- Born: Amelia Mary Earhart, July 24, 1897, Atchison, Kansas, U.S.
- Disappeared: July 2, 1937 (aged 39); Pacific Ocean, en route to Howland Island from Lae, Papua New Guinea
- Status: Declared dead in absentia, January 5, 1939 (aged 41)
- Nationality: American
- Known for: Many early aviation records, including first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
- Spouse(s): George P. Putnam
Amelia Mary Earhart (born July 24, 1897; disappeared July 2, 1937) was an American aviation pioneer and author. Earhart was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She received the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross for this accomplishment. She set many other records, wrote best-selling books about her flying experiences and was instrumental in the formation of The Ninety-Nines, an organization for female pilots. In 1935, Earhart became a visiting faculty member at Purdue University as an advisor to aeronautical engineering and a career counselor to women students. She was also a member of the National Woman’s Party and an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. During an attempt to make a circumnavigational flight of the globe in 1937 in a Purdue-funded Lockheed Model 10-E Electra, Earhart disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean near Howland Island. Fascination with her life, career and disappearance continues to this day.
Earhart was the daughter of Samuel “Edwin” Stanton Earhart (1867–1930) and Amelia “Amy” (nee Otis; 1869–1962). She was born in Atchison, Kansas, in the home of her maternal grandfather, Alfred Gideon Otis (1827–1912), who was a former federal judge, the president of the Atchison Savings Bank and a leading citizen in the town. Amelia was the second child of the marriage, after an infant stillborn in August 1896. She was of part German descent. Alfred Otis had not initially favored the marriage and was not satisfied with Edwin’s progress as a lawyer.
Although there had been some missteps in Edwin Earhart’s career up to that point, in 1907 his job as a claims officer for the Rock Island Railroad led to a transfer to Des Moines, Iowa. The next year, at the age of 10, Earhart saw her first aircraft at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. Her father tried to interest her and her sister in taking a flight. One look at the rickety “flivver” was enough for Earhart, who promptly asked if they could go back to the merry-go-round. She later described the biplane as “a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting”.
The two sisters, Amelia and Muriel (she went by her middle name from her teens on), remained with their grandparents in Atchison, while their parents moved into new, smaller quarters in Des Moines. During this period, Earhart received a form of home-schooling together with her sister, from her mother and a governess. She later recounted that she was “exceedingly fond of reading” and spent countless hours in the large family library. In 1909, when the family was finally reunited in Des Moines, the Earhart children were enrolled in public school for the first time with Amelia Earhart entering the seventh grade at the age of 12 years.
While the family’s finances seemingly improved with the acquisition of a new house and even the hiring of two servants, it soon became apparent that Edwin was an alcoholic. Five years later in 1914, he was forced to retire and although he attempted to rehabilitate himself through treatment, he was never reinstated at the Rock Island Railroad. At about this time, Earhart’s grandmother Amelia Otis died suddenly, leaving a substantial estate that placed her daughter’s share in a trust, fearing that Edwin’s drinking would drain the funds. The Otis house, and all of its contents, was auctioned; Earhart was heartbroken and later described it as the end of her childhood.
In 1915, after a long search, Earhart’s father found work as a clerk at the Great Northern Railway in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Earhart entered Central High School as a junior. Edwin applied for a transfer to Springfield, Missouri, in 1915 but the current claims officer reconsidered his retirement and demanded his job back, leaving the elder Earhart with nowhere to go. Facing another calamitous move, Amy Earhart took her children to Chicago, where they lived with friends. Earhart made an unusual condition in the choice of her next schooling; she canvassed nearby high schools in Chicago to find the best science program. She rejected the high school nearest her home when she complained that the chemistry lab was “just like a kitchen sink”. She eventually enrolled in Hyde Park High School but spent a miserable semester where a yearbook caption captured the essence of her unhappiness, “A.E. – the girl in brown who walks alone”.
Earhart graduated from Chicago’s Hyde Park High School in 1916. Throughout her troubled childhood, she had continued to aspire to a future career; she kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about successful women in predominantly male-oriented fields, including film direction and production, law, advertising, management and mechanical engineering. She began junior college at Ogontz School in Rydal, Pennsylvania, but did not complete her program.
During Christmas vacation in 1917, Earhart visited her sister in Toronto. World War I had been raging and Earhart saw the returning wounded soldiers. After receiving training as a nurse’s aide from the Red Cross, she began work with the Voluntary Aid Detachment at Spadina Military Hospital. Her duties included preparing food in the kitchen for patients with special diets and handing out prescribed medication in the hospital’s dispensary.
Early flying experiences
At about that time, Earhart and a young woman friend visited an air fair held in conjunction with the Canadian National Exposition in Toronto. One of the highlights of the day was a flying exhibition put on by a World War I ace. The pilot overhead spotted Earhart and her friend, who were watching from an isolated clearing, and dived at them. “I am sure he said to himself, ‘Watch me make them scamper,'” she said. Earhart stood her ground as the aircraft came close. “I did not understand it at the time,” she said, “but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.”
By 1919 Earhart prepared to enter Smith College but changed her mind and enrolled at Columbia University, in a course in medical studies among other programs. She quit a year later to be with her parents, who had reunited in California.
In Long Beach, on December 28, 1920, Earhart and her father visited an airfield where Frank Hawks (who later gained fame as an air racer) gave her a ride that would forever change Earhart’s life. “By the time I had got two or three hundred feet [60–90 m] off the ground,” she said, “I knew I had to fly.” After that 10-minute flight (that cost her father $10), she immediately became determined to learn to fly. Working at a variety of jobs, including photographer, truck driver, and stenographer at the local telephone company, she managed to save $1,000 for flying lessons. Earhart had her first lessons, beginning on January 3, 1921, at Kinner Field, near Long Beach. In order to reach the airfield, Earhart had to take a bus to the end of the line, then walk four miles (6 km). Earhart’s mother also provided part of the $1,000 “stake” against her “better judgement”. Her teacher was Anita “Neta” Snook, a pioneer female aviator who used a surplus Curtiss JN-4 “Canuck” for training. Earhart arrived with her father and a singular request, “I want to fly. Will you teach me?”
Earhart’s commitment to flying required her to accept the frequent hard work and rudimentary conditions that accompanied early aviation training. She chose a leather jacket, but aware that other aviators would be judging her, she slept in it for three nights to give the jacket a “worn” look. To complete her image transformation, she also cropped her hair short in the style of other female flyers. Six months later, Earhart purchased a second hand bright yellow Kinner Airster biplane she nicknamed “The Canary”. On October 22, 1922, Earhart flew the Airster to an altitude of 14,000 feet (4,300 m), setting a world record for female pilots.
On May 15, 1923, Earhart became the 16th woman to be issued a pilot’s license (#6017) by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI)
Aviation career and marriage
Throughout the early 1920s, her grandmother’s inheritance, which was now administered by her mother, steadily diminished until it was exhausted, following a disastrous investment in a failed gypsum mine. Consequently, with no immediate prospects for recouping her investment in flying, Earhart sold the “Canary” as well as a second Kinner and bought a yellow Kissel “Speedster” two-passenger automobile, which she named the “Yellow Peril”. Simultaneously, Earhart experienced an exacerbation of her old sinus problem as her pain worsened and in early 1924 she was hospitalized for another sinus operation, which was again unsuccessful. After trying her hand at a number of unusual ventures that included setting up a photography company, Earhart set out in a new direction. Following her parents’ divorce in 1924, she drove her mother in the “Yellow Peril” on a transcontinental trip from California with stops throughout the West and even a jaunt up to Banff, Alberta. The meandering tour eventually brought the pair to Boston, Massachusetts, where Earhart underwent another sinus operation, which was more successful. After recuperation, she returned to Columbia University for several months but was forced to abandon her studies and any further plans for enrolling at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because her mother could no longer afford the tuition fees and associated costs. Soon after, she found employment first as a teacher, then as a social worker in 1925 at Denison House, a Boston settlement house. At this time, she lived in Medford, Massachusetts.
When Earhart lived in Medford, she maintained her interest in aviation, becoming a member of the American Aeronautical Society’s Boston chapter and was eventually elected its vice president. She flew out of Dennison Airport (later the Naval Air Station Squantum) in Quincy, Massachusetts, and helped finance its operation by investing a small sum of money. Earhart also flew the first official flight out of Dennison Airport in 1927. Along with acting as a sales representative for Kinner aircraft in the Boston area, Earhart wrote local newspaper columns promoting flying and as her local celebrity grew, she laid out the plans for an organization devoted to female flyers.
Transatlantic flight in 1928
After Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, Amy Guest (1873–1959) expressed interest in being the first woman to fly (or be flown) across the Atlantic Ocean. After deciding that the trip was too perilous for her to undertake, she offered to sponsor the project, suggesting that they find “another girl with the right image”. While at work one afternoon in April 1928, Earhart got a phone call from Capt. Hilton H. Railey, who asked her, “Would you like to fly the Atlantic?”
The project coordinators (including book publisher and publicist George P. Putnam) interviewed Earhart and asked her to accompany pilot Wilmer Stultz and copilot/mechanic Louis Gordon on the flight, nominally as a passenger, but with the added duty of keeping the flight log. The team departed from Trepassey Harbor, Newfoundland, in a Fokker F.VIIb/3m on June 17, 1928, landing at Pwll near Burry Port, South Wales, exactly 20 hours and 40 minutes later. There is a commemorative blue plaque at the site. Since most of the flight was on instruments and Earhart had no training for this type of flying, she did not pilot the aircraft. When interviewed after landing, she said, “Stultz did all the flying—had to. I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes.” She added, “… maybe someday I’ll try it alone.”
Earhart reportedly received a rousing welcome on June 19, 1928, when she landed at Woolston in Southampton, England. She flew the Avro Avian 594 Avian III, SN: R3/AV/101 owned by Lady Mary Heath and later purchased the aircraft and had it shipped back to the United States (where it was assigned “unlicensed aircraft identification mark” 7083).
When the Stultz, Gordon and Earhart flight crew returned to the United States, they were greeted with a ticker-tape parade along the Canyon of Heroes in Manhattan, followed by a reception with President Calvin Coolidge at the White House.
Trading on her physical resemblance to Lindbergh, whom the press had dubbed “Lucky Lindy”, some newspapers and magazines began referring to Earhart as “Lady Lindy”. The United Press was more grandiloquent; to them, Earhart was the reigning “Queen of the Air”. Immediately after her return to the United States, she undertook an exhausting lecture tour in 1928 and 1929. Meanwhile, Putnam had undertaken to heavily promote her in a campaign that included publishing a book she authored, a series of new lecture tours and using pictures of her in mass market endorsements for products including luggage, Lucky Strike cigarettes (this caused image problems for her, with McCall’s magazine retracting an offer) and women’s clothing and sportswear. The money that she made with “Lucky Strike” had been earmarked for a $1,500 donation to Commander Richard Byrd’s imminent South Pole expedition.
The marketing campaign by both Earhart and Putnam was successful in establishing the Earhart mystique in the public psyche. Rather than simply endorsing the products, Earhart actively became involved in the promotions, especially in women’s fashions. For a number of years she had sewn her own clothes, but the “active living” lines that were sold in 50 stores such as Macy’s in metropolitan areas were an expression of a new Earhart image. Her concept of simple, natural lines matched with wrinkle-proof, washable materials was the embodiment of a sleek, purposeful but feminine “A.E.” (the familiar name she went by with family and friends). The luggage line that she promoted (marketed as Modernaire Earhart Luggage) also bore her unmistakable stamp. A wide range of promotional items bearing the Earhart name appeared.
Celebrity endorsements helped Earhart finance her flying. Accepting a position as associate editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, she turned this forum into an opportunity to campaign for greater public acceptance of aviation, especially focusing on the role of women entering the field. In 1929, Earhart was among the first aviators to promote commercial air travel through the development of a passenger airline service; along with Charles Lindbergh, she represented Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT, later TWA) and invested time and money in setting up the first regional shuttle service between New York and Washington, D.C., the Ludington Airline. She was a Vice President of National Airways, which conducted the flying operations of the Boston-Maine Airways and several other airlines in the northeast. By 1940, it had become Northeast Airlines.
Although Earhart had gained fame for her transatlantic flight, she endeavored to set an “untarnished” record of her own. Shortly after her return, piloting Avian 7083, she set off on her first long solo flight that occurred just as her name was coming into the national spotlight. By making the trip in August 1928, Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the North American continent and back. Her piloting skills and professionalism gradually grew, as acknowledged by experienced professional pilots who flew with her. General Leigh Wade flew with Earhart in 1929: “She was a born flier, with a delicate touch on the stick.”
Earhart subsequently made her first attempt at competitive air racing in 1929 during the first Santa Monica-to-Cleveland Women’s Air Derby (nicknamed the “Powder Puff Derby” by Will Rogers), which left Santa Monica on August 18 and arrived at Cleveland on August 26. During the race, she settled into fourth place in the “heavy planes” division. At the second last stop at Columbus, her friend Ruth Nichols, who was coming third, had an accident while on a test flight before the race recommenced. Nichols’ aircraft hit a tractor at the start of the runway and flipped over, forcing her out of the race. At Cleveland, Earhart was placed third in the heavy division.
In 1930, Earhart became an official of the National Aeronautic Association where she actively promoted the establishment of separate women’s records and was instrumental in the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) accepting a similar international standard. In 1931, she set a world altitude record of 18,415 feet (5,613 m), flying a Pitcairn PCA-2 autogyro borrowed from Beech-Nut Chewing Gum While to a reader today it might seem that Earhart was engaged in flying “stunts”, she was, with other female flyers, crucial to making the American public “air minded” and convincing them that “aviation was no longer just for daredevils and supermen.”
During this period, Earhart became involved with The Ninety-Nines, an organization of female pilots providing moral support and advancing the cause of women in aviation. She had called a meeting of female pilots in 1929 following the Women’s Air Derby. She suggested the name based on the number of the charter members; she later became the organization’s first president in 1930. Earhart was a vigorous advocate for female pilots and when the 1934 Bendix Trophy Race banned women, she openly refused to fly screen actress Mary Pickford to Cleveland to open the races.
Marriage to George Putnam
Earhart was engaged to Samuel Chapman, a chemical engineer from Boston; she broke off the engagement on November 23, 1928. During the same period, Earhart and publisher George P. Putnam had spent a great deal of time together. Putnam, who was known as GP, was divorced in 1929 and sought out Earhart, proposing to her six times before she finally agreed to marry him. After substantial hesitation on her part, they married on February 7, 1931, in Putnam’s mother’s house in Noank, Connecticut. Earhart referred to her marriage as a “partnership” with “dual control”. In a letter written to Putnam and hand delivered to him on the day of the wedding, she wrote, “I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any midaevil code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly.”
Earhart’s ideas on marriage were liberal for the time as she believed in equal responsibilities for both breadwinners and pointedly kept her own name rather than being referred to as “Mrs. Putnam”. When The New York Times, per the rules of its stylebook, insisted on referring to her as Mrs. Putnam, she laughed it off. Putnam also learned that he would be called “Mr. Earhart”. There was no honeymoon for the newlyweds as Earhart was involved in a nine-day cross-country tour promoting autogyros and the tour sponsor, Beech-Nut chewing gum. Although Earhart and Putnam never had children, he had two sons by his previous marriage to Dorothy Binney (1888–1982), a chemical heiress whose father’s company, Binney & Smith, invented Crayola crayons: the explorer and writer David Binney Putnam (1913–1992) and George Palmer Putnam, Jr. (1921–2013). Earhart was especially fond of David, who frequently visited his father at their family home, which was on the grounds of The Apawamis Club in Rye, New York. George had contracted polio shortly after his parents’ separation and was unable to visit as often.
Transatlantic solo flight in 1932
On the morning of May 20, 1932, 34-year-old Earhart set off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland with a copy of the Telegraph-Journal, given to her by journalist Stuart Trueman, intended to confirm the date of the flight. She intended to fly to Paris in her single engine Lockheed Vega 5B to emulate Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight five years earlier. Her technical advisor for the flight was famed Norwegian American aviator Bernt Balchen who helped prepare her aircraft. He also played the role of “decoy” for the press as he was ostensibly preparing Earhart’s Vega for his own Arctic flight. After a flight lasting 14 hours, 56 minutes during which she contended with strong northerly winds, icy conditions and mechanical problems, Earhart landed in a pasture at Culmore, north of Derry, Northern Ireland. The landing was witnessed by Cecil King and T. Sawyer. When a farm hand asked, “Have you flown far?” Earhart replied, “From America”. The site now is the home of a small museum, the Amelia Earhart Centre.
As the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic, Earhart received the Distinguished Flying Cross from Congress, the Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honor from the French Government and the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society from President Herbert Hoover. As her fame grew, she developed friendships with many people in high offices, most notably First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt shared many of Earhart’s interests and passions, especially women’s causes. After flying with Earhart, Roosevelt obtained a student permit but did not further pursue her plans to learn to fly. The two friends communicated frequently throughout their lives. Another famous flyer, Jacqueline Cochran, who was considered to be Earhart’s greatest rival by both media and the public, also became a confidante and friend during this period.
Additional solo flights
On January 11, 1935, Earhart became the first aviator to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii to Oakland, California. Although this transoceanic flight had been attempted by many others, notably by the unfortunate participants in the 1927 Dole Air Race that had reversed the route, her trailblazing flight had been mainly routine, with no mechanical breakdowns. In her final hours, she even relaxed and listened to “the broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera from New York”.
That year, once more flying her Lockheed Vega airliner that Earhart had tagged “old Bessie, the fire horse”, she flew solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City on April 19. The next record attempt was a nonstop flight from Mexico City to New York. Setting off on May 8, her flight was uneventful although the large crowds that greeted her at Newark, New Jersey were a concern, because she had to be careful not to taxi into the throng.
Earhart again participated in long-distance air racing, placing fifth in the 1935 Bendix Trophy Race, the best result she could manage, due to the stock Lockheed Vega, topping out at 195 mph (314 km/h), was outclassed by purpose-built air racers that reached more than 300 mph (480 km/h). The race had been a particularly difficult one as a competitor, Cecil Allen, died in a fiery takeoff mishap and rival Jacqueline Cochran was forced to pull out due to mechanical problems, the “blinding fog”, and violent thunderstorms that plagued the race.
Between 1930 and 1935, Earhart had set seven women’s speed and distance aviation records in a variety of aircraft including the Kinner Airster, Lockheed Vega, and Pitcairn Autogiro. By 1935, recognizing the limitations of her “lovely red Vega” in long, transoceanic flights, Earhart contemplated, in her own words, a new “prize … one flight which I most wanted to attempt – a circumnavigation of the globe as near its waistline as could be”. For the new venture, she would need a new aircraft.
Move from New York to California
While Earhart was away on a speaking tour in late November 1934, a fire broke out at the Putnam residence in Rye, destroying many family treasures and Earhart’s personal mementos. Putnam had already sold his interest in the New York based publishing company to his cousin, Palmer Putnam. Following the fire, the couple decided to move to the West Coast, where Putnam took up his new position as head of the editorial board of Paramount Pictures in North Hollywood. While speaking in California in late 1934, Earhart had contacted Hollywood “stunt” pilot Paul Mantz in order to improve her flying, focusing especially on long-distance flying in her Vega and wanted to move closer to him.
At Earhart’s urging, Putnam purchased a small house in June 1935 adjacent to the clubhouse of the Lakeside Golf Club in Toluca Lake, a San Fernando Valley celebrity enclave community nestled between the Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures studio complexes where they had earlier rented a temporary residence. Earhart and Putnam would not move in immediately, however; they decided to do considerable remodeling and enlarge the existing small structure to meet their needs. This delayed the occupation of their new home for several months.
In September 1935, Earhart and Mantz formally established a business partnership that they had been considering since late 1934 by creating the short-lived Earhart-Mantz Flying School, which Mantz controlled and operated through his aviation company, United Air Services. The company was located at the Burbank Airport, about five miles (8 km) from Earhart’s Toluca Lake home. Putnam handled publicity for the school that primarily taught instrument flying using Link Trainers.
World flight in 1937
Earhart joined the faculty of Purdue University in 1935 as a visiting faculty member to counsel women on careers and as a technical advisor to the Department of Aeronautics. Early in 1936, Earhart started to plan a round-the-world flight. Not the first to circle the globe, it would be the longest at 29,000 miles (47,000 km), following a grueling equatorial route. With financing from Purdue, in July 1936, a Lockheed Electra 10E was built at Lockheed Aircraft Company to her specifications, which included extensive modifications to the fuselage to incorporate a large fuel tank. Earhart dubbed the twin engine monoplane airliner her “flying laboratory” and hangared it at Mantz’s United Air Services located just across the airfield from Lockheed’s Burbank, California plant in which it had been built.
Although the Electra was publicized as a “flying laboratory”, little useful science was planned and the flight was arranged around Earhart’s intention to circumnavigate the globe along with gathering raw material and public attention for her next book. Her first choice as navigator was Captain Harry Manning, who had been the captain of the President Roosevelt, the ship that had brought Earhart back from Europe in 1928.
Through contacts in the Los Angeles aviation community, Fred Noonan was subsequently chosen as a second navigator because there were significant additional factors that had to be dealt with while using celestial navigation for aircraft. He had vast experience in both marine (he was a licensed ship’s captain) and flight navigation. Noonan had recently left Pan Am, where he established most of the company’s China Clipper seaplane routes across the Pacific. Noonan had also been responsible for training Pan American’s navigators for the route between San Francisco and Manila. The original plans were for Noonan to navigate from Hawaii to Howland Island, a particularly difficult portion of the flight; then Manning would continue with Earhart to Australia and she would proceed on her own for the remainder of the project.
On March 17, 1937, Earhart and her crew flew the first leg from Oakland, California to Honolulu, Hawaii. In addition to Earhart and Noonan, Harry Manning and Mantz (who was acting as Earhart’s technical adviser) were on board. Due to lubrication and galling problems with the propeller hubs’ variable pitch mechanisms, the aircraft needed servicing in Hawaii. Ultimately, the Electra ended up at the United States Navy’s Luke Field on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. The flight resumed three days later from Luke Field with Earhart, Noonan and Manning on board. During the takeoff run, Earhart ground-looped, circumstances of which remain controversial. Some witnesses at Luke Field including the Associated Press journalist on the scene said they saw a tire blow. Earhart thought either the Electra’s right tire had blown and/or the right landing gear had collapsed. Some sources, including Mantz, cited pilot error. With the aircraft severely damaged, the flight was called off and the aircraft was shipped by sea to the Lockheed Burbank facility for repairs.
While the Electra was being repaired Earhart and Putnam secured additional funds and prepared for a second attempt. This time flying west to east, the second attempt began with an unpublicized flight from Oakland to Miami, Florida, and after arriving there Earhart publicly announced her plans to circumnavigate the globe. The flight’s opposite direction was partly the result of changes in global wind and weather patterns along the planned route since the earlier attempt. On this second flight, Fred Noonan was Earhart’s only crew member. The pair departed Miami on June 1 and after numerous stops in South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, arrived at Lae, New Guinea, on June 29, 1937. At this stage about 22,000 miles (35,000 km) of the journey had been completed. The remaining 7,000 miles (11,000 km) would be over the Pacific.
Departure from Lae
On July 2, 1937, midnight GMT, Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae Airfield in the heavily loaded Electra. Their intended destination was Howland Island, a flat sliver of land 6,500 ft (2,000 m) long and 1,600 ft (500 m) wide, 10 ft (3 m) high and 2,556 miles (4,113 km) away.
Their last known position report was near the Nukumanu Islands, about 800 miles (1,300 km) into the flight. The USCGC Itasca was on station at Howland, assigned to communicate with Earhart’s Electra and guide them to the island once they arrived in the vicinity.
Final approach to Howland Island
Through a series of misunderstandings or errors (the details of which are still controversial), the final approach to Howland Island using radio navigation was not successful. Fred Noonan had earlier written about problems affecting the accuracy of radio direction finding in navigation. Another cited cause of possible confusion was that the Itasca and Earhart planned their communication schedule using time systems set a half-hour apart, with Earhart using Greenwich Civil Time (GCT) and the Itasca under a Naval time zone designation system.
Some sources have noted Earhart’s apparent lack of understanding of her direction-finding system, which had been fitted to the aircraft just prior to the flight. The system was equipped with a new receiver from Bendix that operated on five wavelength “bands”, marked 1 to 5. The loop antenna was equipped with a tuneable loading coil that changed the effective length of the antenna to allow it to work efficiently at different wavelengths. The tuner on the antenna was also marked with five settings, 1 to 5, but, critically, these were not the same frequency bands as the corresponding bands on the radio. The two were close enough for settings 1, 2 and 3, but the higher frequency settings, 4 and 5, were entirely different. Earhart’s only training on the system was a brief introduction by Joe Gurr at the Lockheed factory, and the topic had not come up. A card displaying the band settings of the antenna was mounted so it was not visible. Gurr explained that higher frequency bands would offer better accuracy and longer range.
Motion picture evidence from Lae suggests that an antenna mounted underneath the fuselage may have been torn off from the fuel-heavy Electra during taxi or takeoff from Lae’s turf runway, though no antenna was reported found at Lae. Don Dwiggins, in his biography of Paul Mantz (who assisted Earhart and Noonan in their flight planning), noted that the aviators had cut off their long-wire antenna, due to the annoyance of having to crank it back into the aircraft after each use.
During Earhart and Noonan’s approach to Howland Island, the Itasca received strong and clear voice transmissions from Earhart identifying as KHAQQ but she apparently was unable to hear voice transmissions from the ship. Signals from the ship would also be used for direction finding, implying that the aircraft’s direction finder was also not functional.
The first calls, routine reports stating the weather as cloudy and overcast, were received at 2:45 and just before 5 am on July 2. These calls were broken up by static, but at this point the aircraft would still be a long distance from Howland.
At 6:14 am another call was received stating the aircraft was within 200 miles (320 km), and requested that the ship use its direction finder to provide a bearing for the aircraft. Earhart began whistling into the microphone to provide a continual signal for them to home in on. It was at this point that the radio operators on the Itasca realized that their RDF system could not tune in the aircraft’s 3015 kHz frequency; radioman Leo Bellarts later commented that he
“was sitting there sweating blood because I couldn’t do a darn thing about it.”
A similar call asking for a bearing was received at 6:45 am, when Earhart estimated they were 100 miles (160 km) out.
At 7:42 am Earhart radioed
“We must be on you, but cannot see you—but gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet [305 m].”
Her 7:58 am transmission said she couldn’t hear the Itasca and asked them to send voice signals so she could try to take a radio bearing. This transmission was reported by the Itasca as the loudest possible signal, indicating Earhart and Noonan were in the immediate area. They couldn’t send voice at the frequency she asked for, so Morse code signals were sent instead. Earhart acknowledged receiving these but said she was unable to determine their direction.
In her last known transmission at 8:43 am Earhart broadcast
“We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait.”
However, a few moments later she was back on the same frequency (3105 kHz) with a transmission that was logged as a “questionable”:
“We are running on line north and south.”
Earhart’s transmissions seemed to indicate she and Noonan believed they had reached Howland’s charted position, which was incorrect by about five nautical miles (10 km). The Itasca used her oil-fired boilers to generate smoke for a period of time but the fliers apparently did not see it. The many scattered clouds in the area around Howland Island have also been cited as a problem: their dark shadows on the ocean surface may have been almost indistinguishable from the island’s subdued and very flat profile.
Whether any post-loss radio signals were received from Earhart and Noonan remains unclear. If transmissions were received from the Electra, most if not all were weak and hopelessly garbled. Earhart’s voice transmissions to Howland were on 3105 kHz, a frequency restricted to aviation use in the United States by the FCC. This frequency was not thought to be fit for broadcasts over great distances. When Earhart was at cruising altitude and midway between Lae and Howland (over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from each) neither station heard her scheduled transmission at 0815 GCT. Moreover, the 50-watt transmitter used by Earhart was attached to a less-than-optimum-length V-type antenna.
The last voice transmission received on Howland Island from Earhart indicated she and Noonan were flying along a line of position (taken from a “sun line” running on 157–337 degrees) which Noonan would have calculated and drawn on a chart as passing through Howland. After all contact was lost with Howland Island, attempts were made to reach the flyers with both voice and Morse code transmissions. Operators across the Pacific and the United States may have heard signals from the downed Electra but these were unintelligible or weak.
Some of these reports of transmissions were later determined to be hoaxes but others were deemed authentic. Bearings taken by Pan American Airways stations suggested signals originating from several locations, including Gardner Island (Nikumaroro), 360 miles (580 km) to the SSE. It was noted at the time that if these signals were from Earhart and Noonan, they must have been on land with the aircraft since water would have otherwise shorted out the Electra’s electrical system. Sporadic signals were reported for four or five days after the disappearance but none yielded any understandable information. The captain of the USS Colorado later said:
“There was no doubt many stations were calling the Earhart plane on the plane’s frequency, some by voice and others by signals. All of these added to the confusion and doubtfulness of the authenticity of the reports.”
Beginning approximately one hour after Earhart’s last recorded message, the USCGC Itasca undertook an ultimately unsuccessful search north and west of Howland Island based on initial assumptions about transmissions from the aircraft. The United States Navy soon joined the search and over a period of about three days sent available resources to the search area in the vicinity of Howland Island. The initial search by the Itasca involved running up the 157/337 line of position to the NNW from Howland Island. The Itasca then searched the area to the immediate NE of the island, corresponding to the area, yet wider than the area searched to the NW. Based on bearings of several supposed Earhart radio transmissions, some of the search efforts were directed to a specific position on a line of 281 degrees (approximately northwest) from Howland Island without evidence of the flyers. Four days after Earhart’s last verified radio transmission, on July 6, 1937, the captain of the battleship Colorado received orders from the Commandant, Fourteenth Naval District to take over all naval and coast guard units to coordinate search efforts.
Later search efforts were directed to the Phoenix Islands south of Howland Island. A week after the disappearance, naval aircraft from the Colorado flew over several islands in the group including Gardner Island (now called Nikumaroro), which had been uninhabited for over 40 years. The subsequent report on Gardner read: “Here signs of recent habitation were clearly visible but repeated circling and zooming failed to elicit any answering wave from possible inhabitants and it was finally taken for granted that none were there… At the western end of the island a tramp steamer (of about 4000 tons)… lay high and almost dry head onto the coral beach with her back broken in two places. The lagoon at Gardner looked sufficiently deep and certainly large enough so that a seaplane or even an airboat could have landed or taken off in any direction with little if any difficulty. Given a chance, it is believed that Miss Earhart could have landed her aircraft in this lagoon and swum or waded ashore.” They also found that Gardner’s shape and size as recorded on charts were wholly inaccurate. Other Navy search efforts were again directed north, west and southwest of Howland Island, based on a possibility the Electra had ditched in the ocean, was afloat, or that the aviators were in an emergency raft.
The official search efforts lasted until July 19, 1937. At $4 million, the air and sea search by the Navy and Coast Guard was the most costly and intensive in U.S. history up to that time but search and rescue techniques during the era were rudimentary and some of the search was based on erroneous assumptions and flawed information. Official reporting of the search effort was influenced by individuals wary about how their roles in looking for an American hero might be reported by the press. Despite an unprecedented search by the United States Navy and Coast Guard, no physical evidence of Earhart, Noonan or the Electra 10E was found. The aircraft carrier USS Lexington, the battleship USS Colorado, the Itasca, the Japanese oceanographic survey vessel Koshu and the Japanese seaplane tender Kamoi searched for six–seven days each, covering 150,000 square miles (390,000 km2).
Immediately after the end of the official search, Putnam financed a private search by local authorities of nearby Pacific islands and waters, concentrating on the Gilberts. In late July 1937, Putnam chartered two small boats and while he remained in the United States, directed a search of the Phoenix Islands, Christmas (Kiritimati) Island, Fanning (Tabuaeran) Island, the Gilbert Islands and the Marshall Islands, but no trace of the Electra or its occupants was found.
Back in the United States, Putnam acted to become the trustee of Earhart’s estate so that he could pay for the searches and related bills. In probate court in Los Angeles, Putnam requested to have the “declared death in absentia” seven-year waiting period waived so that he could manage Earhart’s finances. As a result, Earhart was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939.
- Earhart was a widely known international celebrity during her lifetime. Her shyly charismatic appeal, independence, persistence, coolness under pressure, courage and goal-oriented career along with the circumstances of her disappearance at a comparatively early age have driven her lasting fame in popular culture. Hundreds of articles and scores of books have been written about her life, which is often cited as a motivational tale, especially for girls. Earhart is generally regarded as a feminist icon.
- Earhart’s accomplishments in aviation inspired a generation of female aviators, including the more than 1,000 women pilots of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) who ferried military aircraft, towed gliders, flew target practice aircraft, and served as transport pilots during World War II.
- The home where Earhart was born is now the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum and is maintained by The Ninety-Nines, an international group of female pilots of whom Earhart was the first elected president.
- A small section of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra starboard engine nacelle recovered in the aftermath of the Hawaii crash has been confirmed as authentic and is now regarded as a control piece that will help to authenticate possible future discoveries. The evaluation of the scrap of metal was featured on an episode of History Detectives on Season 7 in 2009.
Countless other tributes and memorials have been made in Amelia Earhart’s name, including a 2012 tribute by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at a State Department event celebrating the ties of Earhart and the United States to its Pacific neighbors, noting: “Earhart … created a legacy that resonates today for anyone, girls and boys, who dreams of the stars.” In 2013, Flying magazine ranked Earhart No. 9 on its list of the “51 Heroes of Aviation”.
Records and achievements
- Woman’s world altitude record: 14,000 ft.
- First woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean (1928)
- Speed records for 100 km (and with 500 lb (230 kg) cargo) (1931)
- First woman to fly an autogyro (1931)
- Altitude record for autogyros: 18,415 ft. (1931)
- First person to cross the United States in an autogyro (1932)
- First woman to fly the Atlantic solo (1932)
- First person to fly the Atlantic twice (1932)
- First woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross (1932)
- First woman to fly nonstop, coast-to-coast across the U.S. (1933)
- Women’s speed transcontinental record (1933)
- First person to fly solo between Honolulu, Hawaii and Oakland, California (1935)
- First person to fly solo from Los Angeles, California to Mexico City, Mexico (1935)
- First person to fly solo nonstop from Mexico City, Mexico to Newark, New Jersey (1935)
- Speed record for east-to-west flight from Oakland, California to Honolulu, Hawaii (1937)
- First person to fly solo from the Red Sea to Karachi (1937)
Books by Earhart
Earhart was a successful and heavily promoted writer who served as aviation editor for Cosmopolitan magazine from 1928 to 1930. She wrote magazine articles, newspaper columns, essays and published two books based upon her experiences as a flyer during her lifetime:
- 20 Hrs., 40 Min. (1928) was a journal of her experiences as the first woman passenger on a transatlantic flight.
- The Fun of It (1932) was a memoir of her flying experiences and an essay on women in aviation.
- Last Flight (1937) featured the periodic journal entries she sent back to the United States during her world flight attempt, published in newspapers in the weeks prior to her final departure from New Guinea. Compiled by her husband GP Putnam after she disappeared over the Pacific, many historians consider this book to be only partially Earhart’s original work.
By courtesy: Wikipedia.org