"Now and then women should do for
themselves what men have already done - occasionally what men have not done -
thereby establishing themselves as persons, and perhaps encouraging other women
toward greater independence of thought and action. Some such consideration was
a contributing reason for my wanting to do what I so much wanted to do." -- Amelia
Earhart established herself as a talented and respected role model. She was
tireless in efforts to demonstrate to young women that females were as capable
as men in succeeding at their chosen vocations.
She proved this point time and
time again in her own career as an aviator. A kind, soft-spoken, inquisitive
and quietly courageous woman, Amelia Earhart was destined to become one of the
most familiar and celebrated names of the 20th century. She received her first
flying lesson in 1921, and bought her first plane on her birthday of that year.
She was the first woman to fly
across the Atlantic in 1928 when she accepted
the invitation of the American pilots Wilmer Stultz (1900-29) and Louis Gordon
to join them on a transatlantic flight. She published the book "20 Hrs., 40 Min." (1928) describing her experience as the
first woman to make the crossing by air, followed by "The Fun of It"
In 1935, Earhart made a solo
flight across the Atlantic, and in the new
record time of 13 hours and 30 minutes. Both the American and French
governments awarded honors to her for the accomplishment.
A solo Pacific Ocean crossing
was her next quest, in 1935, between Hawaii
Within the same year, she also set another speed record, this time for a
non-stop flight in 14 hours and 19 minutes between Mexico
City and New York City.
By 1937, she attempted to fly
around the world, beginning from Miami,
Florida on an eastward flight.
Frederick J. Noonan, acted as navigator on board. But
after flying over 22,000 miles, contact was lost with their plane on a leg from
Lae, New Guinea,
intending to refuel at HowlandIsland.
The U.S. Navy mounted a search
with shipes and airplanes, but they had disappeared, seemingly without a trace
being discovered. How and why the plane carrying Earhart and Noonan went down
remains an enigma.
Her diary and transmissions from various
lay-overs along the 22,000 miles provided material for a posthumous publication
of her words describing her final travels. The book, Last Flight (1937), was
edited by her husband, George Palmer Putnam (1887-1950), a book publisher.
Amelia Earhart's Last Flight
1937 was a fairly quiet day. A steel strike
has just ended in the midwestern United States. Senators and
Congressmen called for strict isolationism to avoid being pulled into the
conflict that would soon become known as World War II. Jesse Zelda was suing
newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst for $40,000 claiming that Zelda had
been attacked by a "vicious, wild and dangerous ostrich" at the
Hearst property in San Simeon. Then the news broke:
LADY LINDY LOST!
EARHART DOWN IN PACIFIC
AMELIA'S PLANE VANISHES
PACIFIC CLAIMS EARHART
These headlines heralded the end of the career of one of
the most popular and successful aviators of the 20th century and the start of a
mystery that would puzzle people for over sixty years: What happened to Amelia
Amelia's Early Years
Amelia Earhart was born on July 24, 1898 in Atchison, Kansas.
Her father was a lawyer and her mother the daughter of a wealthy judge. Her
parent's difficult marriage had a profound effect on Amelia Earhart's
philosophy of life. Her father, Edwin, was frustrated because he was never able
to provide his wife with the kind of lifestyle she had become accustomed to
growing up in the judge's house. He gave up his dreams and
instead worked as an attorney for the railroad because the position paid the
most. Even with this good salary, there were money pressures on Edwin and he
began to drink. This lead to an alcohol addiction and the
loss of his job.
Edwin moved his family to Des Moines,
Iowa, then to St. Paul, Minnesota.
His alcoholism continued, though, and he found it difficult to find and keep a
job. Finally his wife, Amy, took the children, Amelia and her younger sister,
Muriel, to live with friends in Chicago while
Edwin went to Kansas City
to make a new start.
Amelia saw her father's frustration and unhappiness and
determined that she would be an independent woman who could share
responsibilities equally with a man and not be dependent on him. She graduated
from Chicago's Hyde ParkHigh School
on time in 1916 despite the numerous different schools she'd been moved
through. She assisted in a Toronto military
hospital during World War I and afterward enrolled in the medical program at ColumbiaUniversity
in New York City
in 1919. She did well there, getting A's in Zoology and French and B's in
Chemistry and Psychology. One of her professors said, "She had a great
curiosity and fine ability to synthesize...who knows what she would have discovered
if she had chosen the research laboratory rather than aviation as a
It was not to be, though. Her father was able to open a law
office in California
and Amelia and her mother moved back in with him. While there, Amelia attended
an air show and her father arranged for her to take a trial flight. In the air,
Amelia realized she'd found her calling.
Neta Snook with Earhart.
She immediately arranged to take lessons on an installment
plan from Neta Snook, the first woman graduate of the Curtiss School of
Aviation. Later she took additional training from John Montijo, a former Army
instructor. In June 1921 Amelia Earhart took her first solo flight.
Earhart soon became a fixture around the airfield in her
leather flying jacket, khaki pants, boots and scarf. Her skill increased with
her hours in the air and she won grudging respect among the male flyers.
In 1922, with the help of her father, she purchased a sport
biplane built by William Kenner. That same year she used her plane to set her
first aviation record which was the maximum-altitude-obtained-by-a-woman-pilot:
While things were going well for Earhart in the air, her
family was having problems back on the ground. Her parents divorced in 1924.
Amelia decided to put her aviation on hold, sold her plane and bought a car.
She used the car to drive her mother across country to
settle in Medfort, Massachusetts where Amelia's sister, Muriel
lived. Amelia returned to her studies at ColumbiaUniversity,
but withdrew before the semester was over. Earhart later told friends,
"That semester convinced me that I didn't have the qualities to be an M.D.
For one, I lacked the patience. I wanted to be doing something, not preparing
In 1926 she accepted a position as a social worker at a
settlement house in Boston.
She might have made a career in social work if it hadn't been for a phone call
two years later from a man named George Palmer Putnam.
The Flight of the Friendship
In 1919 a U.S. Naval flying boat had crossed the Atlantic
to Portugal via the AzoresIslands.
In 1927 Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh made the first solo flight from New York to Paris.
The world was going wild for aviation and Mrs. Frederick Guest of London decided that it was
time for a woman to make the cross-Atlantic flight.
Mrs. Guest, who was wealthy, purchased a tri-motor Forkker
aircraft and planned to hire a crew to take her on the flight. After
reassessing the dangers involved, Mrs. Guest decided to back out and allow
another girl "with the right image" to take her place. George Putnam,
from the publishing company G.P. Putnam's Sons, who hoped to publish an account
of the trip, started searching for a replacement. He hoped to find a girl with
a flier's license and an extraordinary amount of courage. He found Amelia
Putnam proposed the project to Earhart. She would have
liked to have been more that just a passenger on the flight, but realized it
would still be a great adventure. Wilmer L. Stultz was selected as the pilot.
The Forkker was flown to Trepassey Bay,
Newfoundland and there the crew
of three waited for good weather. On June 17th, 1928 it cleared and the Forkker, which had been
christened Friendship, took off. It landed in BurryPort, Wales with less than an hour of
fuel still on board.
The flight brought instant fame to Earhart including a
ticker-tape parade through New York
City. George Putnam assisted Earhart with her account
of the flight published as 20 Hrs., 40 Mins..
After the book was done, she set out on a lecture tour and later took a
position as Aviation Editor on Cosmopolitan magazine.
After Putnam's divorce in 1930 he went on a campaign to win
Earhart as his wife. He proposed several times before she finally accepted.
They were married on February
7th, 1931. George probably wasn't the perfect mate for Earhart but
he did provide her a business manager and media spokesman all rolled into one.
Most importantly, from Earhart's point of view, Putnam never tried to curtail
her freedom to fly.
George arranged for Earhart to promote everything from
cigarettes (though she didn't smoke) to pajamas to luggage. She did put the
brakes on some of Putnam's plans. When he wanted to sell a small ribbon meant
for children and decorated with her signature Earhart told him, "Forget
it, George. I won't be a part of cheating youngsters. Adults are supposed to
know better, but not kids."
Earhart felt guilty about her fame because she'd only been
a passenger on the transatlantic flight, not the pilot. To remedy this on May 20, 1932, exactly five
years after Lindbergh, she soloed from Newfoundland
to Ireland and became the
first woman to fly the Atlantic alone. This
earned her audiences with princes, kings and presidents. She became the first
woman to be honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross. Three months later she
broke the woman's non-stop transcontinental speed record by flying from Los Angeles, California
to Newark, New Jersey, a distance of 2448 miles in 19
hours and five minutes. In 1933 she broke the record again by repeating the
trip in 17 hours, 7 minutes and 30 seconds. In 1935 she became the first pilot,
man or woman, to solo from Hawaii to California. Three months
later she became the first to solo from Los Angeles
to Mexico City.
Then three weeks later she again soloed from Mexico City
to Newark, New Jersey.
Earhart was invited to join PurdueUniversity
as a visiting counselor for women students. She loved her role there and the
University decided to establish a special fund for aeronautical research.
Fifty-thousand dollars was given to Earhart to outfit what she called her
"Flying Laboratory": a Lockheed Electra twin-engined airliner. She
had the seats removed and extra fuel tanks put in their place. With these
changes the plane had a fuel capacity of 1204 gallons which gave it a range of
The Around the World Flight
With this new plane Amelia decided it was time to go for
one of aviation's most difficult challenges: a flight around the world. A team
was quickly put together to support Earhart on her flight. Paul Mantz, an
experienced pilot, was hired as technical adviser. Captain Harry Manning and
Commander Fred J. Noonan were selected as navigators. Clarence Williams
prepared the maps and charts for the flight. It was decided to fly from east to
west, so on March 17th, 1937,
the Electra took off from Oakland, California heading for Hawaii.
The first leg of the trip went flawlessly and the plane
arrived in Honolulu
fifteen hours and fifty-two minutes later. The plane refueled and on March 20th
it taxied out onto the runway to make the long trip to tiny HowlandIsland
where the U.S. Navy had recently constructed a
emergency landing strip. The plane, heavily loaded with fuel, responded
sluggishly when Earhart applied the throttle. The plane lurched to the left
then swung right. Earhart tried to compensate, but couldn't. The Electra
groundlooped, the gear collapsed and a wing was torn open. Fortunately, though
fuel poured from ruptured tanks across the ground, there was no fire. Manning,
Noonan and Earhart suffered no injuries, but the Electra had to be sent back to
Lockheed's facility in Burbank
for repairs. It was never clear exactly why the accident happened. Some blamed
a blown tire, while Earhart herself believed that the fuel had not been
distributed evenly throughout all the tanks causing a weight imbalance.
It took less than two months to repair the plane and a new attempt was scheduled to start on May 20th.
Because of the delay, Captain Manning was unable to continue on as navigator
and only Noonan flew with Earhart. Seasonal weather conditions prompted them to
change the flight to go west to east. The first stop for the Electra (after
leaving Oakland) was TucsonArizona.
On June 1st Earhart left U.S.
airspace at Miami, Florida
on her way to Puerto Rico.
The flight went without major incident for over a month.
The plane had small repairs done to it along with several routine engine
overhauls as needed. By July 1st they had reached Lae, New Guinea.
About seven thousand miles remained to be covered. Most of it was over the
wide, empty expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The
first leg would take them to HowlandIsland, a distance of
2556 miles. The plane was loaded almost to capacity with gas. Because Earhart
didn't want to dilute her tank of high octane fuel used only on takeoff with
the low octane fuel available at Lae, the Electra left 50 gallons short of its
1151 gallon capacity.
The Electra roared down Lae's 3,000 foot runway at , July 2nd. The U.S. Coast
Guard Cutter Itasca was stationed off
of Howland ready to assist by sending a homing signal to Earhart to guide her
in. The plane flew overnight and should have approached Howland and the Itasca the next morning, which because the plane
was crossing the international dateline, was July 1st..
Picking tiny HowlandIsland out of the vast
Pacific was a difficult navigational problem. To solve it, Noonan had several
tools. The first was celestial navigation. By sighting two stars 90 degrees
apart from each other on the horizon and then measuring their height above the
horizon, Noonan could use a set of prepared tables and a clock to figure his
position. If the sky was overcast, and one of Earhart messages from the plane
seemed to imply that, Noonan might not have gotten a two-star fix. If this was
the case, he could have directed Earhart to fly by "dead reckoning."
This navigational method is simple, but prone to error. Noonan would just
figure out where the plane was on the map, then use a
compass to calculate the course the aircraft should fly to get to the
destination. Because compasses are sometimes inaccurate and the distance was
long, the Electra could get many miles off course without the crew noticing.
The final method was to home in on the Itasca's
radio signal. But, reports from the Electra seemed to indicate it never
received a strong enough signal to make that possible.
Even if Noonan couldn't get a star fix, when the sun rose
he could use a measurement of its height to figure a line-of-position. This
calculation would tell the Electra's crew where they were east-to-west, but not
north-to-south. They would have to fly north and south along the right line to
find HowlandIsland. This seems to be precisely what
happened. At the Itasca picked up the message, "We must be on
you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable
to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet." The ship tried
to reply, but the plane seemed not to hear. At Earhart reported, "We are running north and
south." That seems to suggest that for at least an hour Earhart and Noonan
were flying along that line-of-position searching for Howland.
Those were the last words heard from the Electra. By that
afternoon it was obvious the plane had either gone into the sea, or landed
someplace other than Howland. The U.S. Navy started a massive search. Some
262,281 square miles of the Pacific were examined, but no sign of the Electra
or its crew was found. Noonan and Earhart were declared dead, and the great
mystery of "What happened to Amelia Earhart" began.
Conspiracy Theories Appear
In the first few days following the disappearance, there
were some 300 reports of messages being received from Earhart's crashed plane.
Undoubtedly, most, if not all of them were either
hoaxes or misunderstandings.
The conflict that would become World War II was brewing in
the Pacific and soon after her disappearance it became a popular idea that she
had been captured by the Japanese, or that Japanese forces had shot down her
plane, or that she was working with the U.S. government on a secret mission
against the Japanese. This story was dramatized in a 1943 film, Flight for
Freedom starring Rosalind Russell as a
Amelia-Earhart-type flyer. The script followed Earhart's life story precisely,
and extended it by suggesting that the disappearance was engineered to allow
U.S. Naval forces an excuse to case Japanese military installations.
Shortly after the end of the war Jacqueline Cochran, a
pilot and friend of Earhart, traveled to Japan to investigate the role of
Japanese women in the hostilities. While there she claimed she'd discovered
several files on Earhart which later disappeared. Later, in 1965, retired Air
Force Major Joseph Gervias came to the conclusion that Cochran had actually
discovered Earhart herself and smuggled her back into the U.S.. There Earhart set up residence in New Jersey under a new name. The woman he
named as Earhart denied Gervias' assertions.
In 1960 a woman named Josephine Akiyama came forward with a
tale she said took place while she was living on Saipan
(a small Pacific island). In 1937 Akiyama had seen two American flyers there, a
man and a woman, who were being held by the Japanese. Saipan
seems an unlikely candidate as an emergency landing site for the Electra,
though, unless Noonan was very, very lost.
Fred Goerner, a CBS broadcaster, took the story seriously
and traveled to Siapan, which was at that time under U.S. administration. He found a
number of residents who remembered the flyers, though there seemed to be no
official record of them. Some reports indicated that the flyers had been
executed by the Japanese, something the government of Japan denied. Goerner hired divers
to search the bottom of the Siapan harbor and they retrieved what looked like
aircraft wreckage. The most interesting piece was what
appeared to be an aircraft starter motor and generator. However
,careful analysis by the manufacturer proved it was not the one on board
the Electra when it left Oakland.
More stories about Siapan emerged including a report from a
man stationed on Siapan in 1945. He said he'd been shown graves on Siapan that
reportedly belonged to the two mysterious flyers. Another expedition to Siapan
recovered the remains of the bodies, but later examination ruled out that they
were Earhart or Noonan.
Goerner heard other reports that Earhart's plane may have
gone down in the Marshall
Islands. The Marshall Islands are much closer to
Howland than Siapan. U.S. Naval personnel stationed in the area during World
War II reported hearing stories from the Islanders that were very similar to
those told on Siapan: Two flyers, a man and a woman, crash landed and were
taken captive by the Japanese. No proof emerged from these accounts either,
though Goerner finally reached the conclusion that Earhart probably crashed in
the Marshall Islands
and was later held captive on Siapan.
The Search Continues
Investigations into the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and
Fred Noonan continue even today. TIGHAR (The International Group for
Historic Aircraft Recovery) has an active project trying to determine if
the Electra might have gone down on of a collection of islands called the
Phoenix Group which lie on the same line-of-position as Howland. If the Electra
had missed Howland and turned onto that line heading in a southwardly
direction, it might well have reached one of the small islands of Baker, McKean
or Gardner (now known as Nikumaroro) and crash landed on it. A search of
Nikumaroro turned up aircraft parts similar to those on the Earhart's Electra
and a heel from a woman's shoe from the 1930's. Perhaps these items were
Earhart's, but there is no proof as of yet. Further expeditions to Nikumaroro
Somewhere, perhaps on
Nikumaroro, perhaps on Siapan, perhaps in the Marshall Islands, maybe at the
bottom of the Pacific, is the evidence that will solve the mystery of what
happened to Amelia Earhart. Will someone find it? Or will this piece of
aviation history remain forever a mystery?
is worthwhile in itself. —Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhartwas born on July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas.
As a young woman, working in a Toronto hospital for Canadian servicemen,
Amelia would go to the airport to watch the planes take off. World War I was
being fought and there was considerable military traffic. She vowed she would
learn to fly some day.
In 1928, after earning her pilot's license,
Amelia was asked to join Wilmer Stultz (pilot) and Lou Gordon (flight mechanic)
on a trans-Atlantic flight. Twenty-one hours after take off they landed safely
in Europe, making Amelia the first woman to ride in a plane across the Atlantic Ocean.
On May 20, 1932, the anniversary of the first
Atlantic crossing by Charles Lindbergh, Amelia began her attempt to be the
first woman pilot to cross the Atlantic alone in her Lockheed 5B Vega. The crossing was difficult and
dangerous. She flew through a lightning storm, and once almost crashed into the
ocean. Her plane began to leak fuel, and Amelia was forced to make an emergency
landing in an Irish cow pasture. But, she had completed the Atlantic crossing,
and in the process set a new record of thirteen hours and thirty minutes. In
1935, Amelia became the first woman to fly the Pacific Ocean, when she made the
crossing from Hawaii to California.
Next, Amelia began to plan her next great
adventure. She would fly around the Earth at the equator, something no one had
ever attempted. For this trip,
she asked Fred Noonan to join her as navigator. They studied charts and learned
about weather patterns along their flight-plan. In June of 1937 they set out on
an eastward heading in a Lockheed 10A Electra. After 30 days, Amelia and Fred
had nearly completed their circumnavigation of the Earth. With only 2 days of travel
remaining, they missed a scheduled refueling stop at tiny HowlandIsland
in the Pacific. Ships and planes from all over the area began an exhaustive
search, but no trace was ever found. Their disappearance remains a mystery.
Amelia Earhart and her little sister Muriel. They are standing on the front
porch of their Kansas City
home, summer of 1902.
Credit: Schlesinger Library, RadcliffeCollege
"Amelia Earhart's career as a world-famous flier spanned only a
few years. She achieved instant acclaim as the first woman to fly the Atlantic in 1928; she disappeared
while on the last leg of a round-the-world flight in 1937. Yet her fame has
endured in a remarkable fashion over the past sixty years, assuring her a
permanent place in history. Books, magazine articles, films, televised
biographies, symposia, memorials, schools and other public buildings named in
her honor &endash; all testify to the lasting impression that she made as
one who truly embodied the spirit of adventure and the desire to advance human
In recent years, the attempt to find a definitive solution to the
mystery of her disappearance has tended to overshadow her actual achievements
and to obscure the meaning of her life, which is quite independent of the circumstances
of her death....
I reiterate my belief. . . that those who have propounded often
sensational theories about Amelia‚Äôs disappearance have consistently failed to
produce convincing, substantial evidence that would incline us to reject the
more plausible view that Amelia‚Äôs aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed in the
Pacific when it failed to make its landing at Howland Island. . . . As children
growing up in Kansas,
we were inseparable, sharing many tomboyish activities, riding horses together,
loving animals, participating in imaginative games. Throughout our lives we
confided in each other, experiencing each other‚Äôs triumphs and tragedies. We
understood each other, each one was there for the
other at crucial times such as Amelia‚Äôs first solo flight or my wedding.
Amelia‚Äôs childhood and young adulthood provide many clues to understanding
the person she became. She was determined to make a lasting contribution to the
science of aviation. The homemade roller coaster has become the symbol of her
early love of adventure which later found its realization in her flying. The
influence of her family and her education remained strong throughout her life.