Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) was the most celebrated of all women aviators. Her accomplishments in the field of aviation inspired others and helped pave the ways for those that followed.
Born on July 24, 1897, in Atchison, Kansas, Amelia Earhart's parents encouraged her from a young age to participate in activities usually left to boys, such as football, baseball, and fishing. Their encouragement, watching numerous air shows in Los Angeles, and paying a pilot a dollar for a 10-minute airplane ride all contributed to her decision to become a pilot and join this predominantly male field. After her first ride, she wrote, "By the time I had gotten two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly."
From 1921 to 1922, Earhart was taught to fly by Neta Snook, the first woman to graduate from the Curtiss School of Aviation. In October 1922, Earhart received her pilot's license from the Federation Aeronatique Internationale. Soon after, on October 22, 1922, Earhart set a women's altitude record of 14,000 feet (4,200 meters) in a Kinner Canary, an open-cockpit, single-engine biplane.
Charles Lindbergh made his record-setting solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. One of the people inspired by his feat was flying enthusiast Amy Guest, who hoped to be the first woman to cross the Atlantic. She purchased a plane but her family vetoed the trip. Earhart went in her place and became the first female to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Leaving Newfoundland, Canada, on June 4, 1928, Earhart joined Wilmer L. Stutz and Louis E. Gordon in their bright red Fokker F.VII named the Friendship on their 2,000-mile (3,219-kilometer) trip to Wales. Earhart had no part in piloting the plane during the 20-hour, 40-minute trip and was, in her words, "just baggage," making her even more eager to cross the Atlantic on her own.
In 1929, Earhart co-founded an organization whose goal it was to advance women's participation and opportunities in aviation. Called the Ninety-Nines, the organization was composed of 99 charter members, representing 99 of the 117 licensed women pilots in the United States at the time.
Earhart continued setting records. On July 6, 1930, she set a woman's speed record of 181 miles per hour (291 kilometers per hour), in a Lockheed Vega, a single-engine monoplane. On April 8, 1931, she set an autogiro altitude record of 18,451 feet (5,623.8 meters).
First solo Atlantic flight
On May 20–21, 1932, Earhart accomplished her goal of flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She took off from Newfoundland, Canada, at 7:12 p.m. on May 20, in her Lockheed Vega. Her flight was filled with dangers, from rapidly changing weather to a broken altimeter so she could not tell how high she was flying, to gasoline leaking into the cockpit. At one point her plane dropped almost 3,000 feet (914 meters) and went into a spin (which she managed to pull out of) and flames were shooting out of the exhaust manifold. She brought her plane down on the coast of Ireland after a harrowing trip lasting 15 hours and 18 minutes The flight was the second solo flight across the Atlantic and the longest nonstop flight by a woman—2,026 miles (3,261 kilometers)--as well as the first flight across the Atlantic by a woman. President Herbert Hoover awarded her the National Geographic Society Medal on June 21, 1932, for her achievement, and the U.S. Congress awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross, the first woman to receive such an honor. Earhart's accomplishment meant a great deal to the entire world, but especially to women, for it demonstrated that women could set their own course in aviation and other fields.
Her next major achievement was to set the women's nonstop transcontinental speed record. On August 24–25, 1932, she flew from Los Angeles, California, to Newark, New Jersey, in a record 19 hours, 5 minutes, flying a Lockheed Vega, also becoming the first woman to fly solo coast-to-coast. The next July she set a new transcontinental speed record, making the same flight in a record 17 hours, 7 minutes.
In January 1935, Earhart became the first woman to make a solo long-distance flight over the Pacific Ocean, flying from Honolulu, Hawaii, to San Francisco, California. This complicated flight in her second Lockheed Vega occurred in adverse weather conditions and demonstrated Earhart's courage as well as her stubbornness. She followed that flight with two more first solo flights—one on April 19–20 from Los Angeles, California, to Mexico City, in 13 hours, 23 minutes and the second on May 8, 1935, from Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey, in 14 hours, 19 minutes.
Flight around the world
Earhart wanted to be the first of either gender to fly around the world at its widest, close to the equator. She acquired the most advanced long-range, non-military aircraft available—a Lockheed Model 10E Electra. The all-metal, two-engine plane had been reconfigured with extra fuel tanks replacing the passenger seats, allowing the plane to travel farther between refuelings.
Her first attempt at the world flight began on March 17, 1937, in Oakland, California, but ended abruptly with a runway crash in Honolulu, Hawaii, after a tire blew and a shock absorber on the landing gear failed. Earhart decided to repair the damaged plane and try again.
The flight began again on May 20, 1937, this time heading from Oakland to Miami, Florida. But it was plagued with mechanical problems along the way that resulted in further delays. Eventually she and Fred Noonan, her navigator, reached Miami and made final adjustments to the plane's engines and instruments. Finally, Earhart and Noonan were ready to depart.
What turned out to be the final flight of Earhart's career, and, ultimately, her life, began on June 1, 1937. Earhart and Noonan left for their round-the-world flight from Miami, Florida, in her twin-engine, red-winged Electra. From Miami, they flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Right before taking off on this leg of the flight, Earhart was quoted as saying, "I have a feeling there is just about one more good flight left in my system and I hope this trip is it. Anyway, when I have finished this job, I mean to give up long-distance 'stunt' flying."
As Earhart's journey continued, news of her flight made the front page of newspapers around the world. She sent reports of the land, cultures, and people she encountered. On June 30, 1937, Earhart and Noonan arrived in Lae, New Guinea. They had traveled 22,000 miles (35,406 kilometers) and had 7,000 miles (11,265 kilometers) left to go.
Their next destination, and the most dangerous stop of the trip, was Howland Island, a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean, 2,556 miles (4,113 kilometers) away. Before Earhart took off from Lae on July 1, there was confusion about which radio frequencies were to be used, which remained unresolved before she took off. As the scheduled time neared for Earhart to approach the island, several transmissions were received from her, demanding to know the weather. A new weather report describing heavy clouds and rain northwest of Howland had been issued, and Earhart had apparently run into the storm. Earhart transmitted several more times but never reached her destination, disappearing somewhere off the coast of the island. A large search party was quickly organized, but no remains of the crew and the plane were ever found.
There are many theories surrounding the controversial disappearance of Earhart's plane on July 2, 1937. The most commonly accepted theory is that she got lost, ran out of gas, and went down somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. However, two other theories has grown in the years since, one involving capture and execution as a spy by the Japanese, and the other dying of exposure after landing on a deserted island.
As war between the United States and Japan loomed on the horizon in 1937, it was theorized that Earhart had possibly been on a spy mission for the United States and was supposed to photograph Japanese military installations. This theory varied; one suggested that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan crash-landed and were captured by the Japanese, who subsequently executed them. Another suggested Noonan died and Earhart was held captive throughout the war. A variant of this theory emerged from the 1943 RKO movie Flight for Freedom, was that her disappearance was staged to allow the U.S. Navy to survey the South Pacific area suspected of illegal Japan fortifications taking place. This, notwithstanding the words of Admiral Chester Nimitz as spoken to CBS Radio Journalist, Fred Goerner in 1965, "I want to tell you Amelia Earhart and her navigator did go down in the Marshall Islands and were picked up by the Japanese." Japan never confirmed or denied such a comment, nor did the United States ever officially comment on Earhart's disappearance, leaving their combined dispositions to generally cause the so-called "mystery of Amelia Earhart's disappearance" to come into existence.
A related, yet controversial theory stated Earhart quietly survived the war under some kind of witness protection plan. None of these ideas ever graduated to a level of mainstream acceptance.
More recently some items found on a deserted island in the Phoenix Islands group were suggested to have possibly been from the Earhart flight, but they too amounted to a false lead. Today the Smithsonian Institution adheres to the idea of the simple 'crashed and sank' scenario of Earhart and Noonan's 1937 disappearance.
Although only 39 when she disappeared, Earhart accomplished a great deal and is considered a true hero of the 20th century, especially for women. She demonstrated courage, integrity, and an independent spirit. She used her fame to advance the cause of women and showed that a determined woman could achieve anything. Her efforts led a generation of women to seek new horizons and new roles for themselves.
On the negative side, Holbrook (1971) argues the sole reason behind Earhart's tragic final flight was publicity and financial gain. She also wanted to show the world that women could do things as well as, if not better than, men. All in all - the contract with Harcourt, Brace and Company to write a story of the flight; a position as special correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, reporting on the progress of her flight; a cargo of stamp covers; radio commitments in Honolulu and California - there can be little doubt that the Earhart mission was designed to increase the prestige of the Putnams (Amelia and her husband, George Palmer Putnam) and to use the resultant publicity to enhance the new commercial venture they planned to participate in at the end of the flight. Holbrook rejects the notions that Earhart acted as a spy for the U.S. Government, or that she was on a scientific mission.
- Ware, Susan. Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism (1993) 304pp
- Earhart, Amelia. Letters from Amelia: An Intimate Portrait of Amelia Earhart. ed. by Jean L. Backus. (1983). 253 pp.
- Francis X. Holbrook, "Amelia Earhart's Final Flight." U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 1971 97(2): 48-55. 0041-798x