Arctic Aerial Exploration
Antarctic Exploration
Australian record flights
equal flying rights for women!
Calbraith Rogers
Cobham and Hinkler
Byrd and Bennett
Wiley Post
Amelia Earhart
Howard Hughes
Kingsford Smith
Amy Johnson
Beryl Markham
Italo Balbo
Jimmy Doolittle

Amelia Earhart

The stories and legends surrounding Amelia Earhart are so ingrained in the American psyche that one sometimes comes away from reading about her with the feeling that she is a fictional character, a larger-than-life American myth. She was, alongside Lindbergh (she was often called “Lady Lindbergh”), the most famous aviator of her time.

Amelia Earhart and husband George Palmer Putnam, an influential New York book publisher who made sure Earhart received much—and only the best kind of—publicity.

She virtually defined the strong presence women were to have in aviation, even though there were many great women aviators before and since. Even during her life-time, many of the same people who idolized her regarded her as an enigma; it is somehow fitting that her death should constitute the greatest and most enduring mystery in the history of aviation.

Amelia Mary  Earhart was born in Kansas in 1897. In 1919 she dropped out of Columbia University and began doing secretarial work in order to pay for flying lessons with Neta Snook. The two women became lifelong friends. Earhart’s family’s fortunes declined in the mid- 1920s and she took employment as a social worker in Boston. In 1928 an extraordinary stroke of luck put Earhart in a position to be the first woman to fly the Atlantic, albeit as a passenger.

Mrs. Frederick Guest of London (née Amy Phipps of Pittsburgh) bought Richard Byrd’s Fokker Trimotor and renamed it the Friendship. She intended to hire a crew to fly her over the Atlantic, but her family wouldn’t hear of her taking such a risk. She insisted, however, that the plane be used to fly an American woman across the Atlantic, and formed a committee to find the woman who would take her place. On the committee was George Putnam, publisher of such aviation classics as Lindbergh’s We and Byrd’s Skyward. Putnam asked a friend if he knew of any likely candidates, and he was told to contact a woman working as a social worker at Dennison House  in Boston.

He did just that and invited Earhart to come to New York to be interviewed by the committee. It was in New York that she met George Putnam, whom she married in 1931. The committee felt they had found the perfect replacement for Mrs. Guest. Earhart was attractive in an artless way, her tousled hair and boyish looks radiating a kind of purity that betrayed her Midwestern origins. Yet she spoke emphatically and with a clear sense of independence.

She was told that she was simply going to be a passenger on the flight, and that the plane would be piloted by veteran pilots Wilmer Stultz and Louis “Slim” Gordon. She asked whether there might come a time when she would be able to take the controls, however briefly; she was told perhaps. On June 3, 1928, she secretly climbed aboard the Friendship in Boston for the first leg of the trip, to Newfoundland. A sailor in the harbour spotted her, however, and by the time the plane took off for Ireland on June 17, the word was out that a woman was in the process of crossing the Atlantic by airplane for the first time.

Amelia Earhart’s orange and silver Lockheed Electra soars over the Golden  Gate Bridge as it heads toward Honolulu on  the first stage of her first attempt at a round-the-world  flight in 1937

Amelia Earhart’s orange and silver Lockheed Electra

When the plane landed in Wales (having overshot Ireland in the fog), the plane had been in the air twenty hours and forty minutes, and a great throng was ready to meet her. Earhart became world-famous, even though some women criticized her for accepting such a passive role on the flight. The fact was that Earhart simply did not have experience with multi-engine planes, and  another woman, Mabel Boll, was arranging to pilot a flight at the very time Earhart took off as a passenger.

In the years that followed, Earhart made a determined effort to prove her piloting skills and to show the world that she could have flown the Friendship across the Atlantic. She worked to promote women’s aviation and became an eloquent and forceful proponent of including women in exhibition and racing events. Although both men and women pilots questioned Earhart’s flying abilities throughout her life, she proved her mettle in dozens of flights and in setting many records.

On May 21, 1932, Earhart flew a Lockheed Vega solo across the Atlantic, from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland. The flight encountered serious obstacles—a storm, a troublesome leak in the engine, a broken altimeter—and only a flier of skill would have made it. Later in the year, she set women’s distance and speed records when she became the first woman to fly solo non-stop cross the United States. A series of trans-Pacific flights brought her fame, but her most important flying achievement was probably her solo flight from Hawaii to San Francisco in January 1935—she was the first person to make the flight, after many others had failed.

Amelia Earhart’s  Vega

After Wiley Post’s two flights around the world, aviators began looking forward to someone attempting a round-the-world flight along a route closer to the equator. Post had skirted the North American and Eurasian continents, which was not strictly a round-the-world trip. Earhart assembled a flight team consisting of two pilots—herself and Paul Mantz—and two navigators: Fred Noonan, Pan Am’s chief navigator, and Harry Manning, a highly regarded maritime navigator. She also arranged with the Lockheed Company that she be lent an Electra for the flight.

On March 17, 1937, Earhart and crew took off from Oakland, intending to head westward and cross the Pacific for the first leg of the flight. It is not known exactly what had happened, but the plane tilted and a wing scraped the ground. By the time the plane was repaired, only Noonan remained of the original crew. Since he was very familiar with the Caribbean from his work for Pan Am, the flight would now originate from Miami and head eastward. The plane took off on June 2 and headed out across the Atlantic, staying just a few miles from the equator.

The flight across the South Atlantic, Africa, and the Asian subcontinent went smoothly. The plane took off from Lae, New Guinea, on July 2, heading for a stop on Howland Island, about a third of the way to Hawaii. What happened next has been the subject of investigation and for more than fifty speculation years. The plane certainly went down at a location other than Howland Island. It does not seem reasonable to assume that the plane put down at sea since no floating wreckage was ever found. If the plane landed on an island in the vicinity, because it was lost or experienced some mechanical failure, then the most likely landing place would have been Gilbert Island, then under Japanese control.

Date Departure Arrival Distance
(nautical miles)
May 21 Oakland, California Burbank, California 283 .
. Burbank Tucson, Arizona 393 .
. Tucson New Orleans, Louisiana 1,070 .
. New Orleans Miami, Florida 586 final servicing of plane
June 1 Miami San Juan, Puerto Rico 908 June 3 photo taken at S.J.?
. San Juan Cumana, Venezuela 492 .
. Cumana Paramaribo, Suriname 610 .
. Paramaribo Fortaleza, Brazil 1,142 .
. Fortaleza Natal, Brazil 235 .
. Natal, Brazil St. Louis, Senegal 1,727 translantic leg, 13 hours, 12 min. flight time
. St. Louis, Senegal Dakar, Senegal 100 .
. Dakar Gao, Mali 1,016 .
. Gao N'Djamena, Chad 910 .
. N'Djamena El Fasher, Sudan 610 .
. El Fasher Khartoum, Sudan 437 .
. Khartoum Massawa, Ethiopia 400 .
. Massawa Assab, Ethiopia 241 .
. Assab Karachi, Pakistan 1,627 first flight from Africa to India
June 16-17 Karachi Calcutta, India 1,178 .
. Calcutta Sittwe, Burma 291 .
. Sittwe Rangoon, Burma 268 .
. Rangoon Bangkok, Thailand 315 .
. Bangkok Singapore 780 .
. Singapore Bandung, Indonesia 541 delayed here by monsoon
June 27 Bandung Surabaya, Indonesia 310 .
. Surabaya Kupang, Indonesia 668 .
. Kupang Darwin, Australia 445 .
June 28-29 Darwin Lae, New Guinea 1,012 direction finder repaired, parachutes sent home
. Lae Howland Island 2,224 never arrived
. Howland Island Honolulu, Hawaii 1,648 .
. Honolulu Oakland, California 2,090 .
.   Total Miles 24,557 .

Relations between the United States and Japan were already strained during this period, and if, as some Lockheed employees said, spy cameras were mounted on the Electra for photographing the Japanese, then Earhart and Noonan might have been thought to he spies and eliminated. The search lasted two weeks and involved hundreds of naval vessels and aircraft, as well as hundreds of personnel, hut nothing was found (though search parties could not land on Gilbert Island). In the years since, many theories have been propounded about the fate of Amelia Earhart. Many natives of the South Pacific have testified that they saw Earhart a prisoner of the Japanese or that they saw a photograph of her amid Japanese boats or soldiers.

Whatever the truth, her disappearance marked the untimely end of a career that promised to inspire many women to take active roles in many facets of American society, not just in aviation. It is probably true to say that her career was somewhat a triumph of spin over actual aviation skill. There were many women aviators who were every bit as equal to the best men of the day but they lacked the newspaper backing that George Putnam was able to provide. She had an unshakable belief that 'good luck' would take her through. The choice of a well known alcoholic as navigator on her last flight challenged this belief one step too far.