Amelia Earhart is probably the most famous female pilot in aviation history, an accolade due both to her aviation career and to her mysterious disappearance. On May 20–21, 1932, Earhart became the first woman — and the second person after Charles Lindbergh — to fly nonstop and solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Flying a red Lockheed Vega 5B, she left Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, Canada, and landed about 15 hours later near Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The feat made Earhart an instant worldwide sensation and proved she was a courageous and able pilot. Then, on August 24–25, she made the first solo, nonstop flight by a woman across the United States, from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey, establishing a women's record of 19 hours and 5 minutes and setting a women's distance record of 3,938 kilometers (2,447 miles).
Born in Atchison, Kansas, on July 24, 1897, Amelia Earhart displayed an independent style from childhood, including keeping a scrapbook on accomplished women, taking an auto repair course, and attending college (but never graduating). She attended her first flying exhibition in 1918 while serving as a Red Cross nurse's aide in Toronto, Canada. She took her first flight in California in December 1920, with veteran flyer Frank Hawks, and declared, "As soon as I left the ground, I knew I myself had to fly." Her first instructor was Anita "Neta" Snook who gave her lessons in a Curtiss Jenny. To pay for flight lessons, Earhart worked as a telephone company clerk and photographer. Earhart soloed in 1921, bought her first airplane, a Kinner Airster, in 1922 and wasted no time in setting a women's altitude record of 4,267 meters (14,000 feet). In 1923, Earhart became the 16th woman to receive an official Fédération Aéronautique Internationale pilot license.
Earhart moved to east to be near her sister and mother, and, after a second year at Columbia University in New York City, began working in Boston at the Denison Settlement House as a social worker with immigrant families. In the spring of 1928, she was flying at Dennison Airport, and had joined the local National Aeronautic Association, when she was offered the opportunity of a lifetime: to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger.
Amy Phipps Guest owned the Fokker F.VII Friendship and wanted to make the flight but when her family objected, she asked aviator Richard Byrd and publisher/publicist George Putnam to find "the right sort of girl" for the trip. On June 17, 1928, Earhart and pilots Wilmer Stultz and Lou Gordon departed Trepassey, Newfoundland and, though promised time at the controls of the tri-motor, she was never given the opportunity to fly the aircraft during the 20-hour 40-minute flight to Burry Point, Wales. She did get in the pilot's seat for a time on the final hop to Southampton, England.
The dramatic 1928 flight brought her international attention and the opportunity to earn a living in aviation. Putnam became her manager and she began lecturing and writing on aviation around the country. In August of 1929, she placed third in the All-Women's Air Derby, behind Louise Thaden and Gladys O'Donnell, which was the first transcontinental air race for women (from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio) and a race she helped organized.Â This race, closely followed by the press and by the public who flocked to the stops along the way, proved that women could fly in rugged and competitive conditions.
A few months after the Derby, a group of women pilots decided to form an organization for social, recruitment, and business purposes. Ninety-nine women, out of 285 licensed U.S. female pilots, became charter members, inspiring the organization's name The Ninety-Nines (99s); Earhart became their first president. Female pilots were keenly aware of the lack of social and economic independence for all women and were determined to help one another.
In 1930, after only 15 minutes of instruction, Earhart became the first woman to fly an autogiro, made by Pitcairn and featuring rotating blades to increase lift and allow short takeoffs and landings. Earhart set the first autogiro altitude record and made two autogiro cross-country tours, which were marked by three public "crack-ups," as she called them. Though Earhart was the most famous woman pilot, she was not the most skilled.
Determined to prove herself, Earhart decided to fly the Atlantic Ocean again, but this time alone. She thought a transatlantic flight would bring her respect, something other women sought too -- Ruth Nichols made an attempt in 1931 crashing in Canada, but she was planning another attempt when Earhart succeeded. During her 3,260-kilometer (2,026-mile) nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic on May 20-21, 1932, Earhart fought fatigue, a leaky fuel tank, and a cracked manifold that spewed flames out the side of the engine cowling. Ice formed on the Vega's wings and caused an unstoppable 3,000-foot descent to just above the waves. Realizing she was on a course far north of France, she landed in a farmer's field in Culmore, near Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Acclaimed in London, Paris, and Rome, she returned home to a ticker tape parade in New York City and honors in Washington, D.C. By July and August she was back in the Vega for her transcontinental flight.
On January 11–12, 1935, Amelia Earhart became the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland, this time in a Lockheed 5C Vega. Although some called it a publicity stunt for Earhart and Hawaiian sugar plantation promoters, it was a dangerous3,875-kilometer (2,408-mile) flight that had already claimed several lives. Of that flight she remarked: "I wanted the flight just to contribute. I could only hope one more passage across that part of the Pacific would mark a little more clearly the pathway over which an air service of the future will inevitably fly." Later that year, Earhart made record flights from Los Angeles to Mexico City and from Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey. She also placed fifth in the 1935 Bendix Race. Earhart was a two-time Harmon Trophy winner and was also the recipient of the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross.
Earhart became the first woman vice president of the National Aeronautic Association, which authorized official records and races. She persuaded the organization to establish separate female records because women did not have the money or planes — and thus the experience — to fairly compete against men for "world" titles. Earhart served as a partner in the Transcontinental Air Transport and Ludington airlines and lobbied Congress for aviation legislation. She promoted the safety and efficiency of air travel to women, on the premise that they would influence men. She tirelessly lectured across the country on the subjects of aviation and women's issues and wrote for Cosmopolitan and various magazines. She wrote about her flights and career in 20 Hours and 40 Minutes, The Fun of It, and Last Flight, which was published after her disappearance.
Earhart married George Putnam in 1931 — hesitantly — on the condition that they would separate in a year if unhappy. Though some called it a marriage of convenience, they remained together.
Earhart designed a line of "functional" women's clothing, including dresses, blouses, pants, suits, and hats, initially using her own sewing machine, dress form, and seamstress. Though "tousle-haired" and rather thin, she photographed well and modeled her own designs for promotional spreads. Earhart also designed a line of lightweight, canvas-covered plywood luggage sold by Orenstein Trunk of Newark, New Jersey. Earhart luggage was sold into the 1990s and featured an Amelia Earhart luggage key, prompting some people to believe they possessed her "personal" aircraft or suitcase key.
In 1935, Earhart became a visiting professor at Purdue University at the invitation of Purdue president Edward Elliott, an advocate of higher education for women, especially in engineering and science. Earhart, a former premedical student, served as a counselor for women and a lecturer in aeronautics. Elliott was also interested in supporting Earhart's flying career and convinced Purdue benefactors to purchase a twin-engine Lockheed 10-E Electra for her. Many companies contributed their latest aviation technology to her Flying Laboratory.
Earhart decided to make a world flight and she planned a route as close to the equator as possible, which meant flying several long overwater legs to islands in the Pacific Ocean. On March 20, 1937, Earhart crashed on takeoff at Luke Field, Honolulu, Hawaii, ending her westbound world flight that had begun at Oakland, California. The Electra was returned to Lockheed Aircraft Company in Burbank, California, for extensive repairs. On June 1, 1937, Earhart began an eastbound round-the-world flight from Oakland, via Miami, Florida, in the Electra with Fred Noonan as her navigator. They reached Lae, New Guinea on June 29, having flown 35,405 kilometers (22,000 miles) with 11,265 kilometers (7,000 miles) more to go to Oakland. They then departed Lae on July 2 for the 4,113-kilometer (2,556-mile) flight to their next refueling stop, Howland Island, a three-kilometer (two-mile) long and less-than-a-mile wide dot in the Pacific Ocean.
Unfortunately, due to various circumstances, Earhart and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca, anchored off shore of Howland, could not complete any direct two-way radio communication and neither Earhart nor Noonan were competent at Morse Code. However, the Itasca did receive several strong voice transmissions from Earhart as she approached the area, the last at 8:43 am stating: "We are on the line of position 156-137. Will repeat message. We will repeat this message on 6210 kilocycles. Wait. Listening on 6210 kilocycles. We are running north and south." Earhart and Noonan never found Howland and they were declared lost at sea on July 19, 1937 following a massive sea and air search.
Earhart's disappearance spawned countless theories involving radio problems, poor communication, navigation or pilot skills, other landing sites, spy missions and imprisonment, and even living quietly in New Jersey or on a rubber plantation in the Philippines. The most reasonable explanation, based on the known facts of her flight, is that they were unable to locate Howland Island, ran out of fuel, and ditched into the Pacific Ocean.
Earhart's disappearance remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the 20th century, and it often overshadows her true legacies as a courageous and dedicated aviator and as an enduring inspiration to women.
Amelia Earhart Record Setter
1922 — Feminine altitude record of 4,267 meters (14,000 feet).
1928 — First woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger in the Fokker F.VII Friendship.
1929 — Feminine speed record.
1930 — Feminine speed record.
1931 — First woman to fly an autogiro.
1931 — Autogiro altitude record of 5,612 meters (18,415 feet).
1932 — First woman (and only the second person) to fly solo and nonstop across the Atlantic. Also first person to cross the Atlantic twice by air.
1932 — First woman to fly solo and nonstop across the United States.
1933 — Reset her transcontinental record.
1935 — First person to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii, to the U.S. mainland (Oakland, California).
1935 — Speed record between Mexico City and Washington, D.C.
1935 — First person to fly solo from Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey.
(information compiled by D. Cochrane and P. Ramirez)