The American aviator Amelia Mary Earhart Putnam (1897-1937) remains the world's best-known woman pilot long after her mysterious disappearance during a round-the-world flight in 1937.
Amelia Mary Earhart was born on July 24, 1897, the daughter of Edwin and Amy Otis Earhart. Until she was 12 she lived with her wealthy maternal grandparents, Alfred and Amelia Harres Otis, in Atcheson, Kansas, where she attended a private day school. Her summers were spent in Kansas City, Missouri, where her lawyer-father worked for the Rock Island Railroad.
In 1909 Amelia and her younger sister, Muriel, went to live with their parents in Des Moines, Iowa, where the railroad had transferred her father. Before completing high school she also attended schools in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Springfield, Illinois, while her father fought a losing battle against alcoholism. His failure and its consequent humiliation for her were the root of Amelia's lifelong dislike of alcohol and desire for financial security.
Amy Earhart left Edwin in Springfield in 1914, taking her daughters with her to live with friends in Chicago, where Amelia was graduated from Hyde Park School in 1915. The yearbook described her as "A.E.—the girl in brown (her favorite color) who walks alone."
A year later, after Amy Earhart received an inheritance from the estate of her mother, she sent Amelia to Ogontz School in Philadelphia, an exclusive high school and junior college. During Christmas vacation of her second year there Amelia went to Toronto, Canada, where Muriel was attending a private school. In Toronto Amelia saw her first amputees, returning wounded from World War I. She immediately refused to return to Ogontz and became a volunteer nurse in a hospital for veterans where she worked until after the armistice of 1918. The experience made her an ardent, life-long pacifist.
From Toronto Earhart went to live with her mother and sister in Northampton, Massachusetts, where her sister was attending Smith College. In the fall of 1919 she entered Columbia University, but left after one year to join her parents, who had reconciled and were living in Los Angeles.
In the winter of 1920 Earhart saw her first air show and took her first airplane ride. "As soon as we left the ground," she said, "I knew I had to fly." She took lessons at Bert Kinner's airfield on Long Beach Boulevard in Los Angeles from a woman—Neta Snooks—and on December 15, 1921, received her license from the National Aeronautics Association (NAA). By working part-time as a file clerk, office assistant, photographer, and truck driver, and with some help from her mother, Earhart eventually was able to buy her own plane. However, she was unable to earn enough to continue what was an expensive hobby.
In 1924, when her parents separated again, she sold her plane and bought a car in which she drove her mother to Boston where her sister was teaching school. Soon after that Earhart re-enrolled at Columbia but lacked the money to continue for more than one year. She returned to Boston where she became a social worker in a settlement house, joined the NAA, and continued to fly in her spare time.
In 1928 Earhart accepted an offer to join the crew of a flight across the Atlantic. The flight was the scheme of George Palmer Putnam, editor of WE, Charles Lindbergh's book about how he became, in 1927, the first person to fly across the Atlantic alone. The enterprising Putnam chose her for his "Lady Lindy" because of her flying experience, her education, and her lady-like appearance. Along with pilot Wilmer Stultz and mechanic Louis Gordon, she crossed the Atlantic (from Newfoundland to Wales) on June 18-19, 1928. Although she never once touched the controls (she described herself afterward as little more than a "sack of potatoes"), Earhart became world-renowned as "the first woman to fly the Atlantic."
From that time Putnam became Earhart's manager and, in 1931, her husband. He arranged all her flying engagements, many followed by often strenuous cross-country lecture tours (at one point, 29 tours in 31 days) for maximum publicity. However Earhart did initiate one flight of her own. Resenting reports that she was largely a puppet figure created by her publicist husband and something less than a competent aviator, she piloted a tiny, single-engine Lockheed Electra from Newfoundland to Ireland to become—on May 20-21, 1932, and five years after Lindbergh—the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.
During the scarcely more than five years remaining in her life, Earhart acted as a tireless advocate for commercial aviation and for women's rights. The numerous flying records she amassed included:
1931: Altitude record in an autogiro
First person to fly an autogiro across the United States and back
1932: Fastest non-stop transcontinental flight by a woman
1933: Breaks her own transcontinental speed record
1935: First person to fly solo across the Pacific from Hawaii to California
First person to fly solo from Los Angeles to Mexico
Breaks speed record for non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey
1937: Sets speed record for east-west crossing from Oakland to Honolulu
Honors and awards she received included the Distinguished Flying Cross; Cross of the Knight of the Legion of Honor, from the French Government; Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society; and the Harmon Trophy as America's outstanding airwoman in 1932, 1933, 1934, and 1935.
On July 2, 1937, 22 days before her 40th birthday and having already completed 22,000 miles of an attempt to circumnavigate the earth, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared over the Pacific somewhere between Lae, New Guinea, and Howland Island. The most extensive search ever conducted by the U.S. Navy for a single missing plane sighted neither plane nor crew. Subsequent searches since that time have been equally unsuccessful. In 1992, an expedition found certain objects (a shoe and a metal plate) on the small atoll of Nikumaroro south of Howland, which could have been left by Earhart and Noonan. In 1997 another female pilot, Linda Finch, recreated Earhart's final flight in an around the world tribute entitled "World Flight 97." The event took place on what would have been Earhart's 100th birthday. Finch successfully completed her voyage, the identical route that Earhart would have flown, around the world.
Further Reading on Amelia Mary Earhart
The first biography to tell a life story rather than a mystery tale of disappearance was Doris L. Rich, Amelia Earhart: A Biography (1989). Mary S. Lovell's The Sound of Wings (1989) is an interesting study of Putnam as well as Earhart, concluding with his death in 1950. Earhart's sister, Muriel Morrissey, in Courage Is the Price (1963) and Jean Backus in Letters from Amelia (1982) focus on family relationships. Dick Strippel's Amelia Earhart: The Myth and the Reality (1972) debunks the numerous theories based on Earhart's supposed capture and/or execution by the Japanese as well as claims she was acting as a spy for the U.S. Government. Brief, accurate biographies are in the Smithsonian Institution studies United States Women in Aviation (1919-1929) by Kathleen Brooks-Pazmany (1983) and United States Women in Aviation (1929-1940) by Claudia M. Oakes (1978). See also Susan Ware, Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Feminism (1994). Information on Linda Finch can be obtained from http://www.worldflight.com. (July 1997).