Trailblazers: Amelia Earhart
By Brooke Lehmann
The lean and statuesque physique of Amelia Earhart, her cropped hair and trademark leather jacket, is a vision of female freedom personified, but there is more to explore about this famous aviatrix.
Could a pot of freckle cream be the clue to her disappearance over the Pacific ocean blue? And what to say of the First Lady of Aviation who was self-conscious about her spotted visage?
Seventy-five years after she vanished with navigator Fred Noonan, a new exploration has been launched by the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), in the hope of finding answers to what happened to a woman who changed the history of aviation as we knew it.
Born on the 24th of July 1897, Amelia Mary Earhart was to become the eldest of two: her younger sister being her happy follower in many of their reckless childhood adventures. Earhart wasn't raised in any conventional manner, often quoted as being encouraged to explore areas mainly restricted to her male counterparts. She became so accustomed to this notion, that she was often seen hunting with a .22 rifle, climbing trees and engaging in other rather unorthodox activities for women.
As can be expected, her tomboyish nature carried over into her fascination with flying. Initially unmoved by her first experience of an aeroplane, she described it as “a thing of rusty wire and wood and looked not at all interesting”. Ultimately it was her first flight many years later that ignited her passion beyond reclaim. “By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly,” she said.
Tenacity had always been a prominent characteristic of Earhart's and soon displayed itself in the saving and purchasing of her first plane, a second-hand bright yellow Kinner Airster – a two-seater biplane – aptly naming it the 'Canary'.
She received flying lessons between 1921 and 1922, from Neta Snook, the first female to graduate from the Curtis School of Aviation, and finally acquired her pilot's license in October 1922. Not long after receiving her license, Earhart set a women's altitude record of 4, 200 metres.
Several years later, in April 1928, Earhart received a call requesting her to accompany pilot Wilmer Stultz and co-pilot/mechanic Louis E. Gordon on a flight that would crown her the first woman to fly the Atlantic. This became one of the most momentous occasions in aviation history, however, the humble Earhart referred to her presence on the flight as “just baggage”.
This journey she would manage solo in May 1932, ultimately receiving a National Geographic Medal from President Herbert Hoover, also the Distinguished Flying Cross from the U.S Congress, making her the first woman to receive the prestigious award.
Aside from setting two other records between her two Atlantic journeys (one was the woman's speed record of 291 kph on July 6, 1930, and the other the autogiro altitude record of 5,623.8 metres on April 8, 1931), Earhart co-founded the organisation, the "Ninety-Nines", which was focused on women's aviation and opportunities in the field.
Earhart was often a spokesperson for women and their opportunities in unconventional areas understanding that, “Women must pay for everything. They do get more glory than men for comparable feats, but, they also get more notoriety when they crash”.
Her opinion of her own career in the predominantly male territory of aviation was mirrored in a statement she gave in an interview with The Journal Gazette in 1935: “My flights haven't meant anything toward the scientific advancement of aviation, but they proved that women can fly,” she said.
Her progressive ideas were elucidated upon her marriage to American publisher George Palmer Putnam on February 7, 1931. The two had formed a close relationship after working together in preparation for her initial Atlantic crossing.
Having been proposed to six times before agreeing to the marriage, Earhart wrote to her soon to be husband on the day of the wedding, making sure that he understood there was to be no “midaevil [sic] code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly”.
Earhart never let herself be referred to as 'Mrs. Putnam', continuing to use her maiden name for the rest of her career and referred to her marriage as a 'partnership' with 'dual control'.
More than a year later on August 24-25, 1932 , Earhart set the women's non-stop transcontinental speed record at 19 hours and 5 minutes, also becoming the first woman to fly solo coast-to-coast. Later, in July 1933, she set a new transcontinental speed record making the same journey she had in 1932, in a record time of 17 hours and 7 minutes. The last record she ever set before her disappearance in 1937, was in January 1935, when she became the first woman to make a solo long-distance flight over the Pacific Ocean.
Earhart had long desired to be the first person (either male or female) to fly around the world at its widest – along the equator. She acquired a new plane for the taxing journey, a Lockheed Model 10EElectra. After much preparation, she made her first attempt in March 1937, however, after extensive damage to the plane she was forced to return home and try again.
Her final attempt began on May 20, 1937. She was accompanied by navigator Fred Noonan, and with only 11, 265 kilometres left on their journey, their next stop was Howland Island, a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean.
Many theories abound as to what happened next, although what can be maintained, is that weather conditions were extreme and from a final radio message, the duo were unable to find the island and their fuel was running low. A search party was immediately dispatched by President Franklin Roosevelt, but nothing was found and, begrudgingly, the search was ended.
No conclusive evidence has ever been gathered as to what happened to Earhart and Noonan after their disappearance, however, according to Richard Gillespie, head of TIGHAR and leader for the new expedition, Niku VII, there is reason to believe the duo made it to the small island Nikumaroro in Kiribati and managed to survive there for a time.
The US$2 million expedition that set out from Hawaii on July 3, 2012, hopes to use extensive equipment to search the island and surrounding ocean in a bid to finally solve one of the largest mysteries of the twentieth century. Gillespie has stated that if any debris is to be found it will be photographed and documented in order for a future expedition to retrieve any items properly.
With the possibility looming of a final conclusion to the life of an inspirational pioneer for women and aviation alike, only one thing can remain: the untainted persona of Amelia Earhart. She was not only an exceptional pilot, but an independent woman, who was tenacious, progressive, inspirational, and unshaken.
She was well aware of the dangers of her career, writing to her husband on one occasion, “Please know 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 to others”.
Her avant-garde demeanour was one that created admirers the world over. As historian and pilot Bill Decker so aptly said, “She was a force of nature”.