Nealy 90 years ago, Amelia Earhart took off from America and flew into the history books
On the morning of May 20, 1932, Amelia Earhart took off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. Just under 15 hours later, she touched down in a field just north of Derry in Northern Ireland. The few people who saw her land included a local farmer who asked her: “Have you flown far?” “From America” came the reply. Earhart had just become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.
Born in Atchison, Kansas, growing up, little Amelia had a love of the outdoors and spent her days climbing trees and collecting bugs, frogs and worms. Amy Earhart, Amelia’s mother, didn’t believe in the idea that her daughters had to conform to being nice, compliant little girls, as was the general feeling at the time. It soon proved to be an inspired decision.
In 1917, at the age of 20, Earhart went to Toronto to visit her sister. The war was raging and she soon got involved in helping tend to wounded soldiers returning from duty. It was here, spending days and nights in the hospital that she contracted pneumonia and sinus problems. She had a series of operations to solve her sinus issues, but these were often unsuccessful and she spent a year convalescing. During this time she read poetry, learned to play the banjo and, crucially, began studying mechanics.
The following year, while still in Toronto, she and a friend went to an air fair at which one of the main events was to be a demonstration of aerobatics by a military flying ace. Once he was airborne, and after having performed an array of stunts, the pilot spotted Earhart and her friend watching from a clearing in the trees. He decided to dive at them to give them a scare. Amelia resolutely stood her ground as the plane dived towards the earth. “I didn’t know it at the time” she later said, “but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by”.
After visiting an airfield on the west coast where her father was living, and paying $10 for a ride with air racer Frank Hawks, she said: “I knew by the time we were two hundred feet off the ground that this was it. I had to fly.” Working various jobs – truck driver, stenographer and photographer, among others – to pay for flying lessons, after six months of learning, she bought her very own aircraft; a bright yellow biplane she called The Canary.
Throughout her training, and knowing that she would be judged, Earhart cut her hair short, slept in her leather jacket to give it a worn look, and specifically accepted the hardest and most thankless jobs around the airfield. Her reward was to become only the 16th woman in history to be issued with a pilot’s license.
Earhart was employed as a sales representative for Kinner aircraft in Boston, wrote newspaper columns about aviation and, as her celebrity grew, was asked to accompany Wilmer Stutz and co-pilot Louis Gordon on a transatlantic flight. She was nominally a passenger, but her mechanical expertise was there to be called on if need be, and it was her duty to maintain the flight log. Earhart didn’t have the expertise to fly using instruments alone at that time, and seemed frustrated by this. “Stutz did all of the flying. I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes,” she said afterwards. “Maybe someday I’ll try it alone, though”.
Upon her return, she accepted the position of associate editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, and used her position to promote public awareness and acceptance of aviation by focussing on the increasing number of women wanting to get involved. In 1931, Earhart wedded publisher George Putnam, referring to the marriage as a “partnership with dual controls”. She believed strongly in equal responsibility, and kept her own surname as well.
And so to her solo flight. At the age of 34, she took off with little fanfare and a copy of the day’s newspaper to confirm the date of the flight. Paris was her intended target but, after fighting strong winds over the ocean, she landed in Ireland. Once home, she was lauded by the press and made friends in even higher places, notably Eleanor Roosevelt. The two had similar passions – namely aviation and advancing women’s causes – and they met and corresponded frequently from then on as Earhart set more and more solo records, including becoming the first pilot – male or female – to fly nonstop from Hawaii to California.The only real, huge challenge left was a circumnavigation of the globe. It had been done before, with many necessary stops en route, but Earhart’s plan was more ambitious. She wanted to take a route flying as close to the equator as possible, thus putting the distance at around 29,000 miles. Most of this would be done alone, but due to her lack of experience in night-time, “celestial navigation”, she opted to bring a navigator for the final leg over the Pacific.
With just 7,000 miles to her final destination, she and navigator Fred Noonan took off from Lae airfield in New Guinea. Their destination was Howland Island, a tiny, tiny piece of land – a mere 2km long and 500m wide – over 2,500 miles away in the middle of the vastness of the Pacific. They never made it. Earhart made a radio transmission at 8.43am, before she, Noonan and her aircraft disappeared for ever. Despite seemingly endless searches, no trace of them has ever been found. Amelia Earhart was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939.
And so ends the story of one of the great pioneers of the 20th century. The fascination with Amelia Earhart continues to this day due to the manner of her disappearance; but also, of course, as an inspiration to any woman who has been told they can’t do something because that’s not what girls do. So, on the anniversary of that historic transatlantic flight, and in an age where gender inequality somehow still exists, here’s to everyone fighting the good fight. Here’s to Amelia Earhart.