This year, International Women's Day falls smack-dab in the middle of Aviation week, so we're recognizing Kansas's internationally-known female aviator, Amelia Earhart!
A pioneer in women's aviation, Earhart was just the sixteenth woman to obtain her pilot's license. In 1928, she became the first woman to fly over the Atlantic ocean. Though these were outstanding accomplishments for a woman at the time, Earhart wanted to push the boundaries even farther. In 1937, Earhart set out to become the first woman to complete a flight around the world. During her flight, she disappeared. The circumstances under which Earhart's flight went awry are uncertain to this day, though many varying theories exist. Now, nearly 80 years later after Earhart's disappearance, new theories continue to arise.
About Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas on July 24, 1897, to parents who had fallen on hard times financially. As a result, Amelia and her sister, Muriel, spent many of their formative years with their grandparents. According to Biography.com, both Amelia and Muriel were adventurers, spending their time exploring and climbing trees. Though her family reunited when she was 10 years old, hardships continued, and Earhart moved from school to school. Despite relocating several times, Earhart excelled in school, showing exceptional aptitude for chemistry and sports. She spent a time after high school working as a nurse's aide for the Red Cross after seeing wounded soldiers returning from World War I. During this time, she developed friendships with the soldiers, many of whom were military pilots. In 1920, Earhart took a plane ride at a Long Beach air show and knew then and there that she would learn to fly. Earhart's love of adventure and hard-working nature had continued and carried her into adulthood. She worked a variety of jobs to pay for flight lessons. She broke the world altitude record for female pilots during her training, reaching 14,000 feet. She obtained her pilot's license at the ripe-old age of 26, the sixteenth woman ever to do so.
Financial struggles continued for Earhart's family, and with no immediate aviation prospects that would earn a living, Earhart sold the plane she had purchased and spent a time working as a teacher and later as a social worker.
By 1937, Earhart was living in Boston and slowly re-immersing herself in aviation. According to Biography.com, she invested in the Dennison Airport in Massachusetts, was involved with the American Aeronautical Society's Boston chapter, acted as a sales representative for Kinner airplanes and even wrote about flying for the local newspaper. During this time, she gained a celebrity status, but it wasn't enough. Earhart was determined to continue flying.
Taking to the Sky
Shortly after Lindberg completed the first-ever transatlantic flight, there was a push for a woman to fly over the Atlantic, too. Earhart was chosen for the task by pilot and publicity man Captain Hilton H. Railey, making her the first woman to fly over the Atlantic Ocean... as a passenger. At the time, it was believed that a such a flight was too dangerous for a woman to complete alone. As a result, Earhart would board the plane with pilot Wilmer Stultz and copilot and mechanic Louis E. Gordon. The flight lasted 20 hours and 40 minutes, which would later become the title of Earhart's book on the experience. It wasn't until the next year that Earhart would become the first woman to fly solo over the Atlantic.
Earhart Sets Out to Circumvent the Earth
Earhart continued to make aviation history, setting out to circumnavigate the earth from its equator in 1937. Despite the successful flights she'd made prior, something went amiss. Earhart and her team, which consisted of Captain Harry Manning, Fred Noonan and Paul Mantz, set out with the intention of beginning their journey in Oakland, California, and heading west, making their first stop in Hawaii. There were several problems with the flight, however, and an errant takeoff left the plane in bad shape. (According to Biography.com, this could have been either a malfunction of the aircraft or a pilot error, as witnesses reported both.) Upon arrival in Hawaii, the plane had to be shipped back to California for repair, and a second attempt would be made to circumvent the world at the Equator, though this time the team would head east.
Earhart's Final Flight
Neither Manning or Mantz would be able to make the trip due to personal conflicts, so it was up to Earhart and Noonan. The pair took off on June 1, 1937, and by June 29, they touched down in New Guinea, having successfully completed 22,000 miles of the 29,000 journey around the world. The remaining 7,000 miles over the Pacific Ocean would prove to be an unexpected challenge. Biography.com indicates that Earhart and Noonan had plans to land at Howland Island, a small island between Australia and Hawaii. The island was so small that it would be hard to distinguish, so weather conditions and celestial navigation would play a large role in a successful landing. The team had contact with a U.S. Coast Guard vessel stationed off of the Island to guide them in. They even had emergency plans in place in the event of complication. When they took off from New Guinea, things took a turn for the worse almost immediately. Some witnesses have said that a radio antenna appeared to be damaged during takeoff. Overcast weather would make celestial navigation near impossible, and the pair had ditched additional radio equipment in order to carry more fuel on board. To make matters worse, it was later discovered that Earhart and Noonan may very well have been using inaccurate maps.
On July 3, 1937, at 7:20 a.m., Earhart reported her position to the Coast Guard vessel, Itasca. She indicated a position 20 miles southwest of the Nukumanu Islands. She left the following message:
"We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet."
Itasca picked up the message 22 minutes later. The ship replied, but confirmation that Earhart had heard the reply was never received. The Itasca tried to signal the flyers, but it would seem that their signals could not be seen by Earhart and Noonan.
An immediate search began, invoking the help of 66 aircrafts and nine ships. Despite tremendous efforts, the pair were never found. With no sign of Earhart and no details regarding the disappearance, she was legally declared dead two years later in 1939.
Solving the Mystery
Many have speculated what became of Earhart. Some believe that her plane went down in the ocean, while others believe that she had a rough, but survivable landing on a Pacific island. Others, still, believe that Earhart had been on a spy mission for President Roosevelt and was captured by Japanese troops.
Because there were so many complications with Earhart's last flight, determining exactly what happened is a difficult task. The two most common beliefs, however, are that the plane ran out of fuel over the Pacific, or that it landed on Gardner Island (now known as Nikumaroro), and Earhart and Noonan spent their last days on the island. This theory seemingly has more credibility than others, as on-site investigations yielded a piece of plexiglass the exact size and shape of a window from Earhart's plane, freckle cream believed to belong to Earhart, makeshift tools and bits of clothing.
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