On this day in 1937 the renowned female pilot Amelia Earhart disappeared forever on the final leg of a record-breaking round the world trip. A champion of women’s rights, commercial aviation and exhibiting a general spirit of adventure, her mysterious death adds lustre to a glamour that she carries to this day.
Like many an adventurer before her, Earhart’s first explorations were as a child in her neighborhood. Born in 1897, she was a well-known tomboy in Atchinson, Kansas, and experienced her first flight in 1904 – thanks to a home-made ramp and a cardboard box. She would later describe this as a life-changing moment. She and her sister “Pidge” were both lucky in that their Mother Amy had no desire to turn them into “nice little girls” and encouraged dreams and interests normally reserved for boys. These idyllic days were interrupted, however, by the reality of an alcoholic father, the start of school and a move to urban Chicago – all of which caused her to take more of an interest in books and science than the people around her. One of her other interests was the keeping of a scrapbook full of newspaper cuttings about successful women in male-dominated fields, which might have inspired her to do her bit for the Allied Cause in World War 1.
In 1917, having finished school, she travelled to her sister’s new hometown of Toronto to help in a military hospital for many gruelling months until the steady stream of casualties finally ceased. The subsequent outbreak of Spanish Flu left her briefly in danger herself, and in need of a year of convalescence. Before she left, however, she attended an exhibition by a Canadian flying ace, and saw first hand the extraordinary developments in the science of flying that the war had caused. After another failed stab at education – this time at Columbia University – Amelia rejoined her parents – now in California – and her growing interest in flight lead to her father Edwin taking her to an airfield on Long Beach, where Frank Hawks – a future record-breaking pilot and war ace – gave her a ride. After his, she was determined to join him in the sky and worked three jobs until she was able to afford flying lessons. Her teacher was the brilliantly named “Neta” Snook, an extraordinary pioneering female aviator in her own right, who was the first woman to launch an aviation business.
Her latest student took to the difficult skill of flying with impressive speed – setting a female world record for altitude in 1923 and becoming only the 16th woman in history to gain an international flying license. Once again Earhart’s family regained her attention, however, as a perilous financial situation lead to a move to Massachusetts and a new focus on providing for them. Despite this setback, however, she wanted to carry on flying, and endeavored to find a way of making ends meet while doing it, by becoming a sales representative for aircraft in the area and becoming a newspaper columnist promoting aviation – particularly for women. By the time of Charles Lindburgh’s transatlantic flight in 1927, she was a local celebrity and extremely accomplished pilot. As a result, when a search to find the first woman capable of matching the feat ensued a year later, Earhart was the obvious choice. While at work on an unremarkable April day, she suddenly received a phone call asking her “would you like to fly the Atlantic?”
She did not pilot the plane that landed in Southampton to a rapturous reception, describing her role as being like a “sack of potatoes” but it did enormous good for her growing international profile. Soon, Earhart was the star and poster girl of a number of adverts for various products, and as an associate editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, had a forum for expressing her ideas. These ventures financed her solo flight across the Atlantic in August 1928, which made her a genuine international superstar. The following years were a blaze of increasing fame and glory, as races, high-profile flights and a tough and celebrated stance on women’s rights were widely publicised. At the same time, the respected publisher George Putnam asked her six times to marry him before she agreed with a warning that their relationship would involve “dual control” with no “Medieval code of faithfulness.”
More records were set – Mexico City to New York being one example – during those glory years in the first half of the 1930s. By the middle of the decade, only one great feat – never before attempted by a woman – remained, a flight all the way across the world. Though the feat had already been achieved by 1936 – Earhart’s route would be of unprecedented length and full of risk. An ultra-modern Lockheed Electra plane was built specially for her specifications, and the vastly experienced Fred Noonan and Harry Manning were chosen as her navigators. The first attempt in March 1937 was a disaster, however, and never got beyond Pearl Harbor before an unspectacular crash. Over the following months tweaks were made and Manning was left behind to make things more simple, with a new flightpath going over Africa and South America proposed before the second and final attempt departing on the 1st June.
To start with everything went smoothly, with successful stops and decent flying taking Earthart and Noonan 22000 miles to Lae, New Guinea by the 29th. Though this might sound slow, the first flight around the world (conducted by a team of US airmen in 1924) has taken 175 days, and Earhart was attempting it at record-breaking – and perhaps fatal – speed. After Lae, the next and final stop before their triumphant return to America was Howland Island, a tiny spit of rock in the middle of the Pacific. As the aircraft approached is island, Earhart was required to use her modern direction-finding system to spot it through the low clouds, but it had been fitted before just before flying and it is believed that she wasn’t entirely sure how to use it. An hour before her last broadcast she called out to the nearby ship Itasca, that was monitoring her progress, telling it that her gas was running low. The final transmission suggested that she believed to be at the location of Howland Island, then – suddenly – silence.
Though the Itasca let off great clouds of smoke to guide the plane, it was never seen gain. People quickly grew worried, and the resulting search cost 4 million dollars and was the most expensive in US history at this point. Nevertheless, though efforts by the navy and airforce continued for weeks, no signs of Earhart Noonan or the plane were ever found. Its pilot was confirmed legally dead in 1939, and historians are still uncertain about what happened. There are now two main hypotheses – that the plane was not refuelled properly at Lae and therefore crashed into the sea and sank – and that, having missed Howland, she flew to nearby Gardner Island and crashed there. There is some circumstantial evidence for both, though not enough to discount a final sensational theory that she landed on an island occupied by the Japanese Empire and was executed as a spy. One piece of evidence for this is the striking similarity between her Electra plane’s parts and those of the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero which saw a great deal of service in World War 2. Though her fate remains unknown, her legacy and glamour remain strong. The inspiration for 1000 female transport pilots in World War 2 and the receiver of countless posthumous honours, Earhart remains a relatable heroine for our own times.