Who was Amelia Earhart? – Biography, Final Flight, Disappearance, & Facts

Amelia Earhart (1897 – c. 1937)

Amelia Earhart was a distinguished American aviator, best-selling author, feminist and a friend of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1928, Earhart etched her name into the annals of history by becoming the first female passenger to fly over the Atlantic Ocean. Four years later, her solo flight using a Lockheed Vega 5B plane over the Atlantic meant that she was the first woman in history to fly over the Atlantic.

As a result of her bravery and tenacity, she was able to kick the door wide open for other women in the aviation industry. Earhart accomplished several feats in aviation and was honored with a host of awards.

In 1939, she was declared dead in absentia after her attempt to circumnavigate the globe in a Lockheed Model 10-E Electra plane failed. To this day, the bodies of Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan are yet to be discovered ever since the plane they were flying in disappeared miles off the Howland Island in the central Pacific Ocean.

Due to a lack of conclusive evidence, there have been several conflicting theories on the events of the day Earhart’s plane disappeared. The most dominant theory is that the plane simply crashed and sank in the Pacific.

Amelia Earhart quotes

Amelia Earhart: Birth, Childhood and Education

Amelia Earhart was born on July 24, 1897 to Samuel “Edwin” Stanton Earhart and Amelia “Amy”. Her birthplace was at her maternal grandfather’s home in Atchison, Kansas.

She had a younger sister called Grace Muriel Earhart (1899-1998). Growing up, she loved hanging out at her maternal grandparents’ home. Outdoor activities – such as riding horses, climbing trees and hunting rodents – inspired in her a sense of adventure. Many people even went as far as calling her a tomboy.

Due to her father’s inability to hold a permanent job, the family moved from one place to another. As a result, she changed schools frequently. Her father’s struggle with alcoholism also put a huge strain on the family. At one point, her mother took her and sister to live with a friend in Chicago. This was due to her father’s inability to properly provide for the family.

How Amelia Earhart got introduced to flying and aviation

Amelia Earhart

Neta Snook and Amelia Earhart standing in front of Earhart’s Kinner Airster, c. 1921

Earhart had a real knack for science-related subjects and sports while in school. At Hyde Park High School, chemistry was one of her favorite subjects. She was heavily drawn to male-dominated professions and aspired to have a future career in film making or mechanical engineering or law.

While on a visit to her sister in Canada, she witnessed the devastation World War I caused to lives of soldiers as they returned injured and shuttered. Drawn to help out, she took a nurse’s aide training course and proceeded to work in the Red Cross. It was around that time that she made the acquaintance of many wounded pilots. Their love for aviation rubbed of the young and curious Amelia Earhart.

She also attended an air fair which was organized under the auspices of the Canadian National Exhibition.

In 1920, her father took her a Long Beach air show and allowed her to ride in one of the planes with Frank Hawks. Ten minutes into the flight, she immediately knew that she was destined to carve a career in aviation. She worked several odd jobs in order to raise enough money for her flying lessons.

She had the honor of receiving flying lessons from legendary female aviator Anita “Neta” Snook. She was very committed to her lessons so much so that she braced the odds by walking four miles (6 km) to attend those lessons.

After almost finishing her lessons, in 1921, she bought a second-hand Kinner Airster biplane, which she later painted yellow and called it “The Canary”.

Did you know: Amelia set a record in October 1922 by becoming the first female pilot to fly to an altitude of 14,000 feet (4,300 m)?

Amelia Earhart’s Aviation Records and Accomplishments

Amelia Earhart | Image: Earhart in Los Angeles, 1928

On May 15, 1923, Earhart received her pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), becoming the 16th American woman to receive a pilot’s license.

In spite of the harsh financial and personal difficulties (i.e. reeling from a sinus problem and her parents’ divorce in 1924), Earhart was still able to keep the flames of her aviation career well lit. While in Medford, Massachusetts, she was admitted into the American Aeronautical Society’s Boston chapter. The chapter would later elect her vice president. She made a number of flights out of Dennison Airport in Massachusetts. She also worked in sales at Kinner aircraft while writing articles for a number of local newspapers. Many of those articles were aimed at promoting aviation in America, encouraging women to enter the profession.

In 1928, Captain Hilton H. Railey rang Earhart and offered her the opportunity of flying across the Atlantic. A year prior to that, renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh made his solo flight across the Atlantic, from New York to Paris in May 1927. Captain Railey was hoping to give Earhart the opportunity of etching her name in history by becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic.

Earhart’s firs transatlantic flight was coordinated by George P. Putnam – a publisher who she eventually married in 1931. The team for the flight included pilot Wilmer Stultz and copilot Louis Gordon. Her task on the flight was to keep the flight log. Leaving Trepassey Harbor in Newfoundland, the plane – dubbed Friendship was a Fokker F. VIIb/3m – set off on June 17, 1928.  After 20 hours and 40 minutes, the crew made it to Burry Point, Wales in the United Kingdom. Earhart actually did not pilot the plane as she was confined to other activities. She would later state that she felt like a baggage. Regardless, she and the crew were warmly received at the White House by then-president Calvin Coolidge. The press even nicknamed her “Lady Lindy” – a name derived from “Lucky Lind”, nickname for Lindbergh.

Determined to push even further, she started to make preparations for her own solo flight across the Atlantic. Her exceptional intelligence in aviation, as well as her composure, allowed her to make a solo flight across the North American continent. Thus, she became the first woman to accomplish that feat.

Did you know: Amelia Earhart came in third at the Women’s Air Derby, where she flew from Santa Monica to Cleveland?

In 1931, she also flew to a record-breaking altitude of 18,415 in a Pitcairn PCA-2 autogyro plane. In her bid to promote aviation among women, she accepted the position of president of The Ninety-Nines – an organization that tried to demystify aviation, making it more open to women. A year prior to that, she was admitted into the National Aeronautic Association.

On May 20, 1932, Earhart became the first woman to make a solo flight across the Atlantic. The voyage, which lasted about 15 hours, began in Harbor Grace, Newfoundland and ended in Culmore, Northern Ireland. She flew in a Lockheed Vega 5B. To prep for the voyage, she was advised by aviator Bernt Balchen. Owing to strong northerly winds and frigid conditions, her intended target of Paris became impossible. Twelve hours into the voyage she experienced mechanical difficulties, hence her landing in Northern Ireland. Her monumental accomplishment was recognized as she was awared the Distinguished Flying Cross by the U.S. Congress. The French government presented her Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honor.

On May 22, 1932, Amelia Earhart was given a rousing welcome at the Hanworth Airfield in London. In the United States, President Herbert Hoover presented her the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society.

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart’s last flight

After fire razed down her marital home in Rye, Amelia and her husband Putnam to California in 1934. There, she employed the services of Hollywood stunt pilot Paul Mantz to help her improve her skills in long distance flying.

In 1935, Purdue University added her to their faculty. Earhart served as women’s counselor and gave advice to the university’s Department of Aeronautics. It was also around this time that she conceived a mindboggling goal – circumnavigate the globe around the equator.

Amelia dubbed this flight her last flight. To cover the voyage’s distance of 29,000 miles (47,000 km), she chose the Lockheed Electra 10E. The plane was built in July 1936 at Lockheed Aircraft Company. The plane was customized to meet the rigorous needs of the voyage. For example, the plane featured adequate spaces for the storage of fuel tanks; the plane also had twin engines.

Her husband Putnam helped organize the voyage and added two more aviators to Amelia’s flight team. Paul Mantz was designated the technical advisor; Manning was to serve as the firs navigator.

The plan was to fly from Oakland, California and make it west to Hawaii before crossing the Pacific Ocean to Australia. Then from Australia, Amelia Earhart would make through the subcontinent of India and then across Africa. From Africa, she intended flying back to California. As a result of a severe damage to the plane while at U.S. Navy’s Luke Field in Hawaii, the plane had to be shipped back to California. Manning had to part ways with the crew due to commitments elsewhere. Earhart’s initial plan was altered.

On their second attempt, the crew chose to fly west to east due to weather patterns. At this point, Noonan was the only crew member left as Mantz had parted ways owing to contract dispute.

On June 1, 1937, Earhart and Noonan flew from Miami and went through Central and South America. They flew over Africa and crossed the Indian Ocean. On June 29, 1937, they made it safely to Lae, New Guinea. With 22,000 miles completed, the crew had 7,000 miles left, which would be over the Pacific Ocean.

After suffering from dysentery for a few days in Lae, New Guinea, Earhart bounced back on her plane, which she had earlier stocked with extra amounts of fuel. On July 2, 1937, Earhart and her navigator Noonan took off from Lae and headed to Howland Island – a flat silver island between Hawaii and Australia.

As they approached, they relied heavily on celestial navigation to stay on course. They also maintained radio communication with the U.S. Coast Guard vessel docked close to the island.

Amelia Earhart’s disappearance

Some of the possible challenges that Earhart and Noonan run into while making it to Howland Island in the Pacific:

  • They did not have on them radio equipment that used shorter wavelength frequencies. Those types of radio equipment give longer distances in terms of broadcasting radio signals.
  • It is likely that Earhart did not carry enough high-octane fuel. Experts claim that they were about 50 gallons short of full capacity.
  • Earhart and Noonan used inaccurate maps which made Howland Island look about six miles away from its accurate position.
  • It is also likely that the plane’s radio antenna got damaged as Earhart took off from Lae in New Guinea.

The above likely difficulties, as well as misunderstanding (over the frequencies to be used) between Earhart and the Itasca, proved too much for the crew.

Communication between the Itasca and Earhart did not go smoothly. The Itasca used oil burners in hopes that the Earhart and Noonan would see the island. Because they were six miles off, Earhart most like could not see the oil burners that were lit by the Itasca. Experts also claim that the plane most likely was running low on fuel, forcing Earhart and Noonan to abandon the plane at sea.

A report from Earhart about her position at 7:42 AM on the day she disappeared

Rescue and search efforts

The moment it dawned on the U.S. Navy off the coast of Howland Island that contact could not be established with Earhart and Noonan, a search and rescue team were sent out to sea. A total of 66 aircraft and nine ships were used as rescuers searched to find the aviators. Then-U.S. President FDR even authorized $4 million for the rescue. After about three weeks of searching, the search party brought their activity to a halt [on July 18, 1937].

Earhart is declared dead in absentia

Amelia Earhart’s husband Putnam raised some funds for further searches around Howland Island.  Three months into her disappearance, Putnam sadly came to the somewhat obvious conclusion – Earhart and Noonan was gone.

A year and half into her disappearance, Amelia Earhart was largely considered dead. The Superior Court in Los Angeles declared her dead in absentia on January 5, 1939.

Other interesting Facts about Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart facts | Image of Amelia Earhart in a Stearman-Hammond Y-1

  • Fred Noonan was brought on board because Mantz and Putnam wanted a navigator who could give lower errors compared to Manning. Noonan was with Pan Am prior to his involvement with Earhart’s flight around the world.
  • Ever since her disappearance there have a plethora of theories used to explain how she and Noonan disappeared over the Pacific. The commonest theory is that the aviators ditched the plane or crashed it before dying at sea. This theory is supported by the claim that the plane had inadequate fuel and most likely run out of fuel about 35-100 miles off the coast of Howland Island. On the contrary, some experts have stated that Earhart and Noonan probably landed at Nikumaroro reef – an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean – 350 miles southeast of Howland Island. The aviators then died on the island. Others claim that Earhart and Noonan were taken prisoners by the Japanese ship Koshu Maru which was in the vicinity around the time the aviator’s plane crashed.
  • Amelia Earhart remains one of the most celebrated aviators of all time. Her birthday – which falls on July 24 – is celebrated as the Amelia Earhart Day. She holds almost the same reverence as the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. As a result of her numerous feats of accomplishment, she became a huge role model for women from all across the world.
  • She was once enrolled at Columbia University as a medical student; however, she dropped out owing to financial constraints.
  • Following her transatlantic flight in 1928, she penned down a book titled, 20 Hrs., 40 Min. The book was published and promoted by George P. Putnam – a man she would later marry in 1931. In addition to making a case for why more women should become aviators, the book gives readers insight into her experience during the transatlantic flight.
  • Following her meteoric rise in the 1930s, she often gave speeches and lectures in a bid to encourage women to join the profession. She was also an avid patron of causes that promoted women’s rights at the workplace. Her Friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt allowed both women to get really involved in those kinds of causes. The two women also flew together on several occasions.
  • Earhart involved with women’s fashion and served as the associate editor at the Cosmopolitan In the aviation word, she was involved with a number of commercial air travel companies such as Trans World Airlines (TWA). Earhart was also the vice president of National Airways.
  • Earhart’s legacy lays in the fact that she actions were aimed at breaking the negative stereotypes about women not being fit to enter into certain professions. As a liberal thinker, she refused to be bound by age-old notions that made women play second fiddle to men. This was just one of the reasons why she developed strong relationships with fellow liberal thinkers such as Eleanor Roosevelt.

    Amelia Earhart

    Amelia Earhart Liberal notions (for the time) on marriage

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