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Amelia Earhart

Famous Female Aviator

By Dani Alexis Ryskamp, Contributing Writer

Picture of Amelia Earhart.

Studio headshot portrait of American aviator Amelia Earhart, the first woman to complete a solo transatlantic flight, wearing a leather jacket. (circa 1932)

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Who Was Amelia Earhart?

As a pilot, Amelia Earhart set many world flying records. She became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean and the first person to make a solo flight across both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. She also set several height and speed records in an airplane. Amelia Earhart’s fate has become one of the enduring mysteries of the 20th century after she disappeared in 1937 while trying to become the first woman to fly around the world.

Dates: July 24, 1897 -- July 2, 1937(?)

Also Known As: Amelia Mary Earhart, Lady Lindy

 

Amelia Earhart’s Childhood

Amelia Mary Earhart was born in her maternal grandparents’ home in Atchison, Kansas, on July 24, 1897 to Amy and Edwin Earhart. Although Edwin was a lawyer, he never earned the approval of Amy’s parents, Judge Alfred Otis and his wife, Amelia. In 1899, two-and-a-half years after Amelia’s birth, Edwin and Amy welcomed another daughter, Grace Muriel, into the world.

Amelia Earhart spent much of her early childhood living with her Otis grandparents in Atchison during the school months and then spending her summers with her parents. Earhart’s early life was filled with outdoor adventures combined with the etiquette lessons expected of upper-middle-class girls of her day.

Amelia (known as “Millie” in her youth) and her sister Grace Muriel (known as “Pidge”) loved to play together, especially outdoors. After visiting the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904, Amelia decided she wanted to build her own mini roller coaster in her backyard. Enlisting Pidge to help, the two built a homemade roller coaster on the roof of the tool shed, using planks, a wooden box, and lard for grease. Amelia took the first ride, which ended with a crash and some bruises – but she loved it.

By 1908, Edwin Earhart had closed his private law firm and was working as a lawyer for a railroad in Des Moines, Iowa; thus, it was time for Amelia to move back in with her parents. That same year, her parents took her to the Iowa State Fair where 10-year-old Amelia saw an airplane for the very first time. Surprisingly, the airplane didn’t interest her.

At first, life in Des Moines seemed to be going well for the Earhart family; however, it soon became obvious that Edwin had started to heavily drink alcohol. When his alcoholism got worse, Edwin eventually lost his job in Iowa and had trouble finding another.

In 1915, with the promise of a job with the Great Northern Railway in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Earhart family packed up their belongings and moved. However, the job fell through once they got there. Tired of her husband’s alcoholism and the family’s increasing money troubles, Amy Earhart moved herself and her daughters to Chicago, leaving their father behind in Minnesota. Edwin and Amy eventually divorced in 1924.

Due to her family’s frequent moves, Amelia Earhart switched high schools six times, making it hard for her to make or keep friends during her teen years. She did well in her classes, but preferred sports. She graduated from Chicago’s Hyde Park High School in 1916 and is listed in the school’s yearbook as “the girl in brown who walks alone.” Later in life, however, she was known for her friendly and outgoing nature.

After high school, Earhart went to the Ogontz School in Philadelphia, but she soon dropped out to become a nurse for returning World War I soldiers and for victims of the influenza epidemic of 1918.

 

First Flights

It wasn’t until 1920, when Earhart was 23 years old, that she developed an interest in airplanes. While visiting her father in California, she attended an air show and the stunt-flying feats she watched convinced her that she had to try flying for herself.

Earhart took her first flying lesson on January 3, 1921. According to her instructors, Earhart wasn’t a “natural” at piloting an airplane; instead, she made up for a lack of talent with plenty of hard work and a passion for flying. Earhart received her “Aviator Pilot” certification from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale on May 16, 1921 -- a major step for any pilot at the time.

Since her parents could not afford to pay for her lessons, Earhart worked several jobs to raise the money herself. She also saved up the money to buy her own airplane, a small Kinner Airster she called the Canary. In the Canary, she broke the women’s altitude record on October 22, 1922 by becoming the first woman to reach 14,000 feet in an airplane.

 

Earhart Becomes the First Woman to Fly Over the Atlantic

In 1927, aviator Charles Lindbergh made history by becoming the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic, from the U.S. to England. A year later, Amelia Earhart was asked to make a non-stop flight across the same ocean. She had been discovered by publisher George Putnam, who had been asked to look for a suitable female pilot to complete this feat. Since this was not to be a solo flight, Earhart joined a crew of two other aviators, both men.

On June 17, 1928, the journey began when the Friendship, a Fokker F7 specially outfitted for the trip, took off from Newfoundland bound for England. Ice and fog made the trip difficult and Earhart spent much of the flight scribbling notes in a journal while her co-pilots, Bill Stultz and Louis Gordon, handled the plane.

On June 18, 1928, after 20 hours and 40 minutes in the air, the Friendship landed in South Wales. Although Earhart said she did not contribute any more to the flight than “a sack of potatoes” would have, the press saw her accomplishment differently. They started calling Earhart “Lady Lindy,” after Charles Lindbergh. Shortly after this trip, Earhart published a book about her experiences, titled 20 Hours 40 Minutes.

Before long, Amelia Earhart was looking for new records to break in her own airplane. A few months after publishing 20 Hours 40 Minutes, she flew solo across the United States and back -- the first time a female pilot had made the journey alone. In 1929, she founded and participated in the Woman’s Air Derby, an airplane race from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio with a substantial cash prize. Flying a more powerful Lockheed Vega, Earhart finished third, behind noted pilots Louise Thaden and Gladys O’Donnell.

On February 7, 1931, Earhart married publisher George Putnam, the man who had discovered her. Also in 1931, Earhart and several other female aviators banded together to start a professional international organization for female pilots, of which Earhart became the first president. The Ninety-Niners, named because it originally had 99 members, still represents and supports female pilots today. Earhart published a second book about her accomplishments, The Fun of It, in 1932.

 

Solo Across the Ocean

Having won multiple competitions, flown in air shows, and set new altitude records, Amelia Earhart began looking for a bigger challenge. In 1932, she decided to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. On May 20, 1932, she took off again from Newfoundland, piloting a small Lockheed Vega.

It was a dangerous trip: clouds and fog made it difficult to navigate, her plane’s wings became covered with ice, and the plane developed a fuel leak about two-thirds of the way across the ocean. Worse, the altimeter stopped working, so Earhart had no idea how far above the ocean’s surface her plane was -- a situation that nearly resulted in her crashing into the Atlantic Ocean.

In serious danger, Earhart abandoned her plans to land at Southampton, England, and made for the first bit of land she saw. She touched down in a sheep pasture in Ireland on May 21, 1932, becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and the first-ever person to fly across the Atlantic twice.

The solo Atlantic crossing was followed by more book deals, meetings with heads of state, and a lecture tour, as well as more flying competitions. In 1935, Earhart also made a solo flight from Hawaii to Oakland, California, becoming the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland. This trip also made Earhart the first person to fly solo across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

 

Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight

Not long after making her Pacific flight in 1935, Amelia Earhart decided she wanted to try flying around the entire world. A U.S. Army Air Force crew had made the trip in 1924 and male aviator Wiley Post flew around the world by himself in 1931 and 1933.

But Earhart had two new goals. First, she wanted to be the first woman to fly solo around the world. Second, she wanted to fly around the world at or near the equator, the planet’s widest point. The previous flights had both circled the world much closer to the North Pole, where the distance was shortest. Earhart wanted to make the longest possible flight around the globe.

Planning and preparation for the trip was difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Her plane, a Lockheed Electra, had to be completely re-fitted with additional fuel tanks, survival gear, scientific instruments, and a state-of-the-art radio. A 1936 test flight ended in a crash that destroyed the plane’s landing gear. Several months passed while the plane was fixed.

Meanwhile, Earhart and her navigator, Frank Noonan, plotted their course around the world. The most difficult point in the trip would be the flight from Papua New Guinea to Hawaii because it required a fuel stop at Howland’s Island, a small coral island about 1,700 miles west of Hawaii. Aviation maps were poor at the time and the island would be difficult to find from the air.

However, the stop at Howland’s Island was unavoidable because the plane could only carry about half the fuel needed to fly from Papua New Guinea to Hawaii, making a fuel stop essential if Earhart and Noonan were to make it across the South Pacific. As difficult as it might be to find, Howland’s Island seemed like the best choice for a stop since it is positioned approximately half way between Papua New Guinea and Hawaii.

Once their course had been plotted and their plane readied, it was time for the final details. It was during this last minute preparation that Earhart decided not to take the full-sized radio antenna that Lockheed recommended, instead opting for a smaller antenna. The new antenna was lighter, but it also could not transmit or receive signals as well, especially in bad weather.

On May 21, 1937, Amelia Earhart and Frank Noonan took off from Oakland, California, on the first leg of their trip. The plane landed first in Puerto Rico and then in several other locations in the Caribbean before heading to Senegal. They crossed Africa, stopping several times for fuel and supplies, then went on to Eritrea, India, Burma, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. There, Earhart and Noonan prepared for the toughest stretch of the trip -- the landing at Howland’s Island.

Since every pound in the plane meant more fuel used, Earhart removed every non-essential item -- even the parachutes. The plane was checked and re-checked by mechanics to ensure it was in top condition. However, Earhart and Noonan had been flying for over a month straight by this time and both were tired.

On July 2, 1937, Earhart’s plane left Papua New Guinea heading toward Howland’s Island. For the first seven hours, Earhart and Noonan stayed in radio contact with the airstrip in Papua New Guinea. After that, they made intermittent radio contact with the U.S.S. Itsaca, a Coast Guard ship patrolling the waters below. However, reception was poor and messages between the plane and the Itsaca were frequently lost or garbled.

Two hours after Earhart’s scheduled arrival at Howland’s Island, at about 10:30 a.m. local time on July 2, 1937, the Itsaca received a last static-filled message that indicated Earhart and Noonan could not see the ship or the island and they were almost out of fuel. The crew of the Itsaca tried to signal the ship’s location by sending up black smoke, but the plane did not appear. Neither the plane, Earhart, nor Noonan were ever seen or heard from again.

 

The Mystery Continues

The mystery of what happened to Earhart, Noonan, and the plane has not yet been solved. In 1999, British archaeologists claimed to have found artifacts on a small island in the South Pacific that contained Earhart’s DNA, but the evidence is not conclusive. Near the plane’s last known location, the ocean reaches depths of 16,000 feet, well below the range of today’s deep-sea diving equipment. If the plane sank into those depths, it may never be recovered.
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