Amelia Earhart: An American Heroine

Amelia Earhart
Earhart in front of her Lockheed 10E Electra. Credit: Air & Space Magazine.

During a recent conversation with my 14-year-old daughter, I mentioned that she should never take second chair to a man, and that she should be as she chooses to be.

I also suggested she remember that Amelia Earhart once wrote, “a girl should not do what she thinks she should do but should find out through experience what she wants to do.”

Today’s National Amelia Earhart Day celebrates this.

 

Amelia Earhart’s First Flight

Born in Atchison, Kansas on July 24, 1897, Amelia Earhart was tall, tomboyish, nerdy with a penchant for mathematics and science, but fiercely restless and independent.

The attitude of independence took wing at an airshow in Long Beach, California on December 28, 1920 when Earhart took her first flight.  She later said that “by the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly.”

Five days later, Earhart took her first flight lesson at nearby Kinner Field.

Within six months she purchased her first aircraft, a second-hand Kinner Airster, which she named Canary.

On October 22, 1922 Earhart set a women’s altitude record of 14,000 feet.  Seven months later, she received her pilot’s license; she was the 16th woman in the world to do so.


Canary
Earhart’s first plane, Canary.

The Telephone Call

Short of money in 1924, Earhart sold the Canary, headed to Boston, Massachusetts and used her notoriety to market Kinner aircraft and to write a newspaper column which promoted flying, especially to women.

Earhart’s future changed on April 27, 1928 when she answered a telephone and was asked if she wanted to be the first woman to fly as a passenger across the Atlantic.

On June 17, 1928 she joined Wilmer Stultz and Lou Gordon when they flew a tri-motor Fokker F. VII, named the Friendship, from Trepassey Harbor, Newfoundland to Burry Port, Wales in 20 hours and 40 minutes.

Earhart never flew the plane during the flight, and she later commented that she felt like “a sack of potatoes.”

But reporters were more interested in her than the pilots, and the attention brought Earhart fame and the opportunity to earn a living in aviation.

The idea of becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic began to grow.

 

The Little Red Bus

During the early part of 1932, Earhart worked secretly to prepare for the flight.

Just days before leaving, she worked around her house, proofed a book she had written, and raked leaves.

Earhart had even suggested that one of her flight advisers was borrowing her single engine, red Lockheed Vega 5-B, which she called the Little Red Bus, for a flight to the North Pole.

Then on the morning of May 20, 1932 – exactly five years to the day after Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo transatlantic flight – Earhart quietly showed up at Teterboro Airport, New Jersey, climbed into her plane, and took off for Paris.

She landed at Harbour Grace, Newfoundland to refuel before heading east across the Atlantic. 

Hours later, things went wrong as dusk descended.

The altimeter quit working; a small flame appeared near the exhaust manifold; thunderstorms blocked her flight path; and rain turned to ice which froze the aircraft’s controls, causing it to lose altitude until Earhart regained control.

Running low on fuel, Earhart flipped the switch on an auxiliary gas tank, only to feel some of the fuel trickling down her neck.

As dawn appeared – and seeing green hills below – a tired Earhart decided to land.

At 13:46 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), she touched down in a pasture – owned by a man named Gallagher – outside of Londonderry, Ireland.  Her flight had lasted 14 hours, 56 minutes.

“Have you flown far?” he asked.

“From America,” she answered.

The world applauded.  Earhart received a Gold Medal from the National Geographic Society, and Congress presented her with a Distinguished Flying Cross, the first ever given to a woman.


Earhart
Earhart after crossing the Atlantic.

To Fly Around the World

One goal remained, however, and it was to fly around the world.  “I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system, and I hope this trip is it,” Earhart said

On May 21, 1937, she and famed navigator Fred Noonan, departed Oakland, California in a twin-engine Lockheed 10E Electra on an eastbound flight to circle the world.

She flew to Puerto Rico, South America, crossed the Atlantic to Africa, then flew on to India and Southeast Asia.

On June 29, Earhart reached Lae, New Guinea.  She had already flown 22,000 miles; only 7,000 miles remained before reaching Oakland, California.

 

Howland Island

On the morning of July 2, Earhart departed Lae on a course for Howland Island, a 640-acre speck of coral 2,556 miles away, where she would refuel.  Near the island was the US Coast Guard cutter Itasca, acting as a radio contact for Earhart.

Nineteen-and-a-half hours after taking off, Earhart reported to the Itasca, “We must be on you, but we cannot see you, but gas is running low … been unable to reach you by radio ….”

Fifteen minutes later Earhart made her last radio contact:  “We are on the line position 157-337, will repeat this message … We are running north and south.”

Then silence.

Several hours later the Itasca concluded that Earhart had ditched into the ocean.  A search was launched, but nothing was found.


Amelia Earheart
On display at the Museum of Flight at Seattle’s Boeing Field, there is a replica of the Lockheed 10E Electra that Amelia Earhart flew when she attempted to circumnavigate the world. The crumpled piece of metal is from the original plane she flew.

The Meaning of Amelia Earhart Day

In the last letter to her husband, Earhart wrote the following:

“Please know that I am quite aware of the hazards.  I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried.  When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge for others.”

Today is about women not taking second chair to a man.

 

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