Declared dead in 1939, Amelia Earhart became famous for her mysterious disappearance somewhere over the central Pacific Ocean. As of March 2022, no one knows what happened to the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and her navigator, Fred Noonan (1893-declared dead 1938). Despite her early death or disappearance, Earhart set many aviation records and helped promote commercial air travel, upon which the world heavily relies today.
Amelia Mary Earhart was born on 24th June 1897 in Kansas, where she developed a tomboy spirit of adventure, frequently climbing trees, collecting insects and hunting rats with a rifle. On one occasion, the girls’ uncle helped them construct a rollercoaster out of a ramp, which inadvertently gave Earhart her first taste of flying. After crash landing, tearing her dress and bursting her lip, Earhart exclaimed, “It’s just like flying!” Ironically, the first time Earhart encountered an aeroplane, she described it as “a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting.”
Throughout Earhart’s childhood and teenage years, she kept a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings about inspiring women aspiring to become one herself. In 1917, Earhart trained as a nurse’s aide with the Red Cross, which mostly entailed preparing food and prescribing medicine to wounded American soldiers. In 1918, while working at the Spadina Military Hospital in Toronto, Earhart caught the Spanish flu, which developed into maxillary sinusitis. The chronic condition frequently returned, which made travelling in aeroplanes challenging. She often needed a drainage tube to remove excess fluid from her sinuses.
After recovering from the flu, Earhart visited the Canadian National Exhibition, where she watched a flying exhibition. In an attempt to scare her, the pilot dived at Earhart and her friend, but Earhart remained fascinated by the vehicle and felt no fear. In 1920, Earhart had the opportunity to experience flying with Frank Hawks (1897-1938), a WW1 pilot. From that moment, Earhart knew she wanted to become a pilot. After saving $1,000 for lessons, Earhart began training on 3rd January 1921 with Neta Snook Southern (1896-1991), the first woman accepted at the Curtiss Flying School in Virginia.
After six months of gruelling training, Earhart purchased her first plane, a secondhand bright yellow Kinner Airster biplane, which she nicknamed “The Canary”. The Kinner Airster was designed by Bert Kinner (1882-1957) in 1920. It seated two people and could reach speeds up to 85 mph (137 km/h). In 1922, Earhart flew her plane to 14,000 feet (4,300 m), breaking the women’s world record. The following year, she became the 16th woman in the USA to be issued a pilot’s licence.
In 1927, American aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902-74) made the first solo flight across the Atlantic ocean. Female aviator, Amy Guest (1873–1959), expressed interest in becoming the first woman to achieve the feat but decided it was too dangerous. Instead, Guest offered to sponsor the project and Earhart was nominated as the pilot. Inexperienced with aircraft suitable for flying such long distances, Earhart accompanied Wilmer Stultz (1900-29) on a flight from Newfoundland to Wales. Realising she knew little about the plane, Earhart felt like a passenger rather than a co-pilot.
Although Earhart needed a lot of training before taking on the solo challenge, her flight with Stultz gained attention in American newspapers and magazines. Dubbing her “Lady Lindy”, in reference to the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic, the press elevated Earhart to celebrity status, nicknaming her “Queen of the Air” and following her training progress. Soon, Earhart was giving lectures, publishing books and advertising merchandise. Cigarette, clothing and luggage brands paid Earhart to advertise their products stamped with her initials, A.E.
The money earned through advertising helped Earhart finance her flying. She encouraged other women to enter the field and became one of the first aviators to promote commercial air travel. Earhart invested both time and money in setting up flight services between New York and Washington D.C. and acted as Vice President of National Airways, which flew between states in the North East of America.
In August 1928, Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the North American continent and back. Following this, she entered the first Santa Monica-to-Cleveland Women’s Air Derby, nicknamed the “Powder Puff Derby”. Earhart finished third in the “heavy” division after the woman ahead of her crashlanded.
In 1930, Earhart joined the National Aeronautic Association and persuaded them to separate women’s and men’s records to give women a chance to set their own. Subsequently, Earhart set the women’s world record for altitude at 18,415 feet (5,613 m). Although some of these flying stunts were dangerous, Earhart proved flying was not just an activity for men. She became the first president of the Ninety-Nines: International Organization of Women Pilots, which provided mentoring and flight opportunities for women.
Between 1929 and 1930, George P. Putnam (1887-1950), the American publisher that nominated Earhart for the first female solo transatlantic flight, asked her to marry him six times. Despite refusing his many proposals, Earhart gave in, and they married on 7th February 1931, on the condition that they both have “dual control” of their relationship. Earhart also insisted on keeping her surname, causing newspapers to jokingly refer to her husband as “Mr Earhart”.
Finally, the day arrived for Earhart to attempt her first transatlantic crossing. With the help of her technical adviser Bernt Balchen (1889-1973), a Norwegian aviator, Earhart prepared her plane and plotted a route from Newfoundland to Paris. Earhart chose to fly a Lockheed Vega, which could usually carry six passengers. With a wingspan of 41 ft (12 m), the bright red plane could reach a top speed of 185 mph (298 km/h).
The flight, which lasted 14 hours, 56 minutes, did not go exactly as planned. Due to strong winds and mechanical problems, Earhart did not make it as far as France. Instead, the conditions forced her to land in a field in Culmore, near Derry, Northern Ireland. Two farmers witnessed the landing and asked, “Have you flown far?” To which Earhart replied, “From America.”
Following the successful flight, Earhart received many awards as the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. The US Congress awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross, officially a military badge given to those who distinguish themselves “by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” The French government gave Earhart the Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honor, and President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) presented her with the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society.
Earhart’s flight increased her celebrity status, and she became acquainted with many notable people, including Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), who became the President of the USA in 1933. The White House invited Earhart and Putnam to dinner, where Earhart developed a close friendship with the First Lady, Eleanor (1884-1962). During the meal, Earhart spontaneously suggested she and the First Lady take a flight to Baltimore and back, which they promptly did, still wearing their formal gowns.
Earhart continued to conduct solo flights, becoming the first aviator to fly solo from Hawaii to California in 1935. Later that year, she flew solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City, then Mexico City to New Jersey, where crowds turned up to watch her land. She also participated in the 1935 Bendix Trophy Race, finishing 5th after a journey of fog and thunderstorms. By the end of 1935, Earhart had set seven women’s speed and distance aviation records and fixed her eyes on her next challenge: circumnavigating the globe.
Aviators had already flown around the world before, but Earhart planned a longer route that followed the 29,000 miles (47,000 km) equator. In 1936, Earhart ordered a Lockheed Electra 10E to her exact specifications. Earhart asked Captain Harry Manning (1897-1974) to be her navigator. Manning was a mariner as well as an aviator and had captained the President Roosevelt. After a test flight, Earhart’s husband persuaded her to take on a second navigator, so room was made in the plane for Fred Noonan (1893-1937) to join the crew.
On 17th March 1937, Earhart, Manning and Noonan flew the first leg of the journey from California to Hawaii. Also on board was a technical advisor, Paul Mantz (1903-65), famous for his Hollywood plane stunts. After landing in Hawaii, the aircraft needed servicing due to problems with the propellor. After three days, the team were ready to continue their voyage, only for the landing gear to collapse during take-off. Earhart thought the tyre may have blown, but Mantz stated it was a pilot error.
After shipping the damaged aircraft back to the mainland, Manning and Mantz ended their association with the project, leaving Earhart and Noonan to make plans for a second attempt. Unfortunately, they discovered too late that neither was a skilled radio operator.
On 20th May 1937, Earhart and Noonan set off on their second attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Due to weather conditions, they chose to follow the plotted route in reverse. After setting off from California, they travelled to Arizona, Louisiana and Florida before leaving the States and landing in Puerto Rica. From there, they visited Venezuela, Suriname and Brazil, then headed to Senegal in Africa. In Africa, they stopped in French Sudan (now Mali), French Equatorial Africa (Chad), Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (Sudan), and Italian East Africa (Eritrea).
From Africa, Earhart and Noonan made the first-ever non-stop flight from the Red Sea to India. The journey continued to go well as they travelled through Burma (Myanmar), Siam (Thailand), the Straits Settlements (Singapore) and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). A monsoon delayed them for a few days before travelling to another part of the Dutch East Indies. Unfortunately, Earhart fell ill with dysentery on 25th June, so they did not fly that day. Instead, repairs were made to the plane, ready for their trip to Australia.
After landing in Darwin, Australia, where they made further repairs and removed the parachutes to lighten the plane, Earhart and Noonan travelled to Lae in New Guinea (Papua New Guinea). With only three more stops before reaching home, they set off to Howland Island, just north of the equator in the Pacific Ocean. They never arrived.
No one knows for certain what happened to Earhart and Noonan. During the flight, Earhart contacted the United States Coast Guard stationed at Howland Island, but it soon became clear she could not hear their response. The last message they received from the plane said, “We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait… We are running on line north and south.”
An hour after Earhart’s final message, searches were made in the vicinity of Howland Island for the missing plane. The information Earhart provided suggested they were flying North North West of the island, but the Coast Guard found nothing and extended the search to the North East and North West. After three days of searching, the US Navy arrived to assist. Believing Earhart must have been mistaken about her location, the search and rescue team directed their attention to the Phoenix Islands south of Howland Island. One theory was that the plane landed on or near Gardner Island (Nikumaroro), an uninhabited island, but the naval aircraft sent to scout the area found no signs of life.
After spending $4 million searching for Earhart and Noonan, the search and rescue mission was deemed too expensive and abandoned. They were “declared death in absentia“, but Earhart’s husband refused to give up. Putnam financed a private search of the Pacific ocean and its islands, including the Phoenix Islands, Christmas Island (Kiritimati), Fanning Island (Tabuaeran), the Gilbert Islands, and the Marshall Islands. No trace of the plane or its occupants were found, and Earhart was declared legally dead on 5th January 1939.
The disappearance of Amelia Earhart remains a mystery. Several theories about her fate have developed. The crash-and-sink theory suggests the plane ran out of fuel and plummetted into the sea. By the time search and rescue teams reached the area, the plane may have been deep beneath the surface.
One hypothesis suggests the plane landed on Gardner Island, and the search team failed to notice them. Unfortunately, future searches of the island have not found any evidence to prove this theory. Conspiracy theorists propose the Japanese captured and executed the pair after landing on Saipan in the North Mariana Islands. Again, there is no evidence of this.
Another theory suggests Earhart turned back to Papua New Guinea but crashed before reaching the airfield. A more ludicrous idea is Earhart survived, returned to the United States and assumed a new identity. For a brief time, Irene Craigmile Bolam (1904-82) of New Jersey was accused of such allegations due to similarities of appearance, but after Bolam took legal action, the claim was dropped.
Due to her celebrity status, Earhart’s disappearance shocked the world more than the unknown fate of her flight partner. Following her death, Earhart has received more honours than during her short life, including being listed as a posthumous member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame (1968) and the National Women’s Hall of Fame (1973). Several places are named after Earhart, including the Amelia Earhart Centre And Wildlife Sanctuary in Northern Ireland, the SS Amelia Earhart (since wrecked), the Amelia Earhart Airport in Kansas, the minor planet 3895 Earhart, Amelia Earhart Bridge in Kansas, the Amelia Earhart Dam in Massachusetts, and the North Hollywood Amelia Earhart Regional Library.
Since Earhart attempted to circumnavigate the Earth, several people have completed the circuit in her honour. Ann Dearing Holtgren Pellegreno (b. 1937) completed the planned route in 1967 and dropped a wreath in Earhart’s honour over Howland Island. Linda Finch (b. 1951) followed suit in 1997. In 2013, the aptly named Amelia Rose Earhart (b. 1983) followed the flight path in a single-engine plane. In the same year, the young pilot established the Fly With Amelia Foundation, which grants scholarships to girls ages 16 to 18.
Earhart’s mysterious disappearance remains one of the world’s top unsolved mysteries. There is every chance her remains may be found in the future, but this will not end the world’s fascination with the pilot. Earhart’s achievements were not just for herself but for women as well. She proved that women could be pilots, could fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, could fly non-stop from one side of America to the other, and could circumnavigate the globe. Although she did not achieve the latter, she encouraged other women to attempt the feat. Jerrie Mock (1925-2014) became the first woman to do so in 1964, although following a different route.
Amelia Earhart will be remembered for her disappearance and achievements, whether in books, films or memorials. She remains an inspiration for female pilots around the world. Women make up only 9.02% of pilots and other aviation personnel. Yet, with encouragement from organisations, such as the Fly With Amelia Foundation, this number is destined to rise.