Amelia, Queen of the Sky

Have you flown far? “From America,” she answered.

— Dan McCallon, Irish farmhand
 

On 24 July 1897, in Atchison, Kansas, Amelia and Samuel Earhart gave birth to a child who bore her mother and grandmother’s name. Nicknamed “Meeley,” her mother did not believe in raising “nice little girls,” so young Amelia and her sister, Grace, grew up with a sense of adventure, garnering the label “tomboy” at every turn.

The sisters collected animals from outings near their home. After encountering a rollercoaster during a trip to St. Louis, Amelia crafted a homemade version. She cobbled together a ramp on the toolshed and a sled. The first trip ended in a bloody crash, but Amelia noted a “sensation of exhilaration” that felt “like flying.”

This miniature brush with flying would not be her last. Few humans can claim to have gathered as much notoriety as Amelia Earhart. Perhaps the most famous woman in the world during her lifetime, she became a pioneering pilot, a groundbreaking proponent of equal rights, and wrote herself into eternity with death in one of the planet’s greatest mysteries.

Amelia Earhart as a child - Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College

During her childhood, Earhart produced a scrapbook she filled with newspaper clippings of successful women in fields dominated by men. When it was time for high school, she did not want to attend the institution near her house, as its chemistry lab was “just like a kitchen sink.” She scouted other schools, searching for the best science programs. She considered careers in film direction, law, advertising, management, and mechanical engineering.

During a trip to Toronto to visit her sister in 1917, Earhart witnessed a slew of wounded soldiers returning from World War I. She decided to train to become a nurse. Just a year later, she worked in a hospital as the Spanish flu epidemic ravaged the world. During this service, she contracted pneumonia and spent months in a hospital bed.

After convalescing, Earhart and a friend visited a fair that altered the course of her life. The Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto featured a flying display from a World War I ace. Earhart and her friend watched from afar in a field, where the pilot spotted them. The plane dived toward the pair. She later recalled, “I am sure he said to himself, ‘Watch me make them scamper.’ I did not understand it at the time but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.”

An older Amelia

Her parents relocated to California and, during a visit, Amelia and her father toured Daugherty Field. Her father paid famed pilot Frank Hawks (perfect name for a pilot) $10 ($140+ in 2022) to take Amelia on a 10-minute flight. “By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly,” Amelia later wrote.

She gave her life to the skies. Earhart started working all sorts of odd jobs to cobble $1000 for lessons. Her teacher was Anita Snook, an early woman aviator. To get to the field, she had to ride a bus through its entire route and then walk four miles. Despite the hardships, flying hooked her. She bought a leather aviator’s coat and chopped off her hair to fit in amongst the men. Six months later, in the summer of 1921, she had saved enough money to buy her own plane.

Just over a year later, on 22 October 1922, this novice pilot graduated to soon-to-be legend by setting a world record for women by reaching 14,000 feet above Earth. And that’s before she even qualified for an official pilot’s license. On 15 May 1923, Earhart became the 16th woman in the United States to receive the license.

Her trajectory was off to a flying start. Her career was no longer up in the air, it was up in the air. She was flying high. Her colors were flying.

Anita Snook and Amelia Earhart in 1921

Earhart moved to Boston, where she continued to pursue the world of aviation. She joined the American Aeronautical Society and became the vice president of the Boston chapter. She piloted the first flight out of Dennison Airport in 1927.

That same year, Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean, the first human being to achieve the feat. A pilot named Amy Guest desired to be the first woman to cross the ocean but decided the trip was too perilous for herself (she was already 54 years old). Instead, she sought a younger woman to take the challenge. Earhart fit the bill perfectly. Though she did not fly the plane due to a lack of training on the specific model, Amelia became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean on 17 June 1928. She and her team – Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon – left Newfoundland and arrived in Wales in 20 hours and 40 minutes. Earhart later wrote,  “Stultz did all the flying—had to. I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes…maybe someday I’ll try it alone.”

When they arrived home, the squad received a ticker-tape parade in New York City and met Calvin Coolidge in the White House. Amelia Earhart was a rising superstar in the United States.

Amelia Earhart in flying get-up

The press anointed her Lady Lindy, after her resemblance to Lindbergh and his transatlantic flight, and Queen of the Air. Earhart went on a lecture tour, wrote a book, and garnered a plethora of endorsements. She began to design clothing and promote the styles. Cosmopolitan Magazine hired her as an assistant editor, where she used the platform to promote aviation, especially for young women. Many of the early airline routes owe a debt to Earhart’s campaigning.

And, of course, she continued in the air. In 1928, Amelia was the first woman to fly solo across North America and back. She competed in cross-country races. She lobbied the National Aeronautic Association and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale to recognize women’s records. She joined and became the first president of the Ninety-Nines, an organization of women pilots who sought to promote the pastime to girls and to support women in aviation.

All these happenings were a prelude to 1932. Considering herself mere baggage on the first transatlantic flight, Earhart set out to become the first woman to cross it solo. Once again departing Newfoundland, Earhart aimed to land in Paris to replicate the course of Lindbergh. 14 hours and 56 minutes in, however, mechanical problems and conditions forced her to land in a pasture in what is now Northern Ireland. Irish farmhand Dan McCallon watched a grease-stained face emerge from the plane. “I couldn’t tell whether it was a man or woman,” he said. “But when I asked, ‘Have you flown far?’ ‘From America,’ she answered, all calm like.’ I was stunned and didn’t know what to say.”

Her fame grew to monumental proportions. Congress bestowed her with the Distinguished Flying Cross. National Geographic presented her with their Gold Medal, delivered by Herbert Hoover. Even the French government honored her, giving her the Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honor. She befriended Eleanor Roosevelt, taking the future First Lady flying.

She continued to wrack up impressive solo flight records. Moving to California, she began a flying school. Earhart could have retired onto the beach before the age of 40. But the flying frontier still called to her.

She wanted to fly around the world.

Earhart's planned flight path around the globe - image by Hellerick

The mission to circumnavigate the globe started ominously unwell. Going east to west, the first leg was from Hawaii to Howland Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Before Earhart and her two navigators could take off, a tire blew on the airplane. Damage to the craft scuttled this attempt.

One of her navigators opted out of the second try. This time, they reversed direction. Leg one became California to Miami. Stops in South America, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Guinea preceded the final stretch across the open Pacific Ocean. By 2 July 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, had flown 22,000 miles, hugging the equator. Just 7,000 miles remained. But this portion would be the most difficult to navigate. The duo needed to find tiny Howland Island after crossing 2,000 miles of open ocean. At the island sat a Coast Guard cutter named Itasca. The ship would send and receive radio signals to the plane, giving them important navigational information, including the proper direction.

Flight time for the leg was 20 hours, so Earhart and Noonan flew through the night. When the sun rose, they acquired critical celestial guidance. Throughout the morning, Itasca received multiple routine radio transmissions from Earhart, but they realized in horror that they could not properly send a signal to the aircraft. Based on signal strengths, the Coast Guard believed Earhart to have neared Howland, but, apparently, they could not spot land. Earhart and Noonan continued to send transmissions, noting declining fuel, but messages from the ground did not help the duo.

The Lockheed L10 Electra never made it to Howland Island.

Earhart and Noonan in Australia

Despite the most expensive search mission to date, the U.S. military never spotted a downed plane or any evidence of the flight. Navy and Coast Guard ships searched millions of square miles and numerous islands in the Pacific, on the off chance that Earhart and Noonan had either strayed off course or managed to find another landing area.

Most experts believe Earhart and Noonan ran out of fuel, ditched their aircraft in the ocean near Howland Island, and perished. However, various theories and conspiracy theories persist into the 21st century. The fate of Earhart sits near the apex of famous mysteries.

Some believe the pair survived by flying to another island. In many of these postulations, that island is Gardner. Over the subsequent decades, various pieces of interesting “evidence” have surfaced there, including human bones, a sextant, shoes, bottles, and plane parts. Some researchers believe these aberrant items must belong to Earhart and Noonan. Another theory revolves around the capture and/or execution of the pair by the Japanese. Some of the islands in the general area were controlled by Japan and people wonder if perhaps the two landed on one such island and were taken for spies (remember, this is before World War II). Other notions imply Earhart was a secret spy for Franklin Roosevelt or that she survived and was compelled to become one of the women known as Tokyo Rose. One theory even had her making it back to the United States to assume a false identity. As always, some purport alien intervention or Bermuda Triangle-esque problems.

The intricacies of all these theories are beyond the purview of this article. Perhaps we’ll get to it one day!

The intended path of the fateful leg and some of the potential landing spots - graphic by SnowFire

What is not beyond the purview of this article is the legacy that Amelia Earhart left. She never made it to Howland Island, but she inspired thousands and millions of women and humans.

When World War II broke out just several years after her last flight, thousands joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots, largely thanks to the notoriety of Earhart. She garnered countless honors, including membership in the National Aviation Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

The house where she was born is now the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum. The Ninety-Nines still persist and they oversee this wonderful location. Earhart died 85 years ago, but her memory lives vibrantly in the consciousness of the world. Her life and achievements easily qualify her for the Woman Crush Wednesday Hall of Fame housed at The Mountains Are Calling headquarters!

Amelia Earhart's pilot's license

Further Reading and Exploration


Amelia Earhart – Official Licensing Website

Amelia Earhart – PBS American Experience

Amelia Earhart – National Women’s History Museum
 
AMELIA EARHART: First Lady of the Sky – Life Magazine

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