Biography of Amelia Earhart, Pioneering Woman Pilot

Amelia Earhart and Her Plane
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Amelia Earhart (born Amelia Mary Earhart; July 24, 1897–July 2, 1937 [date of disappearance]) was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean and the first person to make a solo flight across both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. She also set several height and speed records in an airplane. Despite all these records, Amelia Earhart is perhaps best remembered for her mysterious disappearance on July 2, 1937, which has become one of the enduring mysteries of the 20th century.

Fast Facts: Amelia Earhart

  • Known For: The first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, the first person to make a solo flight across both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, mysteriously disappeared flying over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937
  • Also Known As: Amelia Mary Earhart, Lady Lindy
  • Born: July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas
  • Parents: Amy and Edwin Earhart
  • Died: Date unknown; Earhart's plane vanished on July 2, 1937
  • Education: Hyde Park High School, Ogontz School
  • Published Works: "20 Hrs., 40 Min.: Our Flight in the Friendship," "The Fun of It"
  • Awards and Honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honor, Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society
  • Spouse: George Putnam
  • Notable Quote: “The most effective way to do it is to do it.” 

Early Life

Amelia Mary Earhart was born in 1897 in Atchison, Kansas to Amy and Edwin Earhart. Her father was a lawyer for a railroad company, a job which required frequent moving, and so Amelia Earhart and her sister lived with her grandparents until Amelia was 12.

As a teenager, Amelia moved around with her parents for a few years, until her father lost his job due to a drinking problem. Tired of her husband’s alcoholism and the family’s increasing money troubles, Amy Earhart moved herself and her daughters to Chicago, leaving their father behind in Minnesota.

Earhart graduated from Chicago’s Hyde Park High School and went on to the Ogontz School in Philadelphia. She soon dropped out to become a nurse for returning World War I soldiers and for victims of the influenza epidemic of 1918. She made several attempts to study medicine and she worked as a social worker, but once she discovered flying, aviation became her sole passion.

First Flights

In 1920, when she was 23 years old, Earhart developed an interest in airplanes. While visiting her father in California, she attended an air show and decided to try flying for herself.

Earhart took her first flying lesson in 1921. She received her “Aviator Pilot” certification from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale on May 16, 1921.

Working several jobs, Earhart saved up the money to buy her own airplane, a small Kinner Airster she called the "Canary." In the "Canary," she broke the women’s altitude record in 1922 by becoming the first woman to reach 14,000 feet in an airplane.

The First Woman to Fly Over the Atlantic

In 1927, aviator Charles Lindbergh made history by becoming the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic, from the U.S. to England. A year later, publisher George Putnam tapped Amelia Earhart to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic—as a passenger. The pilot and navigator were both men.

On June 17, 1928, the journey began when the "Friendship," a Fokker F7, took off from Newfoundland bound for England. Ice and fog made the trip difficult and Earhart spent much of the flight scribbling notes in a journal, while Bill Stultz and Louis Gordon handled the plane.

20 Hours and 40 Minutes in the Air

On June 18, 1928, after 20 hours and 40 minutes in the air, the plane landed in South Wales. Although Earhart said she did not contribute any more to the flight than “a sack of potatoes” would have, the press saw her accomplishment differently. They started calling Earhart “Lady Lindy,” after Charles Lindbergh.

Amelia Earhart became an instant celebrity as a woman aviator. Shortly after her trip, Earhart published the book "20 Hrs., 40 Min.: Our Flight in the Friendship," which detailed her experiences. She began to give lectures and fly in shows, again setting records.

More Record-Breaking

In August 1928 Earhart flew solo across the United States and back—the first time a female pilot had made the journey alone. In 1929, she founded and participated in the Woman’s Air Derby, an airplane race from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio. Earhart finished third, behind noted pilots Louise Thaden and Gladys O’Donnell.

In 1931, Earhart married George Putnam. This same year she co-founded a professional international organization for female pilots. Earhart was the first president. The Ninety-Niners, named because it originally had 99 members, still represents and supports female pilots today. Earhart published a second book about her accomplishments, "The Fun of It," in 1932.

Solo Across the Ocean

Having won multiple competitions, flown in air shows, and set new altitude records, Earhart began looking for a bigger challenge. In 1932, she decided to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. On May 20, 1932, she took off again from Newfoundland, piloting a small Lockheed Vega.

It was a dangerous trip: Clouds and fog made it difficult to navigate, her plane’s wings became covered with ice, and the plane developed a fuel leak about two-thirds of the way across the ocean. Worse, the altimeter stopped working, so Earhart had no idea how far above the ocean’s surface her plane was—a situation that nearly resulted in her crashing into the Atlantic Ocean.

Touched Down in a Sheep Pasture in Ireland

In serious danger, Earhart abandoned her plans to land at Southampton, England, and made for the first bit of land she saw. She touched down in a sheep pasture in Ireland on May 21, 1932, becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and the first-ever person to fly across the Atlantic twice.

The solo Atlantic crossing was followed by more book deals, meetings with heads of state, and a lecture tour, as well as more flying competitions. In 1935, Earhart made a solo flight from Hawaii to Oakland, California, becoming the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland. This trip also made Earhart the first person to fly solo across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

New Goals

Not long after making her Pacific flight in 1935, Amelia Earhart decided she wanted to try flying around the entire world. A U.S. Army Air Force crew had made the trip in 1924 and male aviator Wiley Post flew around the world by himself in 1931 and 1933.

But Earhart had two new goals. First, she wanted to be the first woman to fly solo around the world. Second, she wanted to fly around the world at or near the equator, the planet’s widest point: The previous flights had both circled the world much closer to the North Pole, where the distance was shortest.

The Most Difficult Point in the Trip

Earhart and her navigator, Frank Noonan, plotted their course around the world. The most difficult point in the trip would be the flight from Papua New Guinea to Hawaii because it required a fuel stop at Howland’s Island, a small coral island about 1,700 miles west of Hawaii. Aviation maps were poor at the time and the island would be difficult to find from the air, but the fuel stop was necessary.

During last minute preparation for the flight, Earhart decided not to take the full-sized radio antenna that Lockheed recommended, instead opting for a smaller antenna. The new antenna was lighter, but it also could not transmit or receive signals as well, especially in bad weather.

The First Leg of Their Trip

On May 21, 1937, Amelia Earhart and Frank Noonan took off from Oakland, California, on the first leg of their trip. The plane landed first in Puerto Rico and then in several other locations in the Caribbean before heading to Senegal. They crossed Africa, stopping several times for fuel and supplies, then went on to Eritrea, India, Burma, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. There, Earhart and Noonan prepared for the toughest stretch of the trip—the landing at Howland’s Island.

Since every pound in the plane meant more fuel used, Earhart removed every non-essential item—even the parachutes. The plane was checked by mechanics to ensure it was in top condition. However, Earhart and Noonan had been flying for over a month straight by this time and both were tired.

Last Leg

On July 2, 1937, Earhart’s plane left Papua New Guinea heading toward Howland’s Island. For the first seven hours, Earhart and Noonan stayed in radio contact with the airstrip in Papua New Guinea.

After that, they made intermittent radio contact with a Coast Guard ship patrolling the waters below. However, the reception was poor and messages between the plane and the ship were frequently lost or garbled.

The Plane Disappears

Two hours after Earhart’s scheduled arrival at Howland’s Island, on July 2, 1937, the Coast Guard ship received a last static-filled message that indicated Earhart and Noonan could not see the ship or the island and they were almost out of fuel. The crew of the ship tried to signal the ship’s location by sending up black smoke, but the plane did not appear.

Neither the plane, Earhart, nor Noonan were ever seen or heard from again. Naval ships and aircraft began to search for Earhart's aircraft. On July 19, 1937, the naval ships and aircraft abandoned their search and in October 1937, Putnam abandoned his private search. In 1939, Amelia Earhart was declared legally dead in a court in California

Legacy

During her lifetime, Amelia Earhart captured the imagination of the public. As a woman daring to do what few women–or men–had done, at a time when the organized women's movement had virtually disappeared, she represented a woman willing to break out of traditional roles.

The mystery of what happened to Earhart, Noonan, and the plane has not yet been solved. Theories guess that they may have crashed over the ocean or crashed on Howland Island or a nearby island without the ability to contact help. Other theories have proposed that they were shot down by the Japanese, or were captured or killed by the Japanese.

In 1999, British archaeologists claimed to have found artifacts on a small island in the South Pacific that contained Earhart’s DNA, but the evidence is not conclusive. Near the plane’s last known location, the ocean reaches depths of 16,000 feet, well below the range of today’s deep-sea diving equipment. If the plane sank into those depths, it may never be recovered.

Sources

  • “Amelia Earhart.” AMERICAN HERITAGE, www.americanheritage.com/amelia-earhart.
  • Burke, John. Winged Legend: The Story of Amelia Earhart. Ballantine Books, 1971.
  • Loomis, Vincent V. Amelia Earhart, the Final Story. Random House, 1985.