In May of 1937, a woman pilot was preparing for an around-the-world flight near the Equator. Opinions were mixed as to whether the pilot would safely complete the flight, and she knew that she faced an imposing challenge. On the night before she began her journey, she included the following remarks about her trip in a brief letter to her husband: “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 to others.” Along with her navigator, the pilot eventually became lost at sea and, despite an extensive sea and land search, was never found. The letter’s recipient was the New York publisher George Putnam. Its author was—of course—Amelia Earhart.
Amelia Mary Earhart was born on July 24, 1897, in Atchison, Kansas, the daughter of Edwin, a lawyer, and Amy Otis Earhart. In December 1899, Amelia’s sister Grace Muriel—usually referred to as just Muriel—was born. Until Amelia was twelve years old, Muriel and she lived with their mother’s parents, Alfred and Amelia Otis. Both daughters attended the private College Preparatory School in Atchison but spent summers with their parents in Kansas City, Missouri, where Mr. Earhart worked at settling railroad claims.
In 1908, the two daughters moved to Des Moines, Iowa, to live with their parents because Mr. Earhart had taken a job with the Rock Island Railroad there. While living in Des Moines, ten-year-old Amelia saw her first airplane at the Iowa State Fair, but she was not impressed with its appearance. She later described the plane as follows: “It was a thing of rusty wire and wood, and looked not at all interesting.”
In the 1910s, Mr. Earhart started drinking heavily. He lost his job and had to enter a sanatorium for a month. In 1913, the Earharts moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where Amelia continued with high school. In 1914, the family moved again to Springfield, Illinois. In Springfield, Mr. Earhart learned that a job he hoped to take had fallen through. Reacting to this and previous disappointments, Mrs. Earhart moved with her two daughters to live with friends in Chicago, Illinois. A year later, Amelia graduated from Hyde Park High School on 62nd Street in that city.
In 1916, Mrs. Earhart used some inheritance money to send her older daughter to the upscale Ogontz School for Young Ladies in Rydal, Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Muriel started attending school at St. Margaret’s College in Toronto, Canada. During the Christmas vacation of her senior year in Rydal, Amelia visited Muriel in Toronto. While there, Amelia encountered wounded soldiers returning to Canada from the World War I battlefields and was shocked at their condition. Instead of completing school in Rydal, she became a volunteer nurse at Spadina Military Convalescent Hospital in Toronto.
After the war ended, Amelia moved to Northampton, Massachusetts. Muriel had started attending Smith College, and their mother already had relocated to the town to be near her younger daughter. Amelia herself wanted to continue her education, so in 1919 she started attending Columbia University in New York City. During her time there, her parents reconciled and moved to Los Angeles, California. After just one semester at Columbia, she decided to move to Los Angeles to be with them. It was on the West Coast that Earhart first developed her interest in flying. In January 1921, she made her first flight with the aviation barnstormer Frank Hawks. (Hawks himself was an aviation pioneer. Born in Iowa, Hawks had attended college for two years, joined the air service and worked as a flight instructor at Love Field in Dallas, Texas, and then served as a pilot in World War I. After setting many aviation records over 20 plus years of flying, he died in an airplane crash in East Aurora, New York in 1938. )
By July 1921, Earhart had saved enough money to buy her first airplane, a Kinner Airster. Costing her $2,000, the Airster was a two-seat biplane with a three-cylinder, sixty-horsepower engine. Because of its bright yellow color, Earhart named her new plane “The Canary.” To pay for her plane and more flying lessons, Earhart worked at various jobs.
One little-known fact about the young flier is that she also was an avid poet. (Over the years she assembled a small body of rather passable work.) In 1921, the modern-thinking Earhart submitted four poems under the pen name of Emil Harte to a relatively new literary journal called Poetry, which had been founded to promote modernist verse. (Some poems later were lost in a house fire.) Although she failed to publish in the increasingly important journal, she succeeded at using her Airster to set a women’s altitude record of 14,000 feet in October of 1922 at Rogers Field in Los Angeles.
In 1923, Earhart became engaged to a man named Sam Chapman but ended the relationship with him in the summer of 1928. She also had to sell her first airplane. In 1924, however, she bought a second Kinner airplane but soon sold it to buy a Kissel roadster. In June of that year, she used the car to drive her mother and herself across America to Massachusetts, where they again could be near Muriel. Earhart’s parents finally divorced, and Earhart returned to Columbia University in September.
In May 1925, Earhart again left Columbia—this time for good. For the next few months, she taught English to foreign students and then worked as a companion in a hospital for the mentally disabled. In 1926, she began working part-time at the famous Denison House settlement house in Boston, teaching English to the poor children and their parents who used the house’s services. In the fall of 1927, she started working at Denison House full-time and took on more responsibility.
In the early 1920s, Earhart’s life and career seemed to involve one temporary job and/or relationship after another. Despite not finishing college or showing other signs of “settling down,” Earhart was maturing into a smart and capable person who knew more and more about what she wanted in life and started taking a more active role in shaping her future. For example, in 1927 she wrote to another pioneer in women’s aviation, Ruth Nichols, about forming an organization for women fliers. This group, known as “The Ninety-Nines” eventually started in 1929 and still exists.
Before the Ninety-Nines were formed, however, Earhart took her first big step in becoming the aviation legend that she is today. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize of $25,000, after becoming the first man to fly non-stop and alone from New York to Paris. In response to this feat, the flyer Amy Guest planned to become the first woman to cross the Atlantic by airplane. She later decided just to finance the flight and called on various associates to help realize this goal. As history would have it, Earhart’s future husband, the publisher George Putnam, along with Captain Hilton Railey, was one of those associates. They among others convinced Earhart to fly as a passenger onboard a Fokker F7 airplane named Friendship, equipped with pontoons. The technical consultant for the flight was none other than the polar explorer Richard E. Byrd.
On June 17, 1928, pilot Wilmer Stultz and mechanic Louis Gordon took off with Earhart from Trepassey Bay in Newfoundland and headed for Europe. Nearly twenty-one hours later, the party landed in Burry Port, Wales. As was the case with Lindbergh, all three persons on this flight became internationally famous. In England, Earhart danced with the Prince of Wales and bought an Avro Avian from another flyer, Lady Mary Heath. Again, as Lindbergh had done, Earhart and her associates returned to the United States on board a ship—not a plane—and received a hero’s welcome in New York City, complete with the key to the city and a ticker-tape parade.
Although Earhart considered herself little more than “a sack of potatoes” during the flight, she received an offer after offer to capitalize upon her fame. She published a book concerning the flight entitled 20 Hrs., 40 Mins; began a long book tour arranged by George Putnam, and became aviation editor for Cosmopolitan magazine. As well, in September and October of 1928, making multiple stops, she became the first woman to fly solo across the United States—and did so both ways.
The year 1929 became an even busier one for Earhart. The flier sold her Avian and bought a used Lockheed Vega airplane. According to Susan Butler’s biography, East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart, the used plane performed so poorly that Lockheed replaced it with a new one. Earhart used the newer plane to finish third in the first Women’s Air Derby race (from Santa Monica to Cleveland). She also became General Traffic Manager for Transcontinental Air Transport (which later became Trans World Airlines).
In 1930, Earhart took on even more business responsibilities. She took a public relations post with the Pennsylvania Railroad; helped to found the New York, Philadelphia, and Washington Airway Corporation; and became vice president of Ludington Airlines. In July, she set the world speed record for women by flying over 181 miles per hour, but could not enjoy this success for long because in September she lost her father to stomach cancer. However, in December, she became the first woman in America to fly an autogiro. (This type of aircraft is supported in flight by rotating, non-powered horizontal wings while a conventional propeller provides forward movement.)
When George Putnam first met Earhart, he was married to Dorothy Binney, part of a wealthy family that owned Binney & Smith, a chemical company in Peekskill, New York. (This company later moved to Easton, Pennsylvania, and has long been famous not for creating chemicals, but Crayola crayons!) However, the Putnams divorced in 1929, and in February 1931 Putnam and Earhart married.
Students of Earhart continue to debate how intimate the marriage was. After all, on her wedding day, the flier told Putnam in writing, among other things, “In our life together I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly . . . . Please let us not interfere with each other’s work or play, nor let the world see our private joys or disagreements.” After marrying, she also had a romantic relationship with Eugene Vidal—a military officer, a public servant under Franklin Roosevelt, and the father of the contemporary writer Gore Vidal. Whatever the marriage was like, Putnam avidly promoted his wife’s career (while keeping himself in the public eye too).
In the 1930s, not only did Earhart’s marriage take flight, but so did her career. In April 1931, she set the women’s altitude record of 18,415 feet in a Pitcairn autogiro. In May 1932, she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Three months later, she became the first woman to fly non-stop from one end of the United States to the other. (In doing so, she set a women’s non-stop transcontinental speed record by flying coast-to-coast in 19 hours, 5 minutes.) And in July 1933, Earhart broke her earlier transcontinental speed record by flying coast-to-coast in 17 hours, 7 minutes.
In 1935, Earhart again set or broke multiple records. In January, she became the first person—man or woman—to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii to the West Coast, landing in Oakland, California. This also was the first civilian flight to use a two-way radio. In April, she became the first person—again, man or woman—to fly solo from Los Angeles, California to Mexico City, Mexico. And in May, she became the first person to fly solo and non-stop from Mexico City to the New York metro area, landing in Newark, New Jersey. (This flight took 14 hours, 19 minutes.) Also in this year, Earhart began her brief association with Purdue University, providing career counseling to young women, speaking at public events, and advising the engineering school on aeronautics.
In July 1936, Purdue helped Earhart to buy a Lockheed Electra 10E. With this airplane, she began planning to fly around the world near the Equator. In early 1937, she found another financing source. According to the Purdue library’s official website, “to help finance Amelia’s world flight, George Putnam arranged for Gimbels in New York to sell letter covers that Amelia would carry with her, and, along the route, mail back to collectors. Ten thousand of the covers sold.”
To increase her safety margin for the overall flight, Earhart first planned to fly around the world from east to west. In March 1937, she, therefore, started the trip by flying from Oakland to Honolulu in the Electra. However, when she took off from Honolulu to head farther west, she ground looped the airplane and badly damaged it. The plane had to go back to a Lockheed repair plant for major repairs, and Earhart’s plan to fly east to the west now ended.
Now heading west to east, Earhart took off on May 21, 1937, from Oakland, and stopped in Burbank, Tucson, and New Orleans before arriving in Miami. She left the United States on June 1, stopping in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Suriname, and Brazil before making it to St. Louis, Senegal, on Africa’s west coast. She then flew across Africa, stopping in Mali, Chad, the Sudan, and Ethiopia. From Ethiopia, she flew to Pakistan and then India, marking the first time that anyone had flown from Africa to the Indian sub-continent. From India, Earhart flew on to Burma, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia before landing in Darwin, Australia, and then Lae, New Guinea. To this point, Earhart had flown roughly 22,000 miles.
For most of the trip, Earhart had been accompanied by the famous Pan American Airway’s navigator Fred Noonan. Despite the hazards of flight to this point, the biggest aviation challenge lay just ahead. The distance from Lae to their next stop—tiny and remote Howland Island in the South Pacific—was roughly 2,500 miles. To increase their chances of reaching the island, Earhart stripped her plane of excess weight and supplies to make room for extra fuel.
On July 2, 1937, Earhart and Noonan left Lae. Two U.S. Navy vessels sat in the Pacific between New Guinea and Howland Island to help with the flight, and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca was stationed near Howland to communicate with the flyers and direct them to the island.
Although Earhart set record after record over the years, she periodically suffered criticism about her flying skills. On May 21, 1932, for example, after she landed in Ireland during her trans-Atlantic flight, one newspaper ran this snide comment: “As we go to press, it appears that Mrs. Amelia Earhart Putnam has landed in Ireland after a non-stop flight from Newfoundland. She didn’t make Rome, as she hoped, or Paris, as Lindbergh did. We think it is an almost entirely silly and useless performance. About all, she has proved is that well-known phenomenon of nature that a girl can’t jump quite as far as a boy can.” Some people also criticized her for her multiple accidents, perhaps forgetting that even the revered Charles Lindbergh had crashed more than once.
Earhart’s disappearance merely increased the intensity of the debate over the quality of her flying skills. But as a cultural and historical figure, her position is clear. Doris Rich, in her book Amelia Earhart: A Biography, sums up Earhart’s legacy quite well: “Over the nine years spanning her first and last transoceanic flights, Amelia Earhart became one of the most famous women in the world. The private Amelia disliked that fame intensely. But the public Amelia played on it relentlessly as a platform on which to fight for her ideals of equality for women, international peace, and a world where flying would be commonplace, acceptable, and accessible to all. She lived—and died—in dogged pursuit of her vision, and by doing so brought it ever closer to reality.”