Amelia Earhart Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The most famous female aviator in the United States, known for her record-setting nonstop flights in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Early Life

Amelia Mary Earhart and her sister Muriel never stayed long in one place as they grew up, because their father continually moved around the United States to find work. The girls spent some time living with their grandparents. Nevertheless, they had a good education and grew up to love books and music. While living in Toronto, Earhart befriended a Royal Flying Corps officer who took her to see his planes and airfield. This experience sparked her lifelong love of aviation.

In Los Angeles, Earhart began to take flying lessons and bought her first plane, financed partly by her parents and partly by money she had earned driving a truck. After returning to the Boston area in 1925, she went to work teaching English, first at the University of Massachusetts and later at Denison House, a social settlement. She continued her hobby of flying and became known among the local aviators.

Setting Records

In April, 1928, Earhart was selected by the publisher George Palmer Putnam to be a passenger on a flight that would make her the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air. The flight was sponsored by Amy Phipps Guest, an American flying enthusiast living in London who had bought the explorer Admiral Richard Byrd’s Fokker Trimotor plane the Friendship. Unable to make the trip herself, Guest had asked Putnam to find a young woman to represent her in the promotion of women in aviation. Putnam saw qualities in Earhart that he hoped would make her an appealing icon of American womanhood.

Delayed by bad weather for several days, the Friendship’s transatlantic flight began on June 17, 1928, at Trepassy Bay, Newfoundland, when pilot Wilmer Stutz lifted off with Earhart and navigator Lou Gordon. Hampered by fog and a dead radio, they flew for twenty hours and forty minutes before landing their pontoon plane on a river near Burry Port, Wales.

Earhart became an overnight celebrity, even though she had not done the actual flying. She attracted crowds of admirers in Southampton and London and was the guest of honor at parties, where she spoke with Winston Churchill and danced with Edward, prince of Wales. After sailing back to the United States on an ocean liner, she found more fame and opportunity. She received product endorsement offers and writing assignments for McCall’s and Cosmopolitan. Putnam immediately organized a lecture tour for her and rushed her account of the flight, Twenty Hours Forty Minutes (1928), into print.

In 1932, Earhart, now married to Putnam, made a solo flight from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, to Culmore, Ireland, landing in a pasture on May 22 after fourteen hours and forty-five minutes in the air. As the first woman to make a solo flight across the Atlantic, she was showered with honors such as the Distinguished Flying Cross from the Congress of the United States, an award from the French Legion of Honor, and a medal from the National Geographic Society. Although Earhart made other solo flights from Hawaii to California, from Los Angeles to Mexico City, and from Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey, and also set various speed records, none of these achievements attracted as much attention as her 1932 flight. She remained active on the lecture circuit but yearned for one more spectacular flight. In 1935, the trustees of Purdue University purchased a twin-engine Lockheed Electra for her, and she began planning an around-the-world flight.

The Last Flight

After much fund-raising and organizational effort, the flight began on June 1, 1937, when Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, left Miami and headed south, where they would follow the equator eastward to Africa and Asia. A month of flying brought them to Lae, New Guinea, on June 29. Departing on July 1 for tiny Howland Island, in the middle of the Pacific. Despite assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca, Earhart became lost in the clouds and was unable to make sufficient use of radio signals to find her way. She was last heard from at 8:45 a.m., July 2, 1937, when she radioed that she was lost and running low on fuel. An extensive search mounted by the U.S. Navy failed to find any trace of her plane or its occupants.

Earhart’s fate became one of the century’s greatest mysteries, resulting in many unusual claims and theories, mostly unsubstantiated by physical evidence. The most compelling of these is that she turned back from Howland Island, crashed in the Marshall Islands, then under unfriendly Japanese control, and perished of her injuries, either immediately or after languishing in a Japanese prison.

Bibliography
  • Earhart, Amelia. The Fun of It: Random Records of My Own Flying and of Women in Aviation. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1932. The most complete autobiographical account of Earhart’s life and the most interesting of her books.
  • _______. Last Flight. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1937. Earhart’s last writings, compiled by her husband.
  • _______. Twenty Hours Forty Minutes. New York: Putnam, 1928. An account of the flight of the Friendship, based on Earhart’s log book and her personal thoughts during the flight.
  • Goldstein, Donald M., and Katherine V. Dillon. Amelia: The Centennial Biography of an Aviation Pioneer. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1997. A comprehensive biography illustrated with thirty photographs, some never before published.
  • Loomis, Vincent, and Jeffrey Ethell. Amelia Earhart: The Final Story. New York: Random House, 1985. Brings to light evidence from Japanese and other previously untapped sources in an attempt to explain Earhart’s disappearance.

Ninety-nines

Record flights

Transatlantic flight

Transglobal flight

Women and flight

Amelia Earhart was famous for her record-setting nonstop flights throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s.

(Library of Congress)

Amelia Earhart’s Final Flight, 1937

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