First Lady of the Sky

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    By the time Amelia Earhart graduated from Hyde Park High School in Chicago, Illinois, in 1915, she had attended six different high schools in only four years. Amelia made friends quickly but she often enjoyed being by herself. Her yearbook caption was “The girl in brown who walks alone.”

    When she read the blaring headlines in 1917, America at War! Amelia responded immediately. She and her sister, Muriel, served as volunteer nurses. The ten-hour days Amelia worked were exhausting but she was anxious to help her troubled country.

    After World War I ended, Amelia began taking premed courses at Columbia University and at Barnard College. But studying medicine lacked the pleasure she found in nursing and Amelia soon grew restless. When a letter arrived from her family in California urging her to come west, Amelia packed her bags and bought a train ticket home.

    Amelia could hardly wait for the long ride to end. Soon she was hugging her family and talking excitedly about what she had been doing. “Oh, I missed you so much!” she cried.

    There was little time for Amelia to rest. The Earharts wanted their daughter to meet new people. She was invited to a number of delightful parties and picnics. Then one afternoon Amelia and her father went to see an air show in Long Beach, California.

    “Well, are you having a good time?” her father asked.

    “A wonderful time, Father! Wouldn’t it be glorious to fly like that!” Amelia exclaimed.

    “Would you like to go up for a spin?” he questioned, catching his daughter’s enthusiasm.

    “Do you think I could?” asked Amelia, hardly believing that it would be possible.

    “I believe Mr. Hawks, one of the pilots, sometimes takes people up for short rides,” Mr. Earhart told his excited daughter.

    “Let’s find him, Father! I just have to go up!” Amelia exclaimed.

    They found Mr. Hawks and a few moments later Amelia and the pilot were taking off in a plane from a strip of graveled ground nearby. They just barely cleared the derricks of some oil wells near the end of the runway, but Amelia was too thrilled to be frightened or to notice how old and rickety the plane was.

    “As soon as we left the ground,” Amelia recalled, “I knew I had to fly by myself! Miles away I saw the ocean [and] the Hollywood hills smiled at me over the edge of the cockpit. … We were friends, the ocean, the hills, and I.”

    As soon as Amelia was out of the plane, she began coaxing her father to let her learn to fly. But he was hesitant and Mrs. Earhart was even more reluctant to agree to Amelia’s plan.

    “Flying is not a suitable pastime or occupation for a young lady,” said Mrs. Earhart. “Flying is for men.”

    “But why is it only for men, Mother?” Amelia persisted. “Why can’t a woman control an airplane as well as a man?”

    “Amelia, there are some things a young lady doesn’t do. Flying is one of them,” her mother insisted.

    “Voting used to be something women didn’t do,” said Amelia, not wanting to drop the subject.

    “My dear,” her mother added, “there’s a big difference between marking a piece of paper and handling a flying machine.”

    Though this may have ended the discussion at the moment, her parents both knew that when Amelia wanted to do something, she would find a way to do it. Before long she had a job where she could work during the week and take flying lessons on weekends. Within a year, she had made her first solo flight. In 1920, she set the women’s altitude record of 14,000 feet.

    All of this was exciting to Amelia, but while she was earning a reputation as a daring, yet careful, flier, her finances were being drained. A sinus operation and the prospect of more treatment required that Amelia look for work that would support her and also her flying.

    In the summer of 1925 Amelia joined Muriel at Harvard for summer school. In 1927, she was accepted as the supervisor of girls’ work at Boston’s Denison House. A year later she was a full-time social worker, helping young girls from Italian, Chinese, Armenian, Syrian, and Russian-Jewish homes.

    One spring day in 1928 Amelia received a long-distance telephone call. When she hung up, she whirled around and let out a happy cry.

    “What is it, Amelia? Is something wrong?” one of the teachers asked in alarm.

    “No, everything’s right. It was Mrs. Fredrick Guest. She’s flier from New York,” Amelia explained, “and she wants me to come to meet her for an interview about me becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Just think, me!” Amelia raced upstairs to pack.

    The interview was a success. Reports of Captain Charles Lindbergh’s first solo flight across the Atlantic from Long Island to Paris made the year before were studied carefully. Weather conditions were closely observed. The plane, a trimotored Fokker monoplane, was tuned to perfection and in June of 1928 Amelia boarded the airplane Friendship for the journey. The pilot’s name was Bill Stultz and Lou Gordon was the mechanic.

    Twenty hours and forty minutes later the Friendship landed in Wales, England, after an exciting flight that had been hampered by storms, fogs, and radio failures.

    When Amelia returned to America the following month, she discovered that she was famous. A book company wanted her to retell her experiences, audiences wanted to hear her speak, and a large monthly magazine wanted Amelia to be its aviation editor. Amelia accepted some of the offers and succeeded in persuading thousands of people that air travel could be safe and fun.

    People everywhere enjoyed listening to her tell about her daring experiences. Her slender body, topped by a mop of closely cropped hair became familiar to millions.

    In 1931 Amelia married George Palmer Putnam, a publisher who had interviewed her before her flight across the Atlantic. And in April of 1932 Amelia was eager to try another major flight. She had flown over one thousand hours in the preceding two years, but she wanted a new challenge. She decided to fly the Atlantic Ocean alone, in spite of the warnings of her friends and family.

    On May 20, 1932, she climbed into her Lockheed Vega and took off from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland. The flight was torture. Heavy rain and fog enveloped the plane. Then ice began to form on the wings. Raw gasoline, leaking from a broken gauge, flooded the floor and made sickening fumes. Amelia began to fear that fire might break out at any time. Suddenly, the plane began to dive. The ice had weighted the wings too heavily. Amelia tried everything she’d learned from her past flying experience, and, finally, one hundred feet above the Atlantic, she pulled the plane up.

    Hour after hour the plane droned on. Then a patch of green appeared. Ireland! Amelia had made the flight in fourteen hours and fifty-six minutes, becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.

    Before returning to America, she was entertained by European royalty. King George V and Queen Mary of England, Belgium’s King Albert, and dignitaries from several other nations decorated her.

    America welcomed her home with more honors. She received the Distinguished Flying Cross from Congress and the National Geographic’s premier gold medal. Cheering crowds greeted her everywhere she went.

    Now Amelia was more determined than ever to convince everyone that flying was safe. In 1935, she flew her new Lockheed Vega from Honolulu to Oakland, California, a distance of twenty-four hundred miles. She flew nonstop from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey, cutting two hours off the previous record for that flight.

    In the fall of 1935 Amelia took a position with Purdue University as counselor in careers for women. The young people loved her and she became the idol of the campus.

    Purdue honored Amelia with a variety of special gifts, including a Lockheed Electra, a plane that would seat ten passengers.

    “I’m so overwhelmed with all this,” Amelia exclaimed. “It doesn’t seem possible! I’ll have to repay you for all of these gifts.”

    Amelia soon decided that the logical way to repay everyone was to make a truly spectacular flight. She began making plans to fly completely around the globe, following an equatorial route. By March of 1937 all was ready. Amelia took off with Captain Manning as navigator. But trouble with the landing gear sent the Lockheed Electra back to California for repairs after the second stop. When the plane was repaired, Amelia and a different navigator, Fred Noonan, flew across the continent to Miami, Florida. Meeting with reporters, she said, “I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system, and I hope this is it. After it is over, I plan to give up major long-distance flights.”

    At about six o’clock on the morning of June 1, 1937, Amelia climbed into the Electra at Miami Airport. The plane zoomed across South America, over Africa, and on over Asia. Amelia and Noonan were eagerly welcomed everywhere they landed.

    Setting down at Lae, New Guinea, Amelia and Noonan prepared for their final long flight. Their route was to take them to Howland Island, twenty-five hundred miles away in the Pacific, back to Honolulu, and then on to California. America was planning a gala homecoming.

    The first few hours after takeoff from Lae were ideal. Then trouble began. It seemed as though nature threw all her obstacles at the two fliers—rains, fogs, and squalls pelted the aircraft.

    Then, when the Lockheed should have been close to Howland Island, the Coast Guard picked up Amelia’s frantic message. “Cannot hear you. … Please take a bearing on us and answer. …” The small aircraft was having radio trouble and could not hear the Coast Guard. A final message came. “Circling … cannot see island. … Gas is running low … running north and south. …”

    Then silence.

    A nation mourned the loss of a brave lady and her copilot whose watery grave and its location still remain a mystery. But Amelia would have chuckled at the numerous earthbound monuments built in her honor since her disappearance. For her true monument is the sky.

    [illustrations] Illustrated by Mike Muir