On January 5th, 1939, Amelia Earhart was declared dead. The noted aviatrix and American aviation pioneer had been missing for nearly two years, and while the declaration of her death was necessary for legal reasons, it did nothing to quell those who, even today, search for clues to her fate. Earhart's legacy continues to motivate young women as much now as it did when she was alive.
Amelia Mary Earhart was born on July 24th, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas. In an age when the average woman's choices in life were narrowly defined, Earhart (known as “Meeley” to her family) and her younger sister were not taught to respect the boundaries placed on them by society. She excelled in the sciences in school and kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings which told the stories of women who excelled in traditionally male career fields.
In December, 1917, Earhart, now 20 years old, visited her younger sister in Toronto, Canada. The United States had recently entered the First World War, but the Canadians had been at war for three years. Spadina Military Hospital was full of wounded men and hospital volunteers were in short supply. Earhart trained to be a nurse's aide with the Red Cross and joined the hospital's Volunteer Aid Detachment. She was still at the hospital in 1918 when the Spanish flu pandemic reached Toronto. While she did not contract the potentially fatal virus, she was hospitalized for pneumonia and sinusitis. Sinus-related problems would plague her for the rest of her life.
Although Earhart had seen her first plane at the age of 10, it was not until her time in Canada that she developed the urge to fly. A flying exposition was visiting Toronto, and Earhart and a friend decided to watch the spectacle from a nearby field. One of the pilots spotted the two young women alone in the open and decided to dive on them. Instead of seeing two women run for cover, the pilot saw one of the women stand her ground as he passed right over her head. Earhart said later that something awakened inside her at that moment. “I didn't understand it at the time, but I believe that little... airplane said something to me...”
Earhart first rode in a plane in December, 1920. Instantly in love with the sensation, she began saving what money she could so she could afford flying lessons. Her instructor was Anita Snook, an early female aviator. They flew in the Curtiss JN-4, called a “Jenny” in the United States. Millions of people worldwide would learn to fly in the military surplus planes; they were cheap, slow and stable. Six months after starting training, Earhart bought a used, bright yellow Kinner Airster biplane which came to be known as “The Canary”. In October, 1922, she flew The Canary to a record altitude for a female pilot: 14,000 feet. The following May, she became the 16th woman in the United States to be issued a pilot's license.
By 1927, Earhart had accumulated more than 500 hours of solo flying time. She was living in Medford, Massachusetts, and paying the rent with a job as a social worker. She helped create Dennison Airport in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1927 and was granted the honor of being the first pilot to take off from the new field. She wrote a local newspaper column about flying, which made her into a local celebrity. There was little expectation that she would become a household name.
That expectation changed in April, 1928 when Earhart was asked to become the first woman to be flown across the Atlantic. Charles Lindbergh's solo flight in 1927 focused the nation's attention on aviation and Earhart saw this invitation as a chance to highlight the role of women in the industry. She was essentially a passenger on the flight while her two male companions filled the roles of pilot and co-pilot. The flight was a rousing success, with the trio making the crossing in 20 hours and 40 minutes. Earhart and her companions, Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon, received a ticker-tape parade in New York City upon their return. Soon thereafter, they traveled to the White House for a reception with President Calvin Coolidge.
Earhart became an overnight sensation. She went on a year-long lecture tour throughout the United States in support of her first book, entitled 20 Hrs., 40 Min. George Putnam, the book publisher who had organized the trans-Atlantic flight, worked to put Earhart's name and image in front of every American with endorsements for clothing, luggage and cigarettes. She accepted a position as associate editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, using the publication as a forum to enlighten the public on the new field of commercial air travel. During this time, she used her name to help publicize several new airlines, including Transcontinental Air Transport, which eventually became TWA and National Airways, which later would become known as Northeast Airlines.
Earhart spent the next several years helping with the formation of different aviation clubs dedicated to women and to setting several aviation records on her own. It was during this time that she was often seen in the company of George Putnam, her publisher. Amelia had been briefly engaged once before in her life, but after Putnam divorced his first wife in 1929, it seemed to the public that the pair were on their way to the altar. While they would eventually marry in 1931, Putnam had to ask her six times before Earhart would agree to do so. Her views on marriage were considered almost criminally open-minded for that time; she once referred to her marriage as a partnership with dual controls and thought both spouses should contribute financially to the household. She reportedly gave Putnam a note on their wedding day in which she more or less defined their marriage as being open, but there has been some debate as to whether or not this was really her intention. She did not change her name, a move that while not unheard of for celebrities in the 1930's, was very rare outside of Hollywood. The couple had no children, but Putnam had two sons from his first marriage.
Early on the morning of May 20, 1932, Earhart took off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland in a single-engine Lockheed Vega 5b in an attempt to become the first woman to make a solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic. 14 hours and 56 minutes later, after fighting strong winds and heavy ice, she touched down in a pasture outside of Derry, Northern Ireland. She would later be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross from the US Congress, the first woman to be so honored. Over the next few years she would claim several firsts in the aviation field and make several forays into long-distance air racing, a craze that had swept the nation during the previous decade.
In 1935, soon after joining the faculty of Purdue University in Indiana, Earhart began planning for a flight around the world. The university financed the purchase and modification of a new Lockheed Electra 10E, a twin-engined craft that had been introduced in 1934. The aircraft was turned into what the press called “a flying laboratory”, although there was little scientific instrumentation on board. The flight, while the not the first to fly around the planet, would be the longest attempt at 29,000 miles along a roughly equatorial route. Earhart needed a navigator for the journey, as long over-water flights in the 1930's required navigational skills similar to those used on board ships. Two men were chosen for the job: Harry Manning, an experienced transport ship captain, and Fred Noonan, who had been a pilot for Pan Am and had trained most of the company's navigators on the San Francisco to Manila route using the famous China Clipper seaplanes. The original plan called for Noonan to navigate from Hawaii to Howland Island, a 450 acre coral high spot in the Pacific Ocean located 1,700 miles southwest of Honolulu; this was considered to be the most difficult portion of the flight in terms of navigation. Manning would take over on Howland and serve as her navigator all the way to Australia. From there, Amelia would be on her own.
The Electra took off on March 17th, 1937 from Oakland, California and headed for Hawaii. Earhart, Noonan, Manning, and Paul Mantz, an experienced Hollywood stunt pilot asked to join the crew as a technical adviser, made it to the islands but mechanical problems forced them to stay grounded while the plane was repaired at the naval air station on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. Upon takeoff three days later, the aircraft ground-looped, a spin caused when one wing touches the ground. The exact cause of the accident remains open to debate, but Earhart claimed the Electra's right tire blew and the landing gear collapsed. Several reporters on the scene claimed to witness the tire blow, but Mantz, who was on board the aircraft, claimed it was a case of pilot error. Either way, the Electra was too damaged too fly and had to be shipped in pieces back to the Lockheed aircraft plant in California for repairs.
Earhart was determined to make a second attempt. She and George Putnam raised funds for another flight with one big difference: instead of flying east to west, the flight would start in California and head east all the way around the globe. The first leg of trip was flown without public notice and it was not until she reached Miami that Earhart announced her intention to continue flying eastward. Fred Noonan, the only passenger for the second attempt, would serve as her navigator. The two took off from Miami on June 1st, 1937 and headed out over the Atlantic.
The trip was, in Earhart's own words, leisurely. She and Noonan made many stops in South America, Africa, India, and parts of Southeast Asia before landing at Lae, New Guinea on June 29th. This put them around 22,000 miles into the flight, but the remaining 7,000 were all to be flown over the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. After three days in New Guinea, the Lockheed Electra took off for Howland Island, almost 2,600 miles away.
Howland is a hard place to find as it is completely flat, a little over a mile long and only 1,600 feet wide. With these facts in mind, the United States Coast Guard cutter Itasca was put on station near the island. The plan was for Noonan to use his skills to place the aircraft near the island; after that, radio navigation and voice communications from the cutter would point Earhart towards the tiny airstrip and temporary fuel depot.
Most evidence points to Fred Noonan's celestial navigation skills being good enough to place him and Earhart somewhere within 100 miles of Howland Island on the morning of July 2nd. The Itasca received very clear transmissions from Earhart but it seemed as if she could not hear the ship's responses. Her messages seemed to indicate that they were having trouble using the plane's Bendix antenna, which was used for direction-finding. It is unclear whether this was due to technical problems or lack of experience as the technology was new. At 7:58AM, Earhart said that they could not find the cutter or the island and asked that the ship continue to send voice signals. They were flying at 1,000 feet and the signal received by the Coast Guardsmen was so strong it was assumed the plane was very close. Forty-five minutes later, after several more messages were received from the Electra, one final transmission was heard: “We are running on a line north and south.” Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan then disappeared into history.
The operation that followed Earhart's disappearance was the largest at-sea search in history up to that point in terms of cost and intensity. Itasca began the search northwest of Howland but turned up nothing. Elements of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet were soon on hand, including an entire battleship task force and the carrier Lexington. Two Japanese ships also remained in the area to help. In all, more than 150,000 square miles of ocean was searched in detail. George Putnam financed a land search of nearby islands after the Navy search ended. No physical evidence of the Lockheed Electra or its pilot and navigator were found.
Hundreds of books have been written about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Many theories abound, including the possibility that she and Noonan made it to Gardner Island, 350 miles southeast of Howland. Gardner was uninhabited at the time and had almost no potable water. Skeletal remains of what appeared to be a women of European ancestry were found in 1940, but the bones disappeared on Fiji during the Second World War and the notes taken by British colonial authorities in 1941 do not seem to coincide with some later eyewitness accounts. In 2007, searchers found some artifacts on Gardner, which is now called Nikumaroro. While some of the items are of great interest, 70 years of weather and tidal action have made certain identification incredibly difficult.
Research done by the U.S. Navy shortly after Earhart disappeared concluded that the aircraft most likely went into the ocean some 100 miles northwest of Howland Island. If this is true, the likelihood of ever finding physical evidence is small as the ocean depth in that area can be as great as 18,000 feet.
While Amelia Earhart was not the first woman to fly a plane, she did more to advance the cause of women in aviation than anyone before her or, arguably, since. She was a celebrity during her lifetime, but her status as a legend was established partly as a result of her mysterious disappearance. Had she lived into her 80's, she would have seen women flying passenger jets and the first generation of female astronauts go into space. More than 70 years after she was declared dead, Amelia Earhart continues to inspire.