By Bridget Hunter
IIP Staff Writer
As the clouds surrounding Amelia Earhart’s disappearance begin to lift, perhaps attention can focus once again on her life as a courageous aviator who inspired men and women to embrace the new opportunities of human flight.
In May 1932, she made history as the first woman to fly nonstop and solo across the Atlantic Ocean. (American Charles Lindbergh had first accomplished the feat in 1927.) Flying a red Lockheed Vega 5B, she traveled from Canada to Northern Ireland in about 15 hours and became a worldwide media sensation.
Four months later, she became the first female pilot to fly solo and nonstop across the United States. Her flight from California to New Jersey set a women’s speed record of 19 hours and 5 minutes and a women’s distance record of 2,447 miles (3,938 kilometers).
But it was her final, unfinished flight that catapulted her from celebrity to legend.
“HAD TO FLY”
Born in 1897, the Kansas native saw her first flying exhibition in 1918 while serving as a Red Cross nurse’s aide in Toronto, but did not take her first flight until 1920. The experience prompted her to declare, “As soon as I left the ground, I knew I myself had to fly.”
She soloed in 1921, bought her first airplane in 1922 — with money earned as a telephone operator and as a photographer — and set a women’s altitude record of 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) later that year. In 1923, Earhart became the 16th woman to receive an official Fédération Aéronautique Internationale pilot license.
By 1928, social worker Earhart was helping immigrant families in Boston — but still flying as much as possible — when she was invited to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic.
On June 17, 1928, Earhart and pilots Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon departed Newfoundland, Canada, in the tri-motor Fokker F.VII Friendship. She did not get to pilot it across the ocean, but did get time in the pilot’s seat on the final hop between Wales and England.
That flight brought her international attention and a chance to earn a living in aviation. With publicist George Putnam (promoter of the Friendship flight), as her manager, she began a national lecture tour. In 1931, the couple married.
Earhart’s 1932 trans-Atlantic flight was marred by a leaky fuel tank, a cracked manifold and icy wings, but made her an international celebrity as the first female pilot to make the solo crossing. She returned to the United States honored by a ticker tape parade in New York City and an award ceremony in Washington. A few months later, Earhart was back in her Vega for a record-setting transcontinental flight.She became the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland in January 1935, completing a dangerous 2,408-mile (3,875-kilometers) flight that already had claimed several lives. Later that year, Earhart made record flights from Los Angeles to Mexico City and from Mexico City to New Jersey.
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, arguing women lacked the money and planes to compete against men for “world” titles.
She also lobbied Congress for aviation legislation, promoting the safety and efficiency of air travel, while she continued lecturing and writing for nationally circulated magazines like Cosmopolitan.
This accomplished pilot also was a talented entrepreneur who designed a women’s clothing line (initially using her own sewing machine) and a set of lightweight luggage sold with an “Amelia Earhart” luggage key.
The young woman who never finished college became a visiting professor at Purdue University in 1935 at the invitation of its president, Edward Elliott, an advocate of higher education for women, especially in engineering and science. Elliott also convinced Purdue benefactors to purchase a twin-engine Lockheed 10-E Electra for Earhart.
The Electra was intended to make Earhart’s dream of flying around the world a reality, with an equatorial route that required several long flight segments across the Pacific.
On March 20, 1937, Earhart crashed on takeoff in Honolulu, ending a westbound world flight attempt that began in California. After extensive repairs to the plane, Earhart began an eastbound round-the-world flight on June 1, 1937, flying from California to Florida with Fred Noonan as her navigator.
They reached New Guinea on June 29, having flown 22,000 miles (35,406 kilometers). With 7,000 (11,265 kilometers) more to go before Oakland, the next scheduled refueling stop was tiny Howland Island, 2,556 miles (4,113 kilometers) away. They never arrived.
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca, anchored off Howland, received several voice transmissions from Earhart as she approached the area, the last at 8:43 a.m. Earhart and Noonan were declared lost at sea on July 19, 1937, after a massive sea and air search.
Now, 75 years later, we are beginning to understand how that flight ended.