Celebrating the 120th birthday of Amelia Earhart, the aviation pioneer who stretched the limits of humanity and lifted them up to the sky

When Amelia Earhart was 10 years old, she saw an airplane for the first time in her life, during a family visit to a fair. Her father asked her if she wanted to ride it, but she was afraid and preferred going with her little sister to the carousel. Years later, Earhart described it as being "a thing of rusty wire and wood and looked not at all interesting". 13 years have passed before she had another chance at flying. This time it was an event that would change her life, and possibly the history of aviation.  

A sister thing

Earhart was born on July 24th, 1897 in a small town in Kansas. She was the first-born of lawyer Samuel Earhart, who married Amelia Otis, daughter of a former federal judge that became a successful banker. The family lived on a property belonging to the mother's parents, where Amelia and her younger sister, Muriel, grew up feeling the constant tension between the relatively liberal upbringing of their parents and the conservatism of their grandparents. While the grandparents thought that the girls should be brought up to be "good girls", their parents allowed them to climb on trees, play it rough with the boys and even hunt for rats with a little rifle.

When Earhart was nine years old, the nuclear family moved to Iowa, after father Samuel received a position at a railway company. Amelia was home-schooled until the age of 12, and only then was sent to school for the first time. She was a good student who loved to read and found interest in science. Later on, her mother separated from her father, due to his alcoholism, and moved with the girls to Chicago, where Amelia graduated from high school in 1915.

She continued studying in a college for women in Philadelphia, but left after a visit to Toronto exposed her to the many wounded soldiers coming back from the battlefield of World War I in Europe, leading her to volunteer to serve as a nurse's aide at the hospital. Among her patients were many wounded pilots, and their stories caused Earhart to take interest in aviation.

In 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic reached Canada, making work at the hospital even more challenging. Earhart also contracted the virus and was hospitalized for a number of weeks due to complications, including pneumonia and severe sinusitis. Following her recovery, she turned to medical school in Columbia University, but left after one year to join her parents, who got back together again, in California. There, during a visit to a fair in 1920, her father again suggested she should try flying a plane. This time she agreed. The flight was only ten minutes long, but it changed her life. "By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground," she said, "I knew I had to fly."   

שיאים מוקדמים. ארהרט (מימין) ומדריכת הטיסה סנוק על רקע מטוס ה"קנרית" | מקור: ויקיפדיה, נחלת הכלל
Early horizons. Eahart (on the right) and flight instructor Snook, in front of "The Canary"| Source: Wikipedia

A sack of potatoes

Earhart began her aviation training with pilot Anita Snook, one of the aviation pioneers in the US. During this time, she worked in every job she could find in order to save up money to buy her own plane. She was a truck driver, photographer, and stenographer at a telephone company, and in the summer of 1922 she bought a second-hand Kinner Airster airplane, which she nicknamed the "The Canary", due to its yellow color. After a number of months, she already set the female pilot world record for flight altitude, reaching 14,000 feet. In 1923, she was the 16th woman in history to be issued a pilot's license by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

Soon enough, however, her aviation career spiraled into financial turmoil. Earhart's parents eventually divorced, and the mother and her daughters lived mainly on the grandmother's inheritance. When they ran out of money, and with no occupational future in aviation, she was forced to sell the plane. Earhart returned to her studies in Columbia, but had to drop out for financial reasons. She joined her mother in Boston, where she made a living by working as a teacher and social worker.

Nevertheless, the urge to fly did not disappear. She served as a sales representative for Kinner Airplane & Motor Corporation in Boston and begun writing articles about aviation for the local newspaper, which made her a well-known figure in the aviation community of northeast USA.

In 1927, American pilot Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. His success was followed by many more attempts to complete the challenge, and Earhart was invited to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, though only as a passenger – not as the pilot. She welcomed the offer and on June 17th 1928 boarded the plane of pilot Wilmer Stultz and mechanic Louis Gordon in Canada. The three landed safely in Wales after 21 hours. In interviews after their return to the US, Earhart said "I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes. Maybe someday I'll try it alone." 

המטוס שבו חצתה ארהרט את האוקיינוס האלטנטי במוזיאון התעופה והחלל בוושינגטון | מקור: ויקיפדיה,  Alkivar
The plane in which Earhart crossed the Atlantic Ocean at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. | Source: Wikipedia

Spreading her wings

The three passengers of the flight received a warm welcome upon their return, with a victory march in New York and a meeting with President Calvin Coolidge in the White House. Despite her small role in the achievement, Earhart became a celebrity. Her status was partly promoted enthusiastically by publisher George Putnam, who was one of the initiators of the flight and connected her to his vast social circle. Among other things, she was appointed to be an editor in Cosmopolitan magazine, where she wrote about aviation. She was also appointed vice president of a local aviation company. During this time she participated in a number of flight competitions, and in 1930 was appointed the first president of the female pilot organization, The Ninety-Nines.

Earhart and Putnam denied rumors about having a romantic relationship. However, following his divorce in 1929, Putnam began persistently pursuing her until they married in 1931, after he promised to not attempt to tie her down like in the middle ages.

Around the time of their wedding, they began planning Earhart's solo flight across the Atlantic. On May 20th 1932, the fifth anniversary of Lindbergh flight, Earhart took off from Harbour Grace in east Canada on a Lockheed Vega 5B. Strong northern winds, accumulation of ice and mechanical difficulties did not enable her to reach Paris. She was forced to look for an alternative landing point, and after nearly 15 hours, she landed in a pasture not far from Londonderry in Northern Ireland.

Her success made her a household name and won her many awards; among them were the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society from President Herbert Clark Hoover, the Distinguished Flying Cross from Congress and the Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honor from the French Government. In the years to come, Earhart continued to go out on daring flights. She flew on her own from Hawaii to California and was the first person to fly across both the Atlantic and the Pacific. She was also the first person to fly solo from Mexico City to New York. By 1935 she has broken seven aviation records for women, when she decided to take on the biggest challenge of all: to be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. 

הבטיח שלא ינסה לכבול אותה בחוקי נאמנות מיושנים. ארהרט עם ג'ורג' פוטנם | צילום: Science Photo Library
Promised to not tie her down with old-fashioned fidelity rules. Earhart with George Putnam | Photograph: Science Photo Library 

The end of the road 

Earhart was not the first person to fly around the world. A crew of American pilots did it already in 1924, in a series of flights lasting 175 days. In 1929, Australian pilot Charles Kingsford Smith completed one lap around the Earth in a long series of flights, including the first crossing of the Pacific Ocean with a flight to Australia. Nevertheless, Earhart wanted to be the first to circumnavigate the globe taking the longest route, as close as possible to the equator.

In 1935, she became an advisor to the Aeronautical Engineering department at Purdue University and a special counselor to female students. As part of the agreement with the university, it funded the plane for the mission, the Lockheed Electra 10E, which was built especially for that purpose, with most of its body being used for storing additional fuel tanks.

Earhart created a crew comprised from two navigators and a stunt pilot, who served as a technical advisor for the mission. The plan was set to fly west, and in March 1937 the crew took off from Oakland, California to Hawaii. After a few days, during take-off in Hawaii, the plane hit a ground loop on the runway in Honolulu, with no certainty if the cause was pilot error or a mechanical problem. No one was injured, but the plane suffered severe damage and was returned to California for repair.

For the second trial, a number of weeks later, Earhart decided to fly east. Two of her crew members had to pass on the adventure due to prior engagements, and she was left with only her navigator Fred Noonan. They took off from California to Florida, from there continued to South America, crossed the Atlantic to Africa above the equator, and flew east through northern India, Indonesia and northern Australia. In the end of June they landed in Lae, New Guinea, after passing 35,000 km, with only 11,000 km remaining to fly across the Pacific Ocean.

The next stop on their track was the tiny Howland Island, which was 4,100 km away. Earhart and Noonan knew it would be very difficult to locate the small and flat island, which is less than two km long and only half a kilometer wide, especially in cloudy conditions. They coordinated in advance a radio connection to a United States Coast Guard ship that was anchored on the coast of the island, with the intent of using the ship's crew as a navigational aid.

The plane underwent additional renovation in Lae, having every redundant item removed from it in order to reduce weight and save on fuel for the challenging flight. On July 2nd 1937 the two took off. Problems arose right after takeoff, and witnesses said the plane radio antenna broke. Following, they encountered cloudier weather than expected, even though the forecast was clear. And as if that was not enough, they found out that the maps they had were not up-to-date, and the island was actually 10 km from where it was located on the map.

On the morning of July 3rd Noonan and Earhart contacted the ship, but the radio signal had many interferences, so it was not clear if they could hear the directions given by the sailors. Just before 8am the crew attempted to direct them to the island, and even gave them smoke signals, but it did not help. The plane most likely ran out of fuel and the two were forced to abandon it in the middle of the sea. The ship immediately went to search for them, and quickly additional aircraft and ships joined in, as instructed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The search was discontinued after two weeks, but Putnam decided to fund it for longer – with no success. No remains were found. In January 1939 the court in California declared Earhart dead.

אחת הדמויות הבולטות בתודלות התעופה. ארהרט במטוס של לשכת המסחר האמריקאית | מקור: Science Photo Library
One of the most prominent figures in the history of aviation. Earhart on the plane of the US Department of Commerce | Source: Science Photo Library

A role model for gender equality 

The disappearance of Earhart and Noonan was a gold mine for conspiracy theorists. Among other theories, it was claimed that she crashed the plane to commit suicide; or that her real mission was to spy on Japanese forces in the Pacific for the US government. One of the theories states that the two were captured by the Japanese and Earhart became the Tokyo Rose – a radio broadcaster, whose identity was never revealed and has led the Japanese propaganda broadcasts aimed at American soldiers in the Pacific in WWII. A movie that has been recently released, on the 80th anniversary of her disappearance, displays so-called evidence that Earhart died in the Japanese prison.  

A more reasonable hypothesis regarding Earhart and Noonan's disappearance states that the plane sunk into the ocean after it ran out of fuel, a few dozen kilometers from Howland.  Another hypothesis states that the two landed by mistake on Gardner Island, an uninhabited island a few hundred kilometers away from Howland, which now belongs to Kiribati and is called Nikumaroro. An expedition to this island revealed aluminum pieces and a plastic window that may have belonged to their plane, as well as a few improvised tools, but no remains were identified with high certainty and no human body remains were found.

In 2014, a team of experts in aviation history determined that the piece of metal found on Nikumaroro in 1991 was indeed a part of Earhart's plane, but these conclusions still do not fully settle the 80-year-old mystery. In the 1970's, Earhart was claimed to be living under an alias in New Jersey, a claim which was finally debunked when National Geographic experts closely analyzed and compared pictures of the two women.

Earhart is still remembered to this day as one of the most prominent figures in aviation history. Many institutions and landmarks are named after her; from schools and educational institutions, through streets and bridges throughout the US, and up to a dwarf planet and a US Navy cargo ship. Purdue University and many other institutes give scholarships and awards named after her, and her portrait has appeared on postal stamps, as well as in a museum established in her birth city. In addition, many documentaries and feature films were made about her.

Most importantly, however, Earhart has inspired many people who found an interest in aviation, due to her personal story, and has served as a role model for many women who strived for equality in professions and fields that were considered "masculine". She inspired over a thousand female pilots, who volunteered for the US Air Force in WWII and served as training and cargo pilots. Many other women, in aviation and other fields walked in her footsteps and were inspired by her success. She has proven that when it comes to wisdom, audacity and will power, women are not only equal to men, but can also surpass them.

 

Translated by Elee Shimshoni

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