On July 2, 1937, a twin-engine Lockheed Electra sliced through the sky over the Pacific, sunlight glinting on its wings. Aboard were navigator Fred Noonan and the pilot, Amelia Earhart, nearing her goal of being the first woman to fly around the world. As they approached their destination of Howland Island, a tiny speck of land in the vast Pacific, they were enveloped in unexpectedly cloudy weather. The disappearance of the stars above made navigation more difficult. A few tense radio exchanges between her and the United States Coast Guard cutter Itasca failed to help. Finally, at 8:45 a.m., her ghostly voice was heard on the radio: “We are running north and south.” She was never seen again.
Amelia Earhart began her extraordinary journey nearly forty years earlier in Atchison, Kansas, where she was born to an affluent, prominent family. She showed a taste for adventure in early childhood, although when her father showed her a primitive airplane at the Iowa State Fair, the then ten-year-old dismissed it as “a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting.”
Her interests would change. After service as a medical aide in Canada during the First World War, during which she listened with fascination to the stories of combat pilots, she became enthralled with aviation. But in addition to debilitating health problems, she faced the skepticism of those who believed that the skies belonged only to men. As she later recalled, “One of my favorite phobias is that girls, especially those whose tastes aren’t routine, often don’t get a fair break… It has come down through the generations, an inheritance of age-old customs, which produced the corollary that women are bred to timidity.”
She first took to the sky as a passenger in 1920, and determined from that moment on that she would be a pilot. After a series of expensive lessons, she received her pilot’s license in 1923. Earhart had chosen a dangerous passion; Winston Churchill, who adored flying, suffered two painful crashes in 1919. (As one who knew him put it, laconically: Churchill was “a very fair pilot once he was in the air, but more than uncertain in his take-off and landing.”)
Despite her fluctuating fortunes, she managed to buy a few airplanes, and the purchases became easier as her fame grew. In 1928, she became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic–though admittedly as a passenger–when she and two others flew from Newfoundland to Wales. She was determined that the next time she undertook such a journey, it would be as the pilot.
But first she became an author, lecturer, and fashion entrepreneur. Her canny product endorsements helped fund her aerial ambitions and led to her appointment as vice president of one of the earliest passenger airline companies. All the while she continued to fly, improving her skills and inspiring many around the world.
Earhart was famously independent; when she reluctantly married publisher George Putnam in 1931, she used an aviation metaphor to describe their relationship as one with “dual control”. Marriage didn’t keep her on the ground; the following year, she achieved her goal of piloting an airplane across the Atlantic, taking off in Newfoundland and landing in rural Northern Ireland. She was showered with awards and decorations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, and kept on flying, most notably in 1935 from Honolulu to Oakland.
By that year, she was such a celebrity that the adoration from her fans posed almost as much of a risk as her flying. When she landed in Newark, New Jersey after the first-ever solo flight from Mexico City, excited onlookers besieged her plane. She had to be rescued by policemen, “one of whom, in the ensuing melee, took possession of my right arm and another of my left leg…The arm-holder started to go one way, while he who clasped my leg set out in the opposite direction. The result provided the victim with a fleeting taste of the tortures of the rack.”
Earhart was undeterred and began to plan her most ambitious feat yet: the first aerial circumnavigation of the world by a woman. It would be a supreme test of her flying skills and technical ability. Her first attempt, in March 1937, ended in failure when her plane’s landing gear collapsed during takeoff in Hawaii. But soon she tried again, covering vast distances and closing in on her goal.
She reflected during the journey: “Not much more than a month ago, I was on the other shore of the Pacific, looking westward. This evening, I looked eastward over the Pacific. In those fast-moving days, which have intervened, the whole width of the world has passed behind us, except this broad ocean. I shall be glad when we have the hazards of its navigation behind us.” Sadly, the “hazards of navigation” would cost Amelia Earhart her life. But her exploits as one of the most daring aviation pioneers of the early 20th century ensured her unfaltering fame.
Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. He is the author of “We Shall Fight: Churchill’s Greatest Speech,” to be published by HarperCollins.