In 1937 Amelia Earhart was one of the most famous women on the planet. For the last decade she had been upending stereotypes, smashing records and establishing herself as an international role model. As she set off for her greatest adventure, around the world excursion, the whole world was watching. Then, suddenly, she was gone – disappeared. In this week’s Biographics we delve into the marvelous and mysterious life and death of Amelia Earhart.
Amelia Earhart was born on July 24th, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas. She was the older of two daughters to Edwin and Amy, with sister Muriel being two years younger. Edwin Stanton Earhart was a talented lawyer who worked for the railways, but his career was blighted by an addiction to alcohol.
Amelia was named after her maternal grandmother Millie Otis. Millie and Amelia’s grandfather, Alfred, actually took the girl in and she lived with them during the school year in Atchison from the ages of 3 to 11. During the holidays she went to live with her parents in Kansas City.
Amelia attended a private college preparatory school until she was ready for high school. Becoming an avid reader, young Amelia spent many long hours devouring books of every sort. Even though she spent most of the year away from him, she adored his witty and well educated and imaginative father. Edwin would entertain the girls and their friends with Western thrillers complete with bandits, Indians, cowboys and other made up characters. Amelia marveled over his command of the English language. On one occasion he addressed her in a letter as ‘Dear Parallelepipedon,’ and she rushed to find a dictionary to discover the new word’s meaning.
Despite his brilliance as a wordsmith, Edwin was not so lucky when it came to financial matters. As a railroad lawyer he never really applied himself, preferring rather to spend his time coming up with inventions that would make his fortune. In 1903 he designed a device to hold signal flags on the ends of trains. Full of enthusiasm he traveled to Washington DC to file his plans with the patent office. After two frustrating days, he wrote back to Amelia’s mother that ‘a man from Colorado had filed a patent on an identical holder two years ago . . . this news is a terrible blow because I had been counting on receiving several hundred dollars from the railroad for my flag holder.’
Worse still the money that Edwin had been counting on was earmarked to pay the family’s property taxes. In order to pay the tax bill, he had to sell a collection of valuable law books that he had been given by his father-in-law, Judge Otis.
The judge was furious that his son-in-law had done these things. A year later when Edwin took his wife and two girls for a week-long trip to the World’s Fair in St. Louis, the Judge considered the trip an extravagant waste of money and further proof of Edwin’s spendthrift habits. Despite her grandfather’s reservations, Amelia loved the trip, as she enthusiastically rushed with her sister around the fifteen hundred buildings and twelve palaces – all lit by the still relatively new phenomenon of electricity.
In her autobiography For the Fun of it, published in 1932, Amelia pin-pointed three important threads that attracted her to aviation: an interest in mechanics, the many railroad trips she took with her father and her love of experimentation with sport and games. As a railroad claims agent, Edwin was able to take his family on trips all over the country. Her travels developed in Amelia a deep-seated desire to see more and more of the world at large.
When she wasn’t travelling, Amelia spent hours sitting with her cousins, Lucy and Kathryn Challis, looking over maps of faraway places and dreaming of overseas excursions.
From the beginning, the future aviatrix was a daredevil who acted as if she was immune to danger. She was attracted to every type of sport, but she chafed under the societal stereotypes of the day, which limited girls to reading, sewing and cooking. She was lucky in that she had parents who encouraged her tastes for boy’s pursuits and allowed her and her sister to dress in dark blue flannel bloomers gathered up at the knees for play, rather than the customary dresses and pinafores.
At school, Amelia, who was known as ‘Millie’, earned good grades, but seemed to be too impatient to worry about the details of her academic work. She would quite easily solve math problems in her head but couldn’t be bothered writing down her working out. This lack of attention to detail was a trait that stayed with Amelia into adulthood.
It was at the Iowa State Fair in 1907 that Amelia saw her first aeroplane. She recalled it as a thing of rust and wire that didn’t interest her at all. She wasn’t alone. At the time neither automobiles nor airplanes were predicted to become functional means of transportation.
In 1908, Amelia stopped living with her grandparents in Atchison and moved with her parents to Des Moines, Iowa. There she entered public school. She did well academically, despite problems at home. Her parents argued constantly, mainly over money, and the constant quarrelling drove her beloved father to the bottle. This was at a time when states across America were increasingly becoming ‘dry.’ Public displays of drunkenness were a source of great humiliation. As a result, the pitiful public inebriation of Edwin Stanton Earhart soon became the talk of the town.
The heavy drinking eventually led to Edwin losing his job at the railway. For over a year he remained out of work, finally securing a menial clerking job. It required that the family move to St. Paul. Minnesota. The departure from Iowa was a depressing one for the girls, but especially for their long-suffering mother. As they boarded the railroad car to St. Paul, she shed tears of frustration.
Life was tough in St. Paul, with the family barely making ends meet. Edwin’s drinking was still not under control. On one occasion, Amelia found a bottle of whiskey in her father’s suitcase and proceeded to empty it into the kitchen sink. An infuriated Edwin tried to slap the girl, but Amy stopped him.
The constant moves her family undertook during her teen years left Amelia feeling rootless and insecure. But, rather than discussing her problems, she instead focused on her ambitions.
The family only stayed in St. Paul for a year. With a job awaiting Edwin in the claims office of the Burlington Railway, they relocated to Springfield, Missouri. The move was a disaster. After a seven-hour train journey the family discovered that the job had already been taken. For Amy this was the final straw. She demanded a trial separation and took the two girls to Chicago to stay with old family friends.
In Chicago, Amelia shouldered responsibility for her mother and sister as head of the household. Her behavior and appearance changed dramatically. Although she attended Hyde Park, the best public high school in Chicago, she did not participate in any of the numerous clubs the school offered, nor did she play in any of the sports teams she so loved. She now referred to herself as A.E. and isolated herself from her fellow students. She refused to attend the senior banquet and graduation ceremony. Her senior yearbook photo caption read, ‘The girl in brown who walks alone.’
By the fall of 1915, things had improved in the Earhart marriage. Edwin had stopped drinking and the family had reunited in Kansas City. For the next year, Amelia did not attend school, but spent her time acting as a buffer between her parents and acting to preserve the marriage.
The family fortunes took an immediate upturn when Amie received an inheritance. She used some of the funds to send Amelia to the Ogontz finishing school on the outskirts of Philadelphia. It was there that Amelia polished her social graces, which would allow her to move with ease and poise among all segments of society after she became famous. At nineteen, she was the oldest of Ogontz students when she entered in the fall of 1916.
While she was at Ogontz, Amelia’s feminist proclivities came to the fore. She kept a newspaper clipping file of accomplished women, many of them firsts in their field. But she was no suffragette. Next to one clipping she wrote . . . ‘Women will gain economic justice by proving themselves in all lines of endeavor, not by having laws passed for them.’
Over the first semester Christmas break, Amelia returned home. While there she witnessed the ravages of the First World War; returned soldiers on the street with missing limbs, blinded and otherwise maimed. She returned to Ogontz but felt conflicted. She wrote to her mother, ‘I can’t bear the thought of going back to school and being so useless.’
Amelia decided to quit the school and enrolled in a course to join a Voluntary Aid Detachment, a group of civilians who served as assistant nurses, ambulance drivers and nurses. After several months of training, Sister Amelia, as she was known, was posted to Spadinia Military Hospital, on the campus of the University of Toronto. Working there until just before the armistice in 1918, she cared for soldiers who had been poisoned by gas and otherwise injured in the trenches of the Western Front. She also looked after pilots from the Royal Flying Corps Canada who had crashed in Europe.
It was while tending to these injured pilots that Amelia became fascinated with the idea of flying. The men would trade stories about their exploits high above the ground. Nearby was the Royal Flying Corps base and the skies were filled with hundreds of planes buzzing around. Civilians were not allowed to fly in the planes but on her days off, Amelia spent time with the pilots attended aerial exhibitions.
The hospital job was intensely demanding, with Amelia often working 12-hour shifts. She becam so worn down that, in the summer of 1918, she came down with influenza and pneumonia and developed painful sinusitis. As a result, she suffered from chronic sinus infections throughout the rest of her life.
After a period of convalescence with her mother, Amelia enrolled at Columbia University studying zoology, biology and chemistry. She rented a modest apartment in New York City. At the end of the spring term, she quit her studies. She would later claim that she had simply decided against a medical career. The reality was that she lacked the temperament to wade through years of tertiary study.
Spending the next year with her parents in Los Angeles, Amelia put her focus on helping them keep their marriage intact. Over the course of that year, the now 22-year old Amelia would take her first paying job, drive her first car and fly her first lane.
Los Angeles in 1920 was a haven for pilots. It was full of barnstormers, pilots who stunted in air circuses and gave rides to often terrified passengers. In December, 1920 Amelia and her father went to an air rodeo in Long Beach, where pilots performed spins, loops and dives amid a crowd of spectators.
The next day Edwin paid ten dollars to give his daughter her first passenger flight, a ten-minute ride over the Hollywood Hills. The moment the plane left the ground she knew that she herself had to fly. She had found her calling.
Without informing her parents, Amelia signed up for flying lessons, with the expectation that Edwin would cover the $500 fee. But her father had no interest in his daughter’s new-found obsession and she was forced to find a job as a telephone clerk in order to fund the lessons. She chose to be instructed by a female pilot, Anita ‘Neta’ Snook.
After ten hours of lessons, Amelia went solo in 1921. The exhilarating experience encouraged her on to achieving her full pilot’s licence.
Over the next few months, as she progressed in her lessons, Amelia became an airfield junkie. She cropped her long hair and began wearing breeches, boots and an oil stained leather jacket. Despite complaining about the high cost of lessons, she managed to scrape together the money needed to buy her first plane (thanks largely to her mother’s inheritance), an Airster with a 28-foot wingspan. It was just the second ever Airster ever built. She named the plane Canary.
During these early years, Amelia didn’t consider herself a good enough flyer to appear in public flying events. Burt her humility didn’t preclude a few appearances at air shows and two attempts at record setting in the LA area.
The press was also mentioning her as one of the few women pilots in the area. By 1923 she had turned into a confident pilot, though she was not a natural flyer and had struggled throughout her instruction. Many men, and even some women, were better pilots than Amelia – but her persistence and bravery set her apart.
In 1924, Amelia’s parents’ marriage finally ended in divorce. A devastated Amelia saw no reason to stay in California and she relocated to Boston, along with her mother and sister. The following year she re-enrolled at Columbia, switching to a major in engineering, but when she scored a C- in Algebra she once again quit her studies. She then applied for admittance to MIT but was turned down.
A World Record
Over the next few years, Amelia worked at a number of menial jobs. Eventually she ended up as a social worker at a settlement house in Boston. In 1928, her 3-year hiatus from flying ended when she agreed to take a set as a passenger and log keeper on a flight from New York to London. The plane was a Fokker F.VII- 3-meter floatplane piloted by Wilmer Stultz. The floatplane took off on the morning of June 17and arrived at Bury Point in South Wales nearly 21 hours later. Despite her role being a minimal one. Amelia was now in the books as the first woman to fly the North Atlantic.
Returning to the USA, Amelia developed a close relationship with George Putnam, a New York businessman and former publisher. They had met when she had interviewed for a place on the Fokker. Putnam helped her to improve her flying skills and to embark on a series of lecture tours intended to promote the aircraft industry and encourage women to become pilots. Over the next few months she also wrote her first autobiography, 20 hr 40 min, about her flight across the North Atlantic.
On November 22nd, 1929, Amelia set a woman’s speed record for a single engine monoplane. The following year she purchased a Lockheed Vega Executive and, in it, she broke the speed record for a course of 100 km.
Amelia and George Putnam were married on 7th February, 1931. Over the next year, she set and broke several altitude records. On 20th May 1932, she took off from New Foundland in her Vega, touching down in a field of cows in Londonderry, Ireland fifteen hours and thirty minutes later. She had just become the first woman to fly solo across the North Atlantic.
With her husband’s flair for publicity she quickly became the most famous woman flyer on the planet. Putnam billed his wife as ‘Lady Lindy’, capitalizing on the massive popularity of Charles Lindbergh.
Amelia was now a fully-fledged celebrity. When she made public appearances, she needed police protection. She branched out by designing a range of clothing that copied her look.
In January, 1935, Amelia became the first woman to fly from Hawaii to California. In that year she also wrote her second biography, The Fun of It, while continuing a hectic schedule of lecture tours and public appearances.
The Final Challenge
On July 20, 1935, Amelia celebrated her 38th birthday. She knew that she couldn’t go on breaking records forever. Yet she still had one more big one to knock off – in fact, the biggest of them all; a flight around the world.
To achieve a round the world flight, Amelia would need a bigger plane. In early 1936, she purchased a twin-engine Lockheed 10-E Electra, a plane which was the product of the finest technology available at the time. It was a low wing monoplane of all-metal construction with constant-speed propellers powered by two Pratt and Whitney Wasp S3H14 550 horsepower engines. The interior of the plane was modified to take extra petrol tanks, giving a theoretical range of 4,000 miles at an altitude of 4,000 feet.
The plane was also fitted with one of the very first Sperry automatic pilots in order to relieve the physical strain of flying on Amelia. Despite this innovation, it became apparent that Amelia would need navigational assistance to fly across the Pacific Ocean. Her navigational knowledge was rudimentary and so Irish born navigator Fred Noonan was recruited for the world record attempt. Noonan was keen to be involved but there was one aspect of the navigational set up that he wasn’t happy with.
The only way the navigator could reach the pilot was by crawling along a catwalk over the intervening fuel tanks. A sample system was devised whereby written messages could be clipped to the line of a bamboo fishing pole and passed between them. But this inadequate method impaired the crucial element of teamwork.
The Final Flight
The planned route for the round the world flight began in Oakland, California with the first landing place at Honolulu, Hawaii. From there, it continued in a westerly direction, taking advantage of prevailing winds. In order to maximise publicity, Putman required his wife to keep a detailed diary and post them to him from each stop. He would edit them so that he could rush out a book as soon she had achieved the record.
The first leg of the round the world flight took off from Oakland at 1630 on 17th March, 1937. The flight to Honolulu was smooth and uneventful, taking 15 hours and 47 minutes. The next stop was to be the tiny American territory of Howland Island, 1,800 miles away. Immediately things went wrong – the plane swung to the right just after take-off, then ground looping as the under carriage collapsed. Fortunately, Amelia managed to land without any injury or fire.
But the world record attempt had to be put on hold as the plane was crated and sent back to Lockheed for rebuilding. The rebuilding was completed on May 17. Efforts were made to reduce the weight of the plane, one of which undoubtedly contributed to the tragedy to come. The trailing aerial which allowed them to request bearings on 500 kHz from ground stations was removed.
Three days after the rebuilt Elektra was delivered to them, Amelia and Noonan took off from Oakland for the second time. Because if seasonal changes, it was decided that this new attempt would be done in the reverse direction. The first leg was to Miami and then on to Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Dutch Guinea. In early June they flew to Fortaleza in Brazil. The following days were sent servicing the engines and checking the instruments.
The 1,900-mile flight across the south Atlantic was made on 7th June, landing in Dakar, Senegal. The journey across Africa lasted four days. It was followed by the longest leg of 1950 km to Karachi, India. There the plane was serviced by Imperial Airways along with members of the British RAF. On June 17th, they flew on to Dum-Dum near Calcutta, landing in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. After refueling at Bangkok, they flew on to Singapore. From there it was on to Bandoeng in Java. Here the Electra developed some kind of instrument fault. On the flight to Surabaya in East Java the problem recurred, forcing them back to Bandoeng where there were repair facilities.
On June 29th, they flew to Lae in New Guinea. The 1,200-mile flight was completed in 7 hours and 43 minutes. So far, Amelia and Noon had travelled 22,000 miles. They must have been mightily exhausted; yet the greatest challenge still lay before them – the crossing of the Pacific.
The next objective was Howland Island, some 2,566 miles away. The two spent June 30th in preparation for the mammoth flight. Several witnesses later reported that Noonan was drinking heavily on this day and was still doing so into the evening as Amelia attended a dinner party.
They took off at 10am on July 2nd. Eyewitnesses reported that the Electra lifted off sluggishly, sank downwards toward the sea and then began a very slow climb to the east.
No one has ever seen them since.
The last known position of the Electra was near the Nukumanu Islands. The last radio message from Amelia was . . .
We must be on you, but gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.
The official search effort to find the missing plane and its famous occupant lasted until July 19th 1937. The air and sea search by the US Navy and Coast Guard was the most expensive in US history. Yet no physical evidence of the plane or the remains of Amelia and Noonan were found.
Over the decades the speculation over what happened to Amelia Earhart has intensified. In 2017, a photo emerged that purported to show a back view of Amelia sitting on a pier in the Marshall Islands. However, this photo was debunked when it was proven that it was actually taken in 1935, two years before Amelia disappeared.
Then, in March, 2018 an anthropology professor at the University of Tennessee named Richard Jantz argued that bones found on the island of Nikumaroro in 1940 were 99% likely to be those of Amelia Earhart. The bones were analysed in 1941 and determined to be those of a male. But Jantz believes that that analysis was deeply flawed. Yet other scientists uphold the original findings.
While we may never know what really happened to Amelia, it appears quite certain that the tantalizing mystery of her disappearance will keep her name in the headlines for many years to come.