In honor of Amelia Earhart Day, Kathleen generously agreed to give up her regular Tuesday “It Got Me Thinking…” spot. But don’t worry, she’ll be here tomorrow, sharing a Whiny Wednesday rant.
Today is Amelia Earhart Day, so in honor of the 115th anniversary of her birth, I thought I’d share one of my favorite Cheroes.
Children and family were never in the cards for Amelia Earhart. The pioneering aviatrix, always baffled by “the rules of female conduct,” considered marriage to be a cage, something she wouldn’t consider “until I am unfit to work or fly or be active…” Sam Chapman, Amelia’s first romantic suitor, discovered this the hard way after the pair had been engaged for several years. Even when she finally accepted the sixth proposal from George Putnam, she was still unsold on the idea of marriage. Instead of settling into the respectable life as a “domestic robot,” Amelia sought to conquer the skies.
Her illustrious flying career began in 1921, when she took her first shaky flying lesson. She was a confident flier, although not always competent. According to her teacher, Neta Snook, what made Amelia stand out from other pilots was her, “gut courage that transcended the sanity of reasoning.”
Amelia wanted to prove that women were just as capable as men in the air, and she sought opportunities to display her daring and prowess whenever she could. She attended airshows and performed aerial stunts, but she also wanted to be taken seriously as an aviator. In 1928, she got her opportunity when she became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Although she was little more than a passenger on the flight, keeping the plane’s log and keeping her pilot and mechanic supplied with hot tomato juice and chocolate, she became an instant sensation.
Amelia understood the power of publicity. She knew the importance of keeping her name—and her face—in the news. She curled her straight hair into its signature, tousled style and once reportedly crawled (unharmed) from the wreckage of her crashed plane, powdering her nose and saying, “We have to look nice if the reporters arrive.” When she met George Putnam, a renowned publisher interested in her story—and more—she found a ruthless promoter of the Amelia Earhart brand.
Amelia was often criticized for her stunts and for being motivated by fame. Although she took her celebrity seriously, she took her flying more seriously, and continued to rack up a long list of aviation firsts. She became the first woman to fly from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back, and competed in the first Women’s Air Derby, where she finished third after stopping to help a friend who had crashed. She set new records for speed and altitude, and helped establish the first organization of women pilots, The Ninety-Niners.
Then, in 1932 she made another attempt at the Atlantic crossing, this time as a solo pilot. Despite battling an ice storm and a badly leaking fuel tank, she touched down in Northern Ireland on the morning of May 21, 1932, becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Her accomplishment catapulted her from famed aviator to superstar of the skies.
In these early days of aviation, flying was a dangerous endeavor. Amelia had crashed many times, although she had always walked away unhurt. Many of her peers were not so lucky. Three of the five women who had attempted the transatlantic crossing before her had disappeared, and even the world famous Harriet Quimby was unexpectedly ejected from her aircraft in Boston only months after becoming the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel.
Motherhood and flying did not mix well, and many of the most intrepid aviators of the time had hung up their flying helmets when marriage and children beckoned. Neta Snook, who had first taught Amelia to fly, had been a fearless barnstormer and aviation pioneer, once telling the press that she could “fly as cleverly, as audaciously, as thrillingly as any man aviator in the world.” But when she married and became pregnant, she gave up flying, sold her business, and more or less disappeared into domestic bliss, eventually dying peacefully and without flourish at the age of 95.
Elinor Smith, who became the youngest licensed pilot in the world at age 16, earned herself the nickname “The Flying Flapper of Freeport” and became the first woman to appear on a Wheaties box by setting records for endurance, speed, and altitude. She had even flown under all four of New York City’s East River bridges, but eventually she hung up her flying helmet to raise four children in a quiet suburban life. Consequently, she lived to be 98.
Even Amelia’s first opportunity to fly across the Atlantic came about because of another pilot’s commitment to family. Although Amy Phipps Guest had the desire for adventure and the means to fund a transatlantic endeavor, her plan was foiled when her family got wind of it and her daughter pleaded with her to call off the attempt, crying that her mother would “end up floating in the ocean.” She scrapped her daring plans and lived to be 86 instead.
Flying was a dangerous business and, even though Amelia liked children, she knew that motherhood would force her to give up her career, and that would mean disappearing into domestic oblivion. At 39 years old, and with commercial aviation already gaining popularity, the opportunities for setting new records as an aviator were rapidly diminishing. Amelia knew she had just one last opportunity to become an aviation legend—by flying around the world.
When she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, set off on June 1, 1937, she couldn’t have known quite how the trip would seal her place in aviation history. Just over a month later, as her plane headed for Howland Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Amelia lost radio contact. She and Noonan were never seen or heard from again. To this day, their disappearance remains a mystery, sparking theories of suicide, faked death, and a top-secret government spy mission. There was even speculation that Amelia and Fred had made it to some tiny uninhabited Pacific island, where they are still waiting to be rescued.
Regardless of what happened to Amelia Earhart, she carved a permanent place for herself in history and inspired countless generations of aviators. As her close friend Eleanor Roosevelt said of her, she helped women to see that there was nothing they could not do. Mrs. Roosevelt—whose own dreams of flying had been firmly quashed by Franklin—told reporters, “I’m sure Amelia’s last words were ‘I have no regrets.’”
As many of you will have already heard, the world lost another great Chero yesterday. Sally Ride passed away peacefully after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. You can read Kathleen’s National Women’s History Month profile of Sally from March 2011.