“Flying might not be all plain sailing, but the fun of it is worth the price.” – Amelia Earhart.
Amelia Earhart is widely regarded as the most famous female aviator in the history of aviation, but who was this lady and why was she so famous? On 24 July 1897, Amelia Mary Earhart was born at her grandparents’ house in Kansas, in the USA. She was a bit of a tomboy and enjoyed outdoor activities, such as climbing trees and hunting. After a turbulent childhood and graduating from high school, she served as a nurse at a military hospital during World War I. She has been quoted as saying, “There for the first time I realised what the World War meant… I saw only the result of four years' desperate struggle: men without arms and legs, men who were paralysed and men who were blind...”
In December 1920, a famous barnstorming pilot, Frank Hawks, took Amelia along on a flight. Later on, Frank Hawks would become the first pilot to demonstrate in-flight refuelling and would eventually hold a number of aviation records. However, this particular flight was the first time that Amelia would leave terra firma. As soon as the aircraft left the ground, Amelia decided that she would also become a pilot. After overcoming some financial hurdles, Amelia began flight training in a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny. Her instructor was none other than Neta Snook, a pioneer female aviator. Amelia was not a natural pilot, but she persevered and soon earned her pilot’s licence. About a year later, she was able to buy her own aircraft: a Kinner Airster biplane.
Amelia set her first record when she flew this Airster to an altitude of 14 000 ft. At the time it was the highest a female pilot had ever been. She gradually became more involved in aviation and eventually started writing flying related articles for newspapers, primarily to promote aviation amongst women. In 1928, Amelia received a life-changing phone call from a publicist, who asked her whether she would like to partake in a groundbreaking transatlantic flight. After being interviewed by George Putnam, whom she would later marry, it was decided that she would become the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean in an aircraft. She would only be a passenger on the flight, whilst Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon would pilot the Fokker F7. The aircraft took off at Newfoundland and reached Wales twenty hours and forty minutes later.
Amelia had become the first woman passenger to cross the Atlantic in an aircraft. By then, she was known as ‘Lady Lindy, named after Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Amelia was now a world famous celebrity and toured the United States to give lectures, eventually becoming the aviation editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine. In spite of all the publicity and fame, Amelia was not satisfied with simply being a passenger. Soon she became the first female pilot to fly a solo round trip across the USA, before being placed third in the Women's Air Derby in her newly acquired Lockheed Vega. Amelia set new speed records for woman pilots and, after becoming the first female autogyro pilot, she set a new autogyro altitude record as well (18 451 ft).
In May 1932, Amelia took off from Newfoundland. This time she had her sights set on becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. As a matter of interest, Amelia did not drink coffee or tea, so she resorted to using smelling salts to stay awake during really long flights. Earhart landed her Vega in Northern Ireland, having broken several records during that epic flight. It was the fastest anyone had crossed the Atlantic and it was the longest distance flown by a woman. She was also the first person to cross that ocean twice and, naturally, she had reached her goal of becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She received numerous awards for that particular flight, such as the Distinguished Flying Cross and a gold medal from the National Geographic Society. The latter was presented to her by U.S. President Hoover.
Amelia continued to fly groundbreaking solo flights, but in 1937, her career culminated in the ultimate long distance flight, circumnavigating the globe. After a disappointing first attempt, Amelia and her highly experienced navigator, Fred Noonan, took off in their modified Lockheed Electra in Miami, Florida. Having covered more than 35 000 km and touching down in South America, Africa and Asia, the Electra disappeared. Amelia and her navigator were trying to find Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. Her last two radio transmissions shed a bit of light on the matter: “We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1 000 ft.” Later she transmitted: “We are running North and South.”
These messages indicated that they were unable to locate the island and that the aircraft ran out of fuel. The U.S. launched the most expensive air and sea search operation in history at the time, spending more than $ 4 million. The wreck was never found and the exact reason for Amelia’s disappearance remains a mystery, leading to many conspiracy theories. However, one thing remains certain; Amelia Earhart’s achievements were an inspiration, not just to woman aviators, but to anyone who dares to dream.
This article was written by Divan Muller and was first published in African Pilot Magazine - www.africanpilot.co.za