Amelia Earhart is one of the most famous American pilots. A record setting aviator, she was the second person to fly solo across the Atlantic and the first woman to fly solo and nonstop across the United States, among other accomplishments. Her flying feats spurred her into the international spotlight, where she lectured widely, wrote several books, and advocated for causes she cared about.
She tragically went missing while attempting to fly around the world.
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).
“As soon as I left the ground, I knew I myself had to fly.”
Earhart 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.
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 and bought her first airplane, a Kinner Airster. In 1923, Earhart became the 16th woman to receive an official Fédération Aéronautique Internationale pilot license.
Amelia Earhart began setting records before she officially earned her pilots license when she set the feminine altitude record of 4,267 meters (14,000 feet) in 1922.
Her record-breaking feats of skill and endurance demonstrated her courage as a pilot, and also made her an international sensation. Learn more about some of these feats below.
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.
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. She also was the first person to cross the Atlantic by air twice.
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.
During her 3,260-kilometer (2,026-mile) nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic, 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.
Then, on August 24–25, 1932 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).
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."
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).
1935 — Speed record between Mexico City and Washington, D.C.
1935 — First person to fly solo from Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey.
Supporting Women Pilots
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 organize. 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.
Amelia Earhart set two of her many aviation records in this bright red Lockheed 5B Vega. In 1932 she flew it alone across the Atlantic Ocean, then flew it nonstop across the United States—both firsts for a woman. Amelia Earhart bought this 5B Vega in 1930 and called it her "Little Red Bus."
Celebrity and Entrepreneur
The dramatic 1928 transatlantic passenger flight brought Earhart international attention and the opportunity to earn a living in aviation. George Putnam became her manager and she began lecturing and writing on aviation around the country.
She tirelessly lectured across the country on the subjects of aviation and women's issues and wrote for Cosmopolitan and various other magazines. She also wrote books about her flights and career 20 Hours and 40 Minutes, The Fun of It, and Last Flight, which was published after her disappearance.
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. She 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.
Her Final Flight
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.
Earhart's disappearance remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the 20th century, and it often overshadows her true legacy as a courageous and dedicated aviator and as an enduring inspiration to women.