She was America’s flying sweetheart, the girl next door who took to the air. Amelia Earhart was a pioneer, not just in aviation, but in setting an example for generations of women to follow. 70 years after her mysterious disappearance she remains a symbol of the power and perseverance of American women, and the adventurous spirit that built America.
Born at her grandparents’ home in Atchison, Kansas on July 24, 1897, Amelia spent her childhood moving between Atchison, Kansas City, and Des Moines, Iowa as the demands of her father’s career as a railroad attorney dictated. Her winters were spent with her grandparents, Alfred and Amelia Otis, in Atchison, where better schools were available, and she enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle while at their home.
From an early age Amelia was a rebel. She realized early that boys were under fewer constraints than girls and questioned why. Shunning the genteel and ladylike behavior expected of young girls in favor of adventure, Amelia was more interested in climbing trees and mechanical things. As a youngster, she designed a trap to catch wild chickens. She liked all kinds of sports and games and enjoyed activities that were traditionally considered only for boys. While her unconventional attitude may have frustrated her parents and grandparents they indulged her. Amelia was interested in adventure and traveled often because of her father’s work, discovering her fascination with new people and unknown places at an early age.
Amelia attended a private college preparatory school where, although she loved to read, she sometimes got into trouble because of her independent nature. After visiting her sister Muriel in Toronto, Canada, Amelia felt compelled to leave school. Taking a course in Red Cross First Aid, Amelia became a nurse’s aide at Spadina Military Hospital in Toronto, Canada, tending to wounded soldiers during World War I. The following year she enrolled as a premedical student at Columbia University in New York. Shortly thereafter, Amelia’s parents insisted she move to California where they were living.
Amelia saw her first airplane at the Iowa State Fair in 1908. She took her first airplane ride in 1920, and said later “By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly.” A year later she began taking flying lessons from Neta Snook. Amelia worked at odd jobs to pay for her flying lessons. In 1922, she purchased her first airplane, a Kinner Airster, a two-seater biplane painted bright yellow. She named the plane Canary, and used it to set her first women’s record by rising to an altitude of 14,000 feet.
Following her parent’s divorce, Amelia moved back east, where she was employed as a social worker at Denison House in Boston, Massachusetts. Soon after, she met book publisher and publicist George P. Putnam, who asked Amelia to join pilot Wilmer “Bill” Stultz and co-pilot/mechanic Louis E. “Slim” Gordon on a transatlantic flight.
The flight lifted off from Newfoundland on June 17, 1928, and arrived at Burry Port, Wales, approximately 21 hours later, making Earhart the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane. The landmark flight made world headlines, and when the crew returned to the United States, the trio was greeted with a ticker-tape parade in New York and a reception with President Calvin Coolidge at the White House.
From then on, Amelia’s life revolved around flying. She placed third at the Cleveland Women’s Air Derby and was a familiar face on newspaper front pages, magazine articles, and movie newsreels.
No weekend pilot, Amelia’s flying accomplishments proved influential to pilots worldwide. She helped organize the Ninety-Nines, an organization of women pilots. “The more women fly, the more who become pilots, the quicker we will be recognized as an important factor in aviation,” said Amelia. In the 1920s and 1930s, flying was not considered a ladylike activity, and many believed that women who took part in it must be abnormal. Amelia tried to combat such stereotypes by stressing the variety of women involved in aviation.
Amelia believed women must replace outdated social norms. To her, a woman’s place was not in the kitchen but in the cockpit of an airplane, in a corporate boardroom, atop an earthmoving machine on a construction project, or wherever else she wanted to be. She encouraged women to hold fast to their beliefs, follow their hearts, and always dare to dream.
Amelia and George Putnam became close friends, and he helped her plan and finance many of her aerial adventures. The two were married on February 7, 1931, but like everything in Amelia’s life, it would not be a traditional marriage. They entered a marriage contract that stated that, after one year, if either party felt it was not working for them, they would end the union. Amelia referred to the marriage as a “partnership” with “dual control.”
On May 20, 1932, Amelia left Harbor Grace, Newfoundland to begin a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean; her destination, Paris. Strong winds, icy conditions and mechanical problems plagued the flight and forced her to land prematurely in a pasture near Londonderry, Ireland. While she did not make it all the way to France, she had crossed the Atlantic alone.
The feat made Amelia even more famous. President Herbert Hoover presented her with a gold medal from the National Geographic Society, and Congress awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross, the first ever given to a woman. Amelia believed the flight proved that men and women were equally capable of performing jobs requiring intelligence, coordination, speed, coolness, and willpower.
Amelia continued to break aviation records. On January 11, 1935, she became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean, from Honolulu to Oakland, California. Later that year she was the first pilot to fly solo from Mexico City to Newark.
All of these adventures were merely trial runs for what Amelia considered her biggest challenge. She wanted to be the first woman to fly around the world. In her first attempt, in March, 1937, a mishap severely damaged her twin-engine Lockheed Electra. Determined to accomplish her goal, Amelia had it rebuilt. “I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system, and I hope this trip is it,” she said.
On June 1st, 1937, Amelia and her navigator Fred Noonan lifted off from Miami to begin the 29,000-mile journey. The inaccurate maps available made navigation difficult, but by June 29, when they landed in Lae, New Guinea, all but 7,000 miles had been completed. The next leg of their trip, to Howland Island, was by far the most challenging. Located 2,556 miles from Lae, Howland Island is a tiny speck of land a mile and a half long and a half mile wide.
Amelia and Noonan removed everything from the airplane that was unnecessary to keep it aloft to make room for additional fuel, which gave them a margin for error of 274 extra miles. The Coast Guard cutter Itasca, their radio contact, was stationed just offshore. Three other American ships were positioned along the flight route as markers, with every light on board illuminated.
At 12:30 p.m. on July 2, 1937, Amelia and Noonan took off from Lae. They encountered overcast skies and rain showers, making navigation difficult. As dawn neared, Amelia radioed Itascas to ask her location. She failed to report in the next scheduled time, and her radio transmissions that followed were faint or distorted by static. At 7:42 a.m. the Itasca picked up the message, “We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.” At 8:45 Amelia reported, “We are running north and south.” It was her last transmission. Silence followed.
The most extensive air and sea rescue effort to that time began immediately, but no trace of Amelia Earhart, Fred Noonan, or their aircraft was spotted. On July 19, after spending $4 million and searching 250,000 square miles of ocean, the search was called off.
There were many theories about what happened to Amelia Earhart. Some believe the pair ran out of fuel and had to ditch in the Pacific. Others thought they may have crash-landed on another small island. Some speculated they were captured by the Japanese and executed as spies. Many believe to this day that Amelia, tired of being in the public eye, organized her own disappearance in an elaborate hoax and quietly returned to America to live out her days anonymously. This is a theory attached to many famous and infamous people over the years, from outlaw Billy the Kid, to John F. Kennedy, to gangster John Dillinger, and Elvis Presley. I think Amelia simply ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean, dying doing what she loved best, pushing the envelope.
Amelia Earhart knew the dangers she faced, but like a moth drawn to a candle flame, she could not resist the challenge. In a letter to her husband, written in case the flight proved to be her last, she said, “Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.” Her parting words to Louise Thaden, a fellow Ninety-Nine member, were “If I should bop off, it’ll be doing the thing that I’ve always most wanted to do.” I think there are worse ways to die.
The home where Amelia Earhart was born is now a museum to her life and career, owned by her women pilot’s group, the Ninety-Nines. Located at 223 N. Terrace, in Atchison, Kansas, the wood-frame, Gothic Revival home is perched high on the west bank of the Missouri River.
Inside, visitors will see displays of Amelia’s awards, model aircraft, photographs and newspaper accounts of her accomplishments, artwork, and books about Amelia. The home is furnished with period items to reflect the lifestyle of Amelia’s family when she lived here. Every room holds mementos of this brave woman who soared so high, not just alone but carrying the spirits of all women with her.
The Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. For more information, call (913)367-4217 or visit the museum’s website at https://www.ameliaearhartmuseum.org/
Parking is limited to automobiles only, there is no room for any size RV, and the streets in the Atchison Historic Neighborhood where the home is located are not suitable for RVs.
Thought For The Day – Life isn’t always fair, but it’s still good.