Born: July 24, 1897
Died: c. 1937
American pilot and women's rights activist
The American aviator Amelia Earhart remains the world's best-known woman pilot even long after her mysterious disappearance during a round-the-world flight in 1937.
Childhood in the Midwest
Amelia Mary Earhart was born on July 24, 1897, the daughter of Edwin and Amy Otis Earhart. Until she was twelve she lived with her wealthy maternal grandparents, Alfred and Amelia Harres Otis, in Atcheson, Kansas, where she attended a private school. Her summers were spent in Kansas City, Missouri, where her lawyer-father worked for the Rock Island Railroad.
In 1909 Amelia and her younger sister, Muriel, went to live with their parents in Des Moines, Iowa, where the railroad had transferred her father. While in Des Moines, Earhart saw her first airplane while visiting a state fair. Because it had been only a few years since the Wright Brothers (Wilbur, 1867–1912; Orville, 1871–1948) made their first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, young Earhart was not overly impressed with what she saw at the fair.
Before she completed high school, Amelia also attended schools in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Springfield, Illinois. Meanwhile her father was fighting a losing battle against alcoholism. His failure and the humiliation it caused for her were the root of Amelia's lifelong dislike of alcohol and desire for financial security.
Amy Earhart left Edwin in Springfield in 1914, taking her daughters with her to live with friends in Chicago, Illinois, where Amelia graduated from the Hyde Park School in 1915. The yearbook described her as "A.E.—the girl in brown (her favorite color) who walks alone."
Inspired by war
A year later, after Amy Earhart received an inheritance from the estate of her mother, she sent Amelia to Ogontz School in Philadelphia, an exclusive high school and junior college. During Christmas vacation of her second year there, Amelia went to Toronto, Canada, where Muriel was attending a private school. In Toronto Amelia saw her first amputee (a person who had one or more limbs removed), returning wounded from World War I (1914–18; a war in which Germany and Austria fought European and American forces). She immediately refused to return to Ogontz and became a volunteer nurse in a hospital for veterans, where she worked until after the armistice (truce) of 1918. The experience made her an lifelong pacifist (person opposed to war).
From Toronto Earhart went to live with her mother and sister in Northampton, Massachusetts, where her sister was attending Smith College. In the fall of 1919 she entered Columbia University, but left after one year to join her parents, who had gotten back together and were living in Los Angeles, California.
First air shows
In the winter of 1920 Earhart saw her first air show and took her first airplane ride. "As soon as we left the ground," she said, "I knew I had to fly." She took lessons at Bert Kinner's airfield on Long Beach Boulevard in Los Angeles from a woman—Neta Snooks. On December 15, 1921, Amelia received her license from the National Aeronautics Association (NAA). By working part-time as a file clerk, office assistant, photographer, and truck driver, and with some help from her mother, Earhart eventually bought her own plane. However, she was unable to earn enough to continue her expensive hobby.
In 1924 Earhart's parents separated again. Amelia sold her plane and bought a car in which she drove her mother to Boston, where her sister was teaching school. Soon after that Earhart reenrolled at Columbia University in New York City, but she lacked the money to continue for more than one year. She returned to Boston, where she became a social worker, joined the NAA, and continued to fly in her spare time.
Crosses the Atlantic
In 1928 Earhart accepted an offer to join the crew of a flight across the Atlantic. The flight was the scheme of George Palmer Putnam, editor of WE, Charles Lindbergh's (1902–1974) book about how he became the first person to fly alone across the Atlantic in 1927. Putnam chose her for his "Lady Lindy" because of her flying experience, her education, and her lady-like appearance. Along with pilot Wilmer Stultz and mechanic Louis Gordon, she crossed the Atlantic (from Newfoundland to Wales) on June 18-19, 1928. Although she never once touched the controls (she described herself afterward as little more than a "sack of potatoes"), Earhart became world-renowned as "the first woman to fly the Atlantic."
From that time on Putnam became Earhart's manager and, in 1931, her husband. He arranged all of her flying engagements, many of which were followed by difficult cross-country lecture tours (at one point, twenty-nine lectures in thirty-one days) staged to gain maximum publicity.
Earhart became upset by reports that she was largely a puppet figure created by her publicist husband and that she was something less than a competent aviator (pilot). To prove her skills as an aviator, she piloted a tiny, single-engine Lockheed Electra from Newfoundland, Canada, to Ireland. Then, on May 20-21, 1932, and five years after Lindbergh, Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.
During the five years remaining in her life, Earhart acted as a tireless champion for commercial aviation and for women's rights. The numerous flying records she set include: an altitude record in an autogiro (an early aircraft, in 1931); the first person to fly an autogiro across the United States and back; the fastest nonstop transcontinental (continent to continent) flight by a woman (1932); breaking her own transcontinental speed record (1933); the first person to fly solo across the Pacific from Hawaii to California (1935); the first person to fly solo from Los Angeles to Mexico (1935); breaking the speed record for a nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey; and setting the speed record for the fastest east-west crossing from Oakland, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii (1937). She also collected numerous awards and honors from around the world.
On July 2, 1937, twenty-two days before her fortieth birthday and having already completed 22,000 miles of an attempt to fly around the world, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared over the Pacific somewhere between Lae, New Guinea, and Howland Island (an island in the central Pacific Ocean). The largest search ever conducted by the U.S. Navy for a single missing plane sighted neither plane nor crew. Later searches since that time have been equally unsuccessful. In 1992 an expedition found certain objects (a shoe and a metal plate) on the small atoll (island) of Nikumaroro south of Howland, which could have been left by Earhart and Noonan.
In 1997 another female pilot, Linda Finch, recreated Earhart's final flight in an around the world tribute entitled "World Flight 97." The event took place on what would have been Earhart's hundredth birthday. Finch successfully completed her voyage—the identical route that Earhart would have flown around the world.
For More Information
Laubar, Patricia. Lost Star: The Story of Amelia Earhart. New York: Scholastic, 1988.
King, Thomas F. Amelia Earhart's Shoes: Is the Mystery Solved? Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2001.
Lovell, Mary S. The Sound of Wings. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.
Rich, Doris L. Amelia Earhart: A Biography. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1989.
Earhart was born in 1897 in Kansas , where she lived with her sister and grandparents until the age of twelve. Her father was a lawyer for a railroad company, and his job required that he travel. This resulted in Earhart and her family living in various cities throughout her teens.
Like many women during World War I (1914–18), Earhart volunteered to work as a nurse's aide at a military hospital. After the war, she took a medical course.
Earhart eventually returned to her family in Los Angeles, California . While there, she attended an air show and paid $10 to ride on a plane. She fell in love with the feeling of flying and signed up immediately for lessons. To fund her lessons, Earhart drove a sand and gravel truck. She hired Neta Snook (1896–1991), the first woman to graduate from the Curtiss School of Aviation, as her teacher. After just two and a half hours of instruction, Earhart decided to buy herself a plane. With a loan from her mother and a job sorting mail, Earhart was able to buy a small plane for $2,000.
Takes to the skies
Earhart began setting flying records almost as soon as she took flight. Her first feat was to reach an altitude of 14,000 feet (4,267 meters). She did not own her plane for long; she sold it in 1924 to help pay for a yellow
roadster she bought to drive her mother to the East Coast after her parents divorced. The young man she sold her plane to crashed it upon takeoff and was killed. Earhart did not replace that plane for years, but spent her time working as a social worker. Her salary barely allowed her to make ends meet, let alone save for a luxury such as an airplane.
In 1928, Earhart received an invitation from a committee led by publisher and publicist George Palmer Putnam (1887–1950) in New York City. She was invited to be the first woman to travel, as a passenger, on a plane across the Atlantic. The first attempt failed when fog set in, but the second attempt was a success. The flight took twenty hours and forty minutes, and Earhart and her male pilot landed in Wales.
Despite the fact that she had only been a passenger on the flight, Earhart gained international attention as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Back home in America, she was instantly considered a spokesperson for women aviators. With Putnam as her manager, she toured the country giving lectures and writing a magazine column on aviation. She soon had her own line of traveling clothes and luggage. America came to cherish Earhart as much for her adventurous spirit as for her flying skills.
Putnam and Earhart married in 1931. As Earhart's celebrity grew, she found herself taking first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) for a flight over Washington, D.C. , and driving her around the White House grounds in a race car.
Earhart made a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932. It began at Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, on a spring evening. A few hours into the trip, Earhart ran into a violent electrical storm. Ice collected on the wings, and the plane went into a tailspin, falling 3,000 feet (914 meters) before regaining stability. The pilot's relief was short-lived, as the engine caught fire. After fourteen hours and fifty-six minutes in the air, she landed in northern Ireland rather than continue on to Paris, France, as originally planned. Her flight won her fame throughout Europe, and when she returned to New York, she was greeted with a parade.
Earhart made one final flight plan, although she did not know it would be her last. Her goal was to fly around the world at or near the equator, something no one had ever attempted. She was presented with a twin-engine Lockheed Electra airplane on her thirty-ninth birthday, a gift from Purdue University. Early on March 17, 1937, Earhart took off from San Francisco, California, for Hawaii , where her flight would begin. She set another record by reaching Hawaii in just under sixteen hours. As she took off from Hawaii, her plane crashed. The Electra required $50,000 and five weeks to be repaired.
The delay caused Earhart to reverse the planned course for her flight. She would take advantage of changed weather patterns and air currents by flying west to east. She replaced her original navigator with Fred Noonan (1893–1937), whom she had met through mutual friends in the aviation community. The duo left Miami, Florida , on June 1, 1937, and headed for Brazil. From there, they flew across the Atlantic to Africa and across the Red Sea to Arabia, Pakistan, India, and Burma. One month later, they reached New Guinea.
The next leg of the flight was the most dangerous. They had to land on Howland Island, which is only 2-miles (3.2-kilometers) long in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Earhart and Noonan never made it to Howland Island, and neither their bodies nor the plane itself were ever found. One theory is that they missed the island, ran out of gas, and crashed into the ocean. Another theory is that part of Earhart's mission was to spy on the Japanese-held islands in the Pacific. When the Japanese learned of her mission, they shot down the plane, and took her captive. A biography of Earhart claims there is evidence to support this theory.
The last words heard over the radio from the Electra were: “Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet. We are running north and south.” The last part of that message suggests that Earhart and Noonan were searching for Howland Island.
In 1960, a Japanese woman named Josephine Akiyama made public a story she claimed to be true. She said she had been living on the small Pacific island of Saipan in 1937, when she had seen two American flyers—a man and a woman—there. She said the Japanese were holding them captive. CBS broadcaster Fred Goerner took the story seriously and traveled to Saipan to investigate. There, he found other residents who told the same story, although some claim the captives had been executed.
No one knows for certain what happened to Earhart or Noonan.
Amelia Earhart (July 24, 1897–July 1937) was an aviator and feminist who symbolized the excitement of early aviation and new roles for women to Depression-era Americans. Always a restless and independent spirit, Earhart (photograph overleap) took her first plane ride in 1921 and earned her license soon after. While working at a Boston settlement house in 1928, she jumped at the chance to be a passenger on a flight from Newfoundland to Wales, thus earning the distinction of being the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean by plane. Instantly compared to Charles Lindbergh (to whom she bore an uncanny resemblance), Earhart found herself lionized as a popular heroine even though she had done none of the actual flying.
On May 20, 1932, Earhart claimed her place in aviation history by soloing the Atlantic in her bright red single-engine Lockheed Vega. She was the first woman and only the second person to do so since Lindbergh's 1927 flight. Once again she was front-page news nationwide, enabling her to promote her belief in the viability of commercial aviation and her equally fervid conviction that women could do anything they set their minds to. In 1937 she announced plans for a round-the-world flight in her new Lockheed Electra, accompanied only by navigator Fred Noonan. The first east-to-west attempt ended prematurely when she damaged her plane in Hawaii. On June 1 she set off in a west-to-east direction. On the hardest leg of the flight, from New Guinea to tiny Howland Island in the mid-Pacific, the plane disappeared. For weeks the country followed the story, but an extensive search turned up no evidence of the aviators' fate and they were presumed lost at sea. Amelia Earhart's last flight remains one of the twentieth century's greatest unsolved mysteries, but it should not deflect attention from her significance as a record-breaking aviator and a compelling symbol of women's emancipation.
Butler, Susan. East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart. 1997.
Earhart, Amelia. The Fun of It: Random Records of My Own Flying and of Women in Aviation. 1932.
Earhart, Amelia. Papers. Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Cambridge, Mass.
Ware, Susan. Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism. 1993.