|Amelia Earhart brings her Lockeed Vega 5b down in an Irish pasture to complete the first transatlantic solo flight by a woman in 1932.|
May 25, 1932 was five years to the day that Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris. It was not by accident that a slender aviator who bore a passing resemblance to the Lone Eagle was in the air that day. The pilot of the single engine Lockheed Vega 5b had been battling head winds, ice, and engine problems since taking off from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland the day before. Precious fuel had been used up. The plane could not make it to France. Reluctantly, Amelia Earhart brought the bright red monoplane down for a safe landing in a pasture at Culmore, north of Derry, Northern Ireland.
Two farm hands witnessed the landing with considerable astonishment. Running up to the plane one asked Earhart after she climbed down from the cockpit, “Have you flown far?” “From America,” was the laconic reply.
Earhart was disappointed not to match Lindy by coming into Paris where there would be cheering crowds, press, newsreels, and all of the exhilarating glory. Two guys in woolens, muddy shoes and some curious cows were not what she had in mind. But no matter. She was on the other side of the ocean from where she had started. It was good enough. She was officially the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. All of the attention and hoopla was sure to come. And it did.
Unlike Lindbergh, who was an obscure air mail pilot before his transatlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis, Earhart was already a famous aviatrix before the ever took off from North America. In fact, after Lindy himself she may already have been the best known flyer in the world thanks in no small part not only to her achievements but to the promotional abilities of her husband George Putnam. New honors showered on her for her flight would turn her from a star to a supernova in the dreary skies of Depression ravaged America. Awards included the Distinguished Flying Cross from Congress, the Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honor from the France, and the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society personally awarded by President Herbert Hoover.
|Amelia Earhart with pilot Wilmer L. Stultz and co-pilot Louis Gordon at Southampton the after their 1928 transatlantic flight.|
The 1932 flight was not Earhart’s first hop across the Puddle. Back in 1928 she was tapped by female aviation pioneer Amy Phipps Guest, Capt. Hilton H. Railey, and publisher/publicist George Putnam as the “girl with the right image" to promote women in the air by participating a transatlantic flight. She was already an experienced pilot and locally well known for promoting aviation in the Boston area where she lived with her mother. But it was considered too dangerous for her to be at the controls. Other would-be crossers both before and after Lindbergh had been killed in the attempt. Instead she was asked to accompany pilot Wilmer Stultz and copilot/mechanic Louis Gordon. Her only flight duty would be to maintain the log—a secretary with wings. In reality she was to be not much more than a glorified passenger.
The crew took off from Trepassey Harbor, Newfoundland in a Fokker F.VIIb/3m on June 17, 1928, and landed at Pwll near Burry Port, South Wales, 20 hours and 40 minutes later after completing most of the flight as under instruments, for which Earhart was then unqualified. Any opportunity to take the controls even briefly and symbolically was out of the question.
As planned there was considerable press attention both when she landed in Great Britain and on her return to the United States. In an interview after the flight she made her role clear, however—“Stultz did all the flying—had to. I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes...maybe someday I’ll try it alone.”
Two days after the crossing she flew to Woolston in Southampton at the controls of an Avro Avian 594 Avian III borrowed from Lady Mary Heath where she received a tremendous welcome and also showed that she could actually fly a plane. She bought the plane on the strength of expected income from endorsements, flying demonstrations, and lectures and had it shipped home in a crate.
Back in the US Putnam helped exploit the flash of fame that Earhart received. And she, a shrewd business woman in her own right lent her endorsement to many products and went into business herself with lines of sleek, liberating sportswear for women and luggage. She also relentless promoted aviation and encouraged women to participate. But she became deeply embarrassed by the fact that her fame rested on no personal achievement of her own. She began honing her pilot skills including getting instrument certification and started checking off a series of aviation firsts and flight records.
Meanwhile she and Putnam became sexually involved despite his marriage and her engagement to a Boston chemical engineer. After both disposed of their partners and Putnam propose six times the couple married, although Earhart, a new woman of the Twenties and an advocate of free love, was at first ambivalent. On the eve of her wedding in 1931 she wrote Putnam a letter expressing her expectations. “I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any midaevil [sic] code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly.” Still, although Earhart would have brief flings with other men and perhaps women the marriage was apparently happy and solid based on an “equal partnership.”
Earhart came to her aviation career, fame, and relationship via an unconventional childhood that was sometimes idyllic and often traumatizingly disrupted.
She was born Amelia Mary Earhart the daughter of Samuel “Edwin” Stanton Earhart and Amelia “Amy” Otis in Atchison, Kansas on July 27, 1897 in the home of her maternal grandfather Alfred Gideon Otis, a former federal judge and President of the Atchison Savings Bank. She lived in the home until she was 12 years old. She was doted on by both parents, who had already lost one baby in childbirth and especially by her grandmother. She was extremely close with her younger sister Grace Muriel. The two girls, nicknamed Meely and Pidge were homeschooled by their mother and governesses, allowed to roam the nearby fields and woods, and encouraged to be adventuresome. Mother Amy had no interest in raising “nice little girls” and outfitted her daughters in unusual bloomers to encourage ease of movement and play. She also encouraged her daughters to look forward to accomplishments in fields that usually excluded women. The girls were real tomboys with Meely taking the lead in sometimes dangerous stunts and games.
|Amelia in her Kansas girlhood.|
Young Amelia adored her charming, rakish father but he was an alcoholic whose drinking interfered with his career as a lawyer. He was not able to reliably support his family and move it out of his in-laws’ domineering home. He finally got a reasonably good and steady job as a claims officer for the Rock Island Railroad. In 1907 he was transferred to Des Moines and he and Amy moved their leaving their daughters in Atchison. The family re-united in Iowa in 1909 where Amelia was enrolled, unhappily, in public school for the first time at age 12. She preferred wide ranging reading on her own.
The family seemed to prosper for a while in Des Moines until her father’s drinking got worse and he was forced to retire in 1914 from the Rock Island at age of only 47. Several attempts at rehabilitation failed and he had difficulty finding any other work.
Meanwhile her grandmother died and left a substantial estate in trust to her mother to keep her father from drinking it away. The old homestead in Atchison was auctioned off, severing Amelia from her happiest childhood memories.
In 1915 Edmund finally found a job as a mere clerk with the Great Northern Railway in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Earhart entered Central High School as a junior. When Edmunds job fell apart Amy took the children to Chicago to live on their own. She searched the city for the public school with the best science program to satisfy Amelia’s insatiable curiosity and enrolled her as prestigious Hide Park High School. She spent a lonely semester there remembered in the yearbook only as “A.E.—The Girl in Brown Who Walks Alone.” She graduated in 1916. She enrolled at Ogontz Girls School in Rydal, Pennsylvania, a private junior college but did not complete the program.
|Amelia Earhart as a war time nurses aid in a Toronto military hospital.|
In 1917 Amelia visited her sister were on Holiday over Christmas break in Toronto, Canada when she was moved by the sight of horribly wounded veterans returning from France. She trained as a nurse’s aide with the Red Cross and began work with the Volunteer Aid Detachment at Spadina Military Hospital where she prepared food in the kitchen for patients with special diets and handed out medication in the dispensary. The work was hard and unglamorous, but Earhart thrived on feeling useful for the first time in her life.
In 1918 Spanish flu pandemic reached Toronto overwhelming the hospital. She worked long, overnight shifts to the point of exhaustion until she was hospitalized herself in early November with pneumonia and maxillary sinusitis. She was held for nearly three month and discharged with a chronic sinus condition that would painfully plague her for years requiring multiple operations before coming under partial control in the mid-20’s. She spent nearly a year recuperating from her illness.
During her time in Toronto her interest in aviation was first seriously piqued when visiting an air fair held in conjunction with the Canadian National Exposition. A show off war ace buzzed the attractive young woman and a female friend. “I did not understand it at the time, but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.”
In 1919 Earhart, inspired by her war time experience, enrolled at Columbia University in New York City for pre-med courses. But when her parents reconciled and re-united in California she dropped out and joined them on the West Coast. In December of 1920 her Father took her to a Long Beach air strip where he plunked down $10 to by Amelia a short ride with future air racer Frank Hawks. “It changed my life…I knew I had to fly.”
Earhart took any and every job she could find to save up the money for expensive flying lessons. She had stints as a photographer, truck driver, and telephone company stenographer. Her mother reluctantly chipped in enough money to finally get the $1000 she needed. Again with her Father’s help she found , a pioneer female aviator with a surplus Curtiss JN-4 a version of the famous Jenny developed for the Royal Flying Corps in Canada. Snook, by the way, was educated at my old alma mater Shimer College back when it was known as the Francis Wood Shimer Academy for young women. Earhart was a serious and apt student and showed her commitment by cropping her long hair into the short curls favored by women pilots to fin in their leather helmets. She outfitted herself in the customary leathers which she roughed up so she would not look like a dilettante.
|Earhart set a women's world altitude record--the first of many--in her prized possession, The Canary, a bright yellow Kinner Airster.|
After just a few months Earhart bought her own used bright yellow Kinner Airster biplane which she named The Canary. In it on October 22, 1922 she set her first world record flying to an altitude of 14,000 feet, the highest ever for a woman. This was six months before she was given her international pilot’s license by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). She was only the 16th woman to be so certified.
Just as it looked as if she was ready to make her mark as a flyer, a series of personal disasters interrupted everything. Her grandmother’s trust fund which had long supported her mother was drained by a series of bad investments and ran dry. Her father was incapable of offering support so Earhart had to sell her beloved Canary. Her parents finally divorced in 1924 leaving her essentially rootless once again. With the proceeds of the sale of her plane she bought a two seat Kissel Speedster she named the Yellow Peril. In it Emilia drove her mother on a circuitous transcontinental drive that included a side trip all the way to Calgary, Alberta. On the trip she experienced a painful and devastating relapse of her sinus condition and finally got some relief after her fourth operation.
Mother and daughter settled in Medford near Boston after she briefly resumed her studies at Columbia but had to abandon them for lack of funds. She worked briefly as a teacher then got a steady job as a social worker at Dennison House, a local settlement house.
Despite not having an aircraft of her own, Earhart kept he hand in aviation as a member of the American Aeronautical Society’s Boston chapter and was eventually elected its vice president. She helped found the Dennison Airport in Quincy and even managed to scrape together enough money for some of the initial investment in the field. In 1927 she made the first official flight out of the new airport. She also became a sales representative for Kinner aircraft in the Boston area, which gave her access of a plane to fly and wrote an aviation column.
She was planning an organization of female flyers when she received that fateful telephone call at work inviting her on the transatlantic flight.
She leveraged her fame from that first flight to promote civil aviation and passenger service. She took a job as a contributing editor at Cosmopolitan magazine and even collaborated with Lindbergh himself in being a public face of Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) later known as TWA. With revenues from endorsements she invested in the Ludington Line, first regional shuttle service between New York and Washington, DC. Later she became a Vice President of National Airways, which operated flights of the Boston-Maine Airways and several other airlines in the Northeast.
During the same period Earhart established her own “untarnished” reputation as a flyer with a series of long distance flights. In August 1928 she became the first woman to fly coast to coast in both directions in an Avian 7083. The next year she began competing in air races at the first Santa Monica-to-Cleveland Women’s Air Derby—called the by Will Rogers. She finished in a respectable Third Place in the heavy planes division.
After the Cleveland race Earhart convened a meeting of the participants and other women flyers to fulfill her dream of a national organization to advance women in aviation. The result was the Ninety-Nines, named for the number of Charter members. She was elected President in 1930 was the public face of women’s aviation for the rest of her life
As a national officer of the National Aeronautic Association in 1930 she promoted the establishment of separate women’s records and was instrumental in the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) accepting similar international standards.
After the solo flight Earhart embarked in a series of lucrative but grueling lecture tours and other public appearances. Demands on her time by her business and organizational interests often kept her out of the sky. But in 1935 she inaugurated a new series of dramatic long distance flights starting with being the first person of either sex to successfully fly from Honolulu, Hawaii to the mainland. Many lives had been lost flying the other direction, including the disastrous Dole Air Race of 1927 before, during, and after which, ten lives were lost and six aircraft were total losses.
Later that year she completed long distance flights in her trusty red Vega, which she now called Old Betsy, between Los Angeles and Mexico City and then between Mexico City and Newark, New Jersey where she had difficulty landing due to the throngs awaiting her. She now began to plan an epic circumnavigation of the globe on a route roughly a along the equator and thousands of miles longer with much more time over the vast Pacific than previous round the world flights.
In preparation she trained with famous movie stunt pilot Paul Mantz who she met through her husband’s new job as head of the editorial board for Paramount Pictures. Mantz sharped her sills for long distance flights and instrument flying. In 1935 the two became business partners in the Earhart-Mantz Flying School at Burbank Airport and he also became her go-to technical advisor.
Meanwhile Earhart also took a part time faculty position at Purdue University in Indiana counsel women on careers and as a technical advisor to the Department of Aeronautics. She and Putnam convinced the University to help underwrite the proposed around the world flight. The school financed the advanced aircraft that she would need to have. They contracted with Lockeed Aircraft Company which built a special two engine Lockheed Electra 10E to her specifications at their Burbank plant just across the street from the flying school. Mantz helped monitor and advise on the modifications which included extra specially fitted fuselage fuel tanks.
|Earhart and her Locheed Electra 10E preparing for her around the wold flight.|
Because of the unique demands of a long flight over an empty and featureless Pacific, two navigators were recruited for the initial flight, Capt. Harry Manning, who had been the captain of the President Roosevelt, the ship that had brought Earhart back from Europe in 1928 and Fred Noonan who had laid out then transpacific routes for Pan Am’s Clipper flying boat service. On March 17, 1937 Earhart took off in the Electra with both men plus Martz acting as a technical advisor from Oakland for the first leg of the trip to Honolulu. That flight was successful, but on takeoff from Navy’s Luke Field on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor the heavily fuel laden plane flipped over in a ground loop. Earhart and Navy witnesses believe a tire blew out or landing gear failed. Mantz blamed pilot error, contributing to a rift between the partners. The aircraft was heavily damaged and was shipped back to the Lockheed factory for repair. It was the first serious damage to an aircraft in Earhart’s career at a time when even the best pilots had walked away from multiple crashes.
While repairs were underway, Earhart and her husband hustled more funds to undertake a second attempt. This time due to seasonal changes in the weather, it was decided to make the flight from West to East. To test their aircraft Earhart, this time accompanied only by Noonan, took off from Oakland on May 20, 1937 in secrecy. Coincidentally it was the fifth anniversary of her transatlantic solo. They flew to Miami in four easy stages arriving there on June 1st. There Putnam arranged a press conference to announce the second attempt was already in progress.
The flight went according to plan in stages—Miami to Ponce, Puerto Rico, to Caripito Venezuela, to Paramaribo, Surinam, to Fortaleza, Brazil and then to Natal, Brazil. From there on June 7 they made the longest hop yet—across the South Atlantic to Saint-Louis, Senegal. The crossing of the great bulge of Africa and long hours over wilderness and dessert ended after seven hops on June 15 at Assab, Italian Eritrea. Then came the First ever non-stop flight from the Red Sea to Karachi, British India. There was a long flight across the sub-continent to Calcutta then on to two stops in Burma; Bangkok, Siam; Singapore; and the Dutch East Indies.
In the vast Dutch colony Earhart encountered the first serious set backs on the trip. They were delayed by a Monsoon at Bandoeng then had to return there from the next stop at Soerabaja for repairs and because Amelia was seriously sick with dysentery. After retracing their steps, they arrived at Koepang on June 28 from which the flew to Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia where they attempted repairs on their direction finder and sent their parachutes home figuring that if they had to bail out over the Pacific they would never be found. They flew on to Lae, New Guinea where they rested for two days before undertaking the arduous crossing of the Pacific.
On July 2, 1937 Earhart and Noonan took off for the longest flight of the journey—2556 miles to the tiny Howland Island about half way between New Guinea and Hawaii. They never got there, although they got close enough for the United States Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, which was assigned as a picket ship to monitor the flight and act as an electronic beacon to help guide the plane into Lae, to pick up radio transmissions from Earhart. But she could apparently not hear them and their direction finder may have failed to pick up the beacon. Their last confirmed location was near Howland, but it is possible that they could not see it in the overcast and may have changed directions when they feared they missed it.
At any rate, their disappearance set off one of the widest and most intense air/sea searches in history up to that time cover tens of thousands of square miles of the South Pacific. The fate of America’s First Lady of the Air became fodder for endless speculations and theories only deepening the mystery. Speculation that Earhart may have been on a secret mission to spy on the Japanese or that she survived the crash on an island was captured and executed by them have been disproved.
For years there was a mini-industry in searches for Amelia Earhart, and in books and documentaries advancing all sorts of theories. There are far too many to even begin to chronicle here.
However since 1988 The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) with the support of Earhart’s family has sent ten expeditions to what was then known as Gardner Island and is now Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati covering the Gilbert Islands. It lays 350 southwest of Howland Island and was a possible destination for Earhart after she failed to find Howland. Numerous aluminum artifacts have been discovered that might be from the plane as well as Plexiglas that matched the curve of the cockpit window and a shoe tap of the sort Earhart wore. In 2012 and ’13 sonar detected what many believe is evidence of aircraft underwater on a reef near the island. Evidence is still circumstantial but Earhart’s surviving stepson George Putnam Jr., has expressed support for TIGHAR’s research. Another expedition is planned to comb the island for more evidence that Earhart and/or Noonan may have survived there for some time and to dive to the possible wreckage.
Whatever the outcome Amelia Earhart carved her place into America’s heart.