldn’t fly. GEORGE PUTNAM, Amelia’s husband, overhears Sterner and lightly confronts him. However, Sterner remains firm on his position. While at Ebbets Field, watching a baseball game, Sterner spots Amelia and realizes she is the same women who almost landed on top of him. Sterner sends over a Cracker Jack box to Amelia who looks in his direction blankly. Inside the box, Amelia finds a toy compass with a red heart where the ―N‖ for North should be — she places the toy inside her pocket.
Outside of the field, Buck Sterner approaches Amelia asking for her autograph. Amelia realizes who Buck is and that he sent her the Cracker Jack box and signs her autograph and leaves. However, Buck sees that Amelia has written down her hotel and room number. The next day, Buck finds himself at Amelia’s hotel room — the two talk about flying. The following day, Buck and Amelia meet secretly once again and set off in ―Old Bessie‖. During the flight the two share their first kiss. Amelia and Buck both wish to continue seeing one another, but Amelia makes it very clear that she won’t be leaving George. In addition, Buck’s opinion of women being able to fly has changed.
Two years go by, and FDR is ordering the Charleston to go on a ―goodwill‖ mission in order to show just what she is capable of. However, during the trip, the crew will also be doing reconnaissance and exploring Japanese activities — they know the Japanese are up to something. Montgomery also reveals that he is aware of Sterner’s affair with Amelia and demands he end it immediately. Amelia and Buck meet before she goes on her around-the-world trip. Amelia gives Buck a present before departing: It’s a buck knife with the inscription, ―Buck, this knife will get you out of any jam. Love, Amelia.‖ The night before the Charleston sets out on their tour Buck finds out that Amelia is missing. Eventually, the search for Amelia is called off. Buck vows to himself that he will find Amelia. The next day, the Sparrowhawk planes are taken out to fly. ELMER WATSON (48) shows up with GENERAL LAWRENCE, right before the airship itself takes off. Lawrence announces that the Secretary of War has assigned Watson as an independent observer upon the Charleston. Right before coming back onto the airship, Buck’s engine starts having problems once more.
Sterner lands into a farmer’s field and is amazingly able to find a plane and pilot to fly him up to the Charleston. Kowalski expresses to Riley that something very strange is happening onboard the ship. Kowalski doesn’t trust Watson, food has been missing, and someone was seen scurrying around in the dark the night before. Maybe it’s the ghost of an Akron man? On another occasion, a Steward goes flying off the ship. Sterner receives a message from a COMMANDER BRYANT regarding Amelia. Bryant tells him he heard Amelia’s radio message saying something along the lines of ―Telbuk‖. Maybe it’s an island? Another message about Amelia comes from ANDREWS in Australia. Sterner meets with Andrews who still has the recordings of Amelia’s radio signals: Amelia was trying to say, ―Tell Buck I love him."
Back on the ship, Captain Montgomery reveals to Buck that Holmes is with the intelligence service and he was put on the Charleston to keep tabs on an officer who they suspect is a Japanese agent: Lieutenant Van Horn. Van Horn may be planning something once they reach the Pacific. Also, Montgomery tells Buck it may have been the Japanese who had something to do with Amelia’s plane going down. While Buck is working, Van Horn expresses his Japanese sentiments and pulls a gun on Buck and tells him his mother was Japanese and she was raped and beaten by U.S. sailors, which lead her to hang herself. Van Horn plans to fly off the airship and meet up with Japanese pilots who he will lead back to the Charleston. Van Horn gets on a Sparrowhawk and guns the trapeze so there is no landing gear for the rest of the crew.
Sterner sets out after Van Horn as the rest of the men prepare for battle. Lenny suddenly shows up and it turns out he’s been hiding on board the ship for the past two years — he still has his gun. Van Horn’s and Sterner’s planes go one on one. The men on the Charleston fire at the Japanese pilots. Holmes joins the action in his plane, firing at the Japanese. Sterner shoots Van Horn down, but starts to go down himself — he’s able to land himself on a small island. Buck is entangled in the plane and uses Amelia’s knife to cut himself out. The crew of the Charleston, minus Simpson and Lenny who die, are able to make it to Pago Pago.
We go to present day, Nikumaroro Island, where a film crew along with Riley goes through the jungle like island. There, they discover plane remnants along with a fire pit. In a wooden box they find Amelia’s Cracker Jack compass and Buck’s knife.