Today is the 122nd birthday of aviatrix Amelia Earhart. Mystery surrounding her last trip exists to this day, with theories and evidence leading to the belief that she survived the on an island well off her intended course. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
BEST KNOWN FOR: Amelia Earhart was the first female pilot to fly across the Atlantic and the first person to have flown both oceans. Her mysterious disappearance occurred in 1937.
Amelia Earhart was born on July 24, 1897, in Atchison, Kansas, in America’s heartland. She spent much of her early childhood in the upper-middle class household of her maternal grandparents. Amelia’s mother, Amelia “Amy” Otis, married a man who showed much promise, but had never been able to break the bonds of alcohol. Edwin Earhart was on a constant search to establish his career and put the family on a firm financial foundation. When the situation got bad, Amy would shuttle Amelia and her sister Muriel to their grandparents’ home. There they sought out adventures, exploring the neighborhood, climbing trees, hunting for rats, and taking breathtaking rides on Amelia’s sled.
Even after the family was reunited when Amelia was 10, Edwin constantly struggled to find and maintain gainful employment. This caused the family to move around, and Amelia attended several different schools. She showed early aptitude in school for science and sports, though it was difficult to do well academically and make friends. In 1915, Amy separated once again from her husband, and moved Amelia and her sister to Chicago to live with friends. While there, Amelia attended Hyde Park High School, where she excelled in chemistry. Her father’s inability to be the provider for the family led Amelia to become independent and not rely on someone else to “take care” of her.
After graduation, Amelia Earhart spent a Christmas vacation visiting her sister in Toronto, Canada. After seeing wounded soldiers returning from World War I, she volunteered as a nurse’s aide for the Red Cross. Earhart came to know many of the wounded who were pilots. She developed a strong admiration for aviators, spending much of her free time watching the Royal Flying Corps practicing at the airfield nearby. In 1919, Earhart enrolled in medical studies at Columbia University. She quit a year later to be with her parents, who had reunited in California.
Amelia Earhart’s public persona presented a gracious, if somewhat shy, woman who displayed remarkable talent and bravery. Yet deep inside, Earhart harbored a burning desire to distinguish herself as different from the rest of the world. She was an intelligent and competent pilot who never panicked or lost her nerve, but she was not a brilliant aviator. Her skills kept pace with aviation during the first decade of the century but, as technology moved forward with sophisticated radio and navigation equipment, Earhart continued to fly by instinct.
She recognized her limitations and continuously worked to improve her skills, but the constant promotion and touring never gave her the time she needed to catch up. Recognizing the power of her celebrity, she strove to be an example of courage, intelligence, and self-reliance. She hoped her influence would help topple negative stereotypes about women, and open doors for them in every field.
Sometime before their marriage, Earhart and Putnam worked on secret plans for a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. By early 1932, they had made their preparations. They announced that on the fifth anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, Amelia would attempt the same feat. On the morning of May 20, 1932, she took off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, with that day’s copy of the local newspaper to confirm the date of the flight.
Almost immediately, the flight ran into difficulty as she encountered thick clouds and ice on the wings. After about 12 hours the conditions got worse, and the plane began to experience mechanical difficulties. She knew she wasn’t going to make it to Paris as Lindbergh had, so she started looking for a new place to land. She found a pasture just outside the small village of Culmore, in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and successfully landed. The nearly 15-hour flight established her as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. As a result, Earhart won many honors, including the Gold Medal from the National Geographic Society as presented by President Hoover, the Distinguished Flying Cross from the U.S. Congress, and the Cross of the Knight of the Legion of Honor from the French government.
In 1935, Amelia Earhart joined the faculty at Purdue University as a female career consultant, and technical advisor to the Department of Aeronautics. This partnership helped finance the purchase of a Lockheed Electra L-10E plane. While she would not be the first person to circumnavigate the earth, she decided she would be the first to do it around the equator. She pulled together a top-rated crew of three men: Captain Harry Manning, Fred Noonan, and Paul Mantz. Manning had been the captain of the President Roosevelt, which brought her back from Europe in 1928, and would become Earhart’s first navigator. Noonan had vast experience in both marine and flight navigation, and was to be the second navigator. Mantz, a Hollywood stunt pilot, and was chosen to be Earhart’s technical advisor.
The original plan was to take off from Oakland, California, and fly west to Hawaii. From there, the group would fly across the Pacific Ocean to Australia. Then they would cross the sub-continent of India, on to Africa, then to Florida, and back to California.
On March 17, 1937, they took off from Oakland on the first leg. They experienced some periodic problems flying across the Pacific, and landed in Hawaii for some repairs at the United States Navy’s Field on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. After three days, the Electra began its takeoff, but something went wrong. Earhart lost control, and looped the plane on the runway. How this happened is still the subject of some controversy. Several witnesses, including an Associated Press journalist, said they saw a tire blow. Other sources, including Paul Mantz, indicated it was pilot error. Though no one was seriously hurt, the plane was severely damaged and had to be shipped back to California for extensive repairs.
In the interim, Earhart and Putnam secured additional funding for a new flight. The stress of the delay and the grueling fund-raising appearances left Amelia exhausted. By the time the plane was repaired, weather patterns and global wind changes required alterations to the flight plan. This time Earhart and her crew would fly east. Captain Harry Manning would not join the team, due to previous commitments. Paul Mantz was also absent, reportedly due to a contract dispute.
After flying from Oakland to Miami, Florida, Earhart and Noonan took off on June 1st from Miami with much fanfare and publicity. The plane flew toward Central and South America, turning east for Africa. From there, the plane crossed the Indian Ocean and finally touched down in Lae, New Guinea, on June 29, 1937. About 22,000 miles of the journey had been completed. The remaining 7,000 miles would take place over the Pacific.
In Lae, Earhart contracted dysentery that lasted for days. While she recuperated, several necessary adjustments were made to the plane. Extra amounts of fuel were stowed on board. The parachutes were packed away, for there would be no need for them while flying along the vast and desolate Pacific Ocean.
The flyer’s plan was to head to Howland Island, 2,556 miles away, situated between Hawaii and Australia. A flat sliver of land 6,500 feet long, 1,600 feet wide, and no more than 20 ft. above the ocean waves, the island would be hard to distinguish from the similar looking cloud shapes. To meet this challenge, Earhart and Noonan had an elaborate plan with several contingencies. Celestial navigation would be used to track their route and keep them on course. In case of overcast skies, they had radio communication with a U.S. Coast Guard vessel, Itasca, stationed off Howland Island. They could also use their maps, compass, and the position of the rising sun to make an educated guess in finding their position relative to Howland Island. After aligning themselves with Howland’s correct latitude, they would run north and south looking for the island and the smoke plume to be sent up by the Itasca. They even had emergency plans to ditch the plane if need be, believing the empty fuel tanks would give the plane some buoyancy, as well as time to get into their small inflatable raft to wait for rescue.
Earhart and Noonan set out from Lae on July 2, 1937, at 12:30 PM, heading east toward Howland Island. Though the flyers seemed to have a well thought-out plan, several early decisions led to grave consequences later on. Radio equipment with shorter wavelength frequencies were left behind, presumably to allow more room for fuel canisters. This equipment could broadcast radio signals farther distances. Due to inadequate quantities of high-octane fuel, the Electra carried about 1,000 gallons—50 gallons short of full capacity.
The Electra’s crew ran into difficulty almost from the start. Witnesses to the July 2 take off reported that a radio antenna may have been damaged. It is also believed that due to the extensive overcast conditions, Noonan might have had extreme difficulty with celestial navigation. If that weren’t enough, it was later discovered that the flyers were using maps that may have been inaccurate. According to experts, evidence shows that the charts used by Noonan and Earhart placed Howland Island nearly six miles off its actual position.
These circumstances led to a series of problems that couldn’t be solved. As Earhart and Noonan reached the supposed position of Howland Island, they maneuvered into their north and south tracking route to find the island. They looked for visual and auditory signals from the Itasca, but for various reasons radio communication was very poor that day. There was also confusion between Earhart and the Itasca over which frequencies to use, and a misunderstanding as to the agreed upon check-in time; the flyers were operating on Greenwich Civil Time and the Itasca was operating on the naval time zone, which set their schedules 30 minutes apart.
On the morning of July 3, 1937, at 7:20 AM, Amelia reported her position, placing the Electra on course at 20 miles southwest of the Nukumanu Islands. At 7:42 AM the Itasca picked up this message from the Earhart, “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.” The ship replied but there was no indication that Earhart heard this. The flyers’ last communication was at 8:43 AM. Though the transmission was marked as “questionable,” it is believed Earhart and Noonan thought they were running along the north, south line. However, Noonan’s chart of Howland’s position was off by five nautical miles. The Itasca released its oil burners in an attempt to signal the flyers, but they apparently did not see it. In all likelihood, their tanks ran out of fuel and they had to ditch at sea.