Amelia Mary Earhart (1897-1937) was a pioneer of aviation, and the first solo female to cross the Atlantic in an aircraft. As well as being a decorated pilot, Earhart was an advocate of women’s rights, a best-selling author, a fashion designer and icon, and an aeronautical engineering consultant. During a round the world flying attempt in 1937, Amelia and her plane vanished somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, sparking a decades-long mystery as to where she ended up.
Born in Kansas in 1897 to Edwin and Amy Earhart, Amelia Mary Earhart and her younger sister Grace Muriel were raised in a family that did not care much for expected gender roles. Amy Earhart preferred her little daughters, known then as Meeley and Pidge, to express themselves as children rather than as girls, and she did not restrict them to fancy frocks or keep them from rough play and traditionally masculine pursuits. Indeed, both girls enjoyed tree climbing, shooting, and sledding.
One early story of Amelia involves her seeing a rollercoaster during a family trip, and becoming fascinated with the idea of flying at a high speed. Back home, she used wooden boards to affix a large ramp onto the roof of her house, before jumping in her sled and sliding down the makeshift structure. Though the wooden box splintered and Amelia suffered a few bruises and cuts, she was exhilarated by her first ‘flying’ experience, and her love of aviation started to grow.
Amelia had a relatively happy childhood, though one blighted by her father’s alcoholism and difficulty holding down a job. This meant some of her young life was spent in the care of her grandparents, where she was educated at home. She did not enter the school system until she was twelve years old, and she was moved between schools before settling at the Hyde Park High School in Chicago – one Amelia picked herself on the basis of its science program. However, school was not a happy time for Amelia, who struggled to find friends. It was with some relief that she graduated and left in 1916, and was free to pursue her own interests.
Nursing career and illness
It was around this time that war had broken out in Europe, and the Americans were sending support in the form of troops and auxiliary services. Earhart underwent fast-tracked nurse volunteer training, and accepted a post at the Voluntary Aid Detachment at Spadina Military Hospital. Here, she worked through the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and contracted the disease herself, becoming seriously ill in the process. It took more than a year of convalescence before Amelia recovered enough to resume normal life, during which time she studied mechanics at home. Even after she regained a normal degree of fitness, Earhart was plagued by sinus infections throughout her life, often requiring drainage treatment and other interventions – though she never let the painful condition hold her back from achieving her aviation goals.
Learning to fly
The first flash of inspiration came for Earhart at the Canadian National Exhibition, where she saw a flying display by WWI aces. One flew his plane right at Earhart, presuming to make her run in fear, but she stood her ground and caused the pilot to pull up instead. The little plane woke something inside the young woman, and she began to imagine herself as a pilot.
Then in 1920, her father Edwin indulged his daughter’s desires to fly by purchasing a 10 minute ride with racer Frank Hawks. “I knew I had to fly,” she later remarked of the experience. Determined, Amelia took up three jobs – photographer, truck driver and stenographer – and saved her wages to put towards flying lessons. In just one year, she had made $1000.
Amelia’s choice of flying teacher was important to her future success. She took flying lessons from Neta Snook Southern – the first woman to run a commercial airfield and flight school, and the first female pilot granted a licence in Iowa. Neta was to become a firm friend – and harsh critic – of Earhart. After her initial lessons paid for through hard work and determination, Neta continued to teach her pupil for free in her spare time, flying in Amelia’s own second-hand Kinner Airster biplane, rather than the teaching plane. It was in this aircraft that Amelia broke the women’s altitude flying record, just one year after her lessons began.
On May 15, 1923, Amelia Earhart was granted her pilot’s licence by the FAI – becoming only the 16th US woman to do so. However, financial problems and her parents’ divorce led Earhart to sell her beloved Kinner plane, trading them in for a more practical automobile. She also underwent more medical procedures for her sinus problems, and moved to Medford, Boston where she took up work as a teacher and as a social worker. During this time, her interest in aviation never faded and she was determined to have commercial success as an aviator.
She joined the American Aeronautical Society’s Boston chapter, and invested in the Dennison Airport, while working as a part-time sales rep for Kinner aircraft. Earhart become something of a local celebrity and her reputation as a female pilot blossomed. When Amy Guest was seeking to sponsor a female aviator to recreate Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo Atlantic flight, Earhart seemed the obvious choice – and a very willing participant.
The decision to attempt the journey was made in April 1928 and the flight took off just two months later, on June 17, 1928. As it happened, Earhart would merely be the passenger while Wilmer Stultz would pilot, and Louis Gordon would keep the flight log. Earhart was nominally the first woman to be flown across the Atlantic, a fact treated with much celebration in the United States, but Amelia herself was unimpressed. “Maybe someday I’ll try it alone,” she told reporters after landing.
In May 1932, Amelia Earhart achieved that goal. In her red Lockheed Vega 5B, she left the United States with the aim of reaching France. Though bad weather diverted her course and she landed in Derry, Northern Ireland, she still achieved her aims of crossing the Atlantic alone. For this feat, Congress awarded the pilot a Distinguished Flying Cross, the National Geographic Society gave her their Gold Medal, and the French government made her an honorary Knight of the Legion of Honor.
- Women’s altitude flying world record (14,000 ft) – 1922
- First woman to fly over the Atlantic Ocean – 1928
- Speed records for 100 km (and with 500 lb cargo) – 1931
- First woman to fly an autogyro – 1931
- Altitude record for autogyros (18,415 ft) – 1931
- First person to cross the United States in an autogyro – 1932
- First woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean solo – 1932
- First person to fly the Atlantic Ocean twice – 1932
- First woman awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross – 1932
- First nonstop coast-to-coast flight by a woman – 1933
- Women’s speed transcontinental record – 1933
- First person to fly solo between Honolulu, Hawaii and Oakland, California – 1935
- First person to fly solo from Los Angeles, California to Mexico City, Mexico – 1935
- First person to fly solo nonstop from Mexico City, Mexico to Newark, New Jersey – 1935
- Speed record for east-to-west flight from Oakland, California to Honolulu, Hawaii – 1937
- First person to fly solo from the Red Sea to Karachi – 1937
Amelia is often praised for breaking records for women, and she herself argued for a separate class of aviation records recognising the achievements of women across all categories. However, it is important to note that she made many advances in flying ahead of male pilots, and especially in her later career, many of her records are marked as ‘the first person’ to reach a goal.
Aside from her flying feats, which included solo missions, record-breaking stunts and representing aeronautical companies, Amelia Earhart also worked as a speaker for private and public events. Her stories and speeches were in high demand. She become something of a fashion icon among women, with many emulating her distinctive short hair and leather jackets. She opened a flying school and taught pupils, and she wrote a number of best-selling books about her flying career. She also served as an advisor and consultant to the aeronautical engineering industry – a nod to her youth spent studying physics and mechanics.
On February 7, 1931, Amelia Earhart married George P. Putnam, though she retained her maiden name throughout her married life and professional career. This partnership was made on Amelia’s terms; reportedly she delivered a note to her husband on their wedding day, which noted that: “I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any midaevil [sic] code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly.” The marriage gave her two much-loved stepsons, David and George Jr.
Disappearance and death
In 1936, Amelia Earhart began making plans to sail around the globe. Beaten to the first circumnavigational flight, nevertheless Amelia would attempt the journey – and she would fly a longer route, too. She had a Lockheed Electra 10E custom-built for the flight, with modifications to suit her own flying style and the route she planned to take.
A failed attempt was made, before the pilot and her navigator Fred Noonan finally made their departure for the trip on June 1, 1937. They left Miami and flew to South America, Africa, India and Southeast Asia. By June 27, they had reached Lae, New Guinea: 22,000 miles into the 29,000 mile journey.
The pair departed from Lae on July 2, 1937. They had 2,556 miles to cover before they would land again, this time at Howland Island. The tiny, uninhabited island is located in the centre of the Pacific Ocean, almost halfway between Hawaii and Australia. This tiny coral platform had been modified for Earhart’s arrival with manmade airstrips, and fuel was waiting for the pair.
Radio contact was made with the pair up until 800 miles within the island’s range. Amelia confirmed she was flying first at 10,000 ft, then at 7000 ft. Further contact was made by the aircraft to the ground control team, but Noonan and Earhart were unable to hear transmissions. Rapidly running out of fuel and not yet near enough to be spotted, the situation rapidly started to become a serious crisis. A final transition stated she believed they were almost upon the island, flying at 1000 ft – but they appeared to be out by around five nautical miles.
A huge search effort was launched within an hour of the plane’s disappearance. Most researchers concluded that the plane had gone down and the pair had been lost at sea; indeed, all the evidence points to this. However, conspiracy theories quickly began to spread. Had they landed somewhere else, and chosen to disappear – a faked death? Had they been captured? Were they working for the Government as spies? All manner of wild rumours circulated – fueled by the apparent disappearance of Earhart, Noonan and the plane.
In 1937, anthropologist D. W. Hoodless found some bones on Nikumaroro island. They were declared as male bones, and not Earhart’s, so ruled out of the investigation. However, in 2018, anthropologist Richard Jantz studied the nones again, using modern forensic techniques, and concluded they were ‘almost certainly’ those of the tall, androgynous Earhart. The mystery has been concluded – but many remain suspicious and prefer to think of Earhart as having vanished mysteriously. Perhaps it is the seemingly strange circumstances of her death that have helped keep her legacy alive all these years…
In addition to her record-breaking solo flights, Amelia Earhart was an important figure for women’s liberation. She showed that females can achieve as much and more as their male counterparts, and she pushed for women to take their place within the aviation and aeronautical industries. She was instrumental in establishing female flying group The Ninety-Nines. Today, the organisation provides support and scholarships for female pilots. Amelia’s story has inspired countless aviators since, including namesake Amelia Rose Earhart who recently completed the pilot’s attempted transcontinental flight. Amelia’s name has been lent to countless landmarks and structures, from a merchant navy vessel to bridges and roads. She has become an icon of feminism, fashion, literature and cinema, and she is one of the most recognised women in US history – in part because of her mysterious disappearance, which has sparked the imaginations of millions.
Image via Wikipedia.org