First Transatlantic Solo Flight by a Woman

Amelia Earhart, an American aviator, was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, becoming a national hero and an ardent advocate for female independence. She died attempting to become the first female pilot to fly around the world.

Summary of Event

For decades after her death, Amelia Earhart remained the most famous female American aviator. During her brief career in aviation, she set many aviation records, including being the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic. She actively promoted the growth of the air transportation industry and the role of women in aviation. [kw]First Transatlantic Solo Flight by a Woman (May 20-21, 1932)
[kw]Transatlantic Solo Flight by a Woman, First (May 20-21, 1932)
[kw]Solo Flight by a Woman, First Transatlantic (May 20-21, 1932)
[kw]Flight by a Woman, First Transatlantic Solo (May 20-21, 1932)
[kw]Woman, First Transatlantic Solo Flight by a (May 20-21, 1932)
[g]Atlantic Ocean;May 20-21, 1932: First Transatlantic Solo Flight by a Woman[08060]
[g]Canada;May 20-21, 1932: First Transatlantic Solo Flight by a Woman[08060]
[g]Ireland;May 20-21, 1932: First Transatlantic Solo Flight by a Woman[08060]
[c]Space and aviation;May 20-21, 1932: First Transatlantic Solo Flight by a Woman[08060]
[c]Transportation;May 20-21, 1932: First Transatlantic Solo Flight by a Woman[08060]
[c]Women’s issues;May 20-21, 1932: First Transatlantic Solo Flight by a Woman[08060]
Earhart, Amelia
Noonan, Frederick Joseph
Putnam, George P.

Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas, on July 24, 1897. During World War I she lived in Toronto, Canada, where she served as a nurse at a military hospital. After the war, she enrolled as a premed student at Columbia University, but she did not finish the training. In 1920 Earhart moved to California and took her first flight in an airplane, a 10-minute ride over Los Angeles. She began taking flying lessons almost immediately, and her instructor, Anita Snook, was one of the world’s first female pilots. Earhart bought her first airplane, a Kinner Airster that she named The Canary, on her twenty-fourth birthday. A few months later, in October, she set a new women’s altitude record of 14,000 feet in The Canary.

Earhart moved to Boston, where she worked as a social worker, but she continued to be interested in aviation, and she publicized the role of women in aviation at a time when women had just been given the right to vote in the United States. Her activities brought her to the attention of George P. Putnam, the New York City publicist who had promoted Charles Lindbergh’s book We (1927), which described Lindbergh’s 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Putnam had been hired by Amy Guest, a wealthy American living in London, to identify someone suitable to be the first female to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Guest had purchased Commander Richard Byrd’s Fokker F7, a powerful three-engine airplane, and she had initially intended to be the first woman passenger on a transatlantic flight. Guest’s family objected to the risk such a journey posed, however, and Putnam recommended Earhart for the flight.

Although Earhart was a licensed pilot, she had no experience flying an airplane that had more than one engine, and she had much more experience navigating with ground references than with more advanced navigational instruments. For these reasons, Earhart was a passenger on the flight, which was piloted by Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon. On June 18, 1928, the Fokker F7, named Friendship, took off from Trepassy, Newfoundland. Stultz, Gordon, and Earhart flew through dense fog for most of the trip, which made navigation difficult. They completely missed Ireland, their intended destination. After a flight that lasted 20 hours and 40 minutes, Friendship landed at Burry Port in South Wales with almost no fuel to spare.

The welcoming crowd paid little attention to Stultz and Gordon, since men had already flown the Atlantic. Instead, the media seized on Earhart’s role as the first woman to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. Earhart, however, was uncomfortable with the acclaim she received, since she had only been a passenger on the flight. As a publicist, Putnam recognized the significance of being a record-breaker, and he began arranging Earhart’s career. He organized a national speaking tour and a cross-country flight for Earhart, who described her first transatlantic flight in her book Twenty Hours, Forty Minutes (1928). Earhart married Putnam in 1931. She bought a new aircraft, a Lockheed Vega, and set several women’s speed records in her new airplane.

Amelia Earhart disappeared somewhere between Lae and Howland Island in July, 1937, while attempting to fly around the world.

Piloting a craft across the Atlantic remained a challenge for Earhart. On the evening of May 20, 1932, five years after Lindbergh left on his own solo flight across the Atlantic, Earhart took off from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland. This time she was both the pilot and the only occupant of her single-engine Lockheed Vega. She encountered good weather for several hours and was able to navigate using the moon’s position in the sky. Then the altimeter, which displays the height of the aircraft above sea level, failed, and the Vega encountered a severe thunderstorm. Earhart struggled to keep the plane level in the storm as the updrafts and downdrafts stressed the plane’s structure. It was night, and she saw flames coming from a cracked weld on the engine. Hours later, with her aircraft running low on fuel and flames continuing to come from the engine, Earhart saw the Irish coast. She landed in a field near Londonderry, Ireland, at 2:30 p.m. on May 21, where she was greeted by a surprised farm laborer.

Earhart set four world’s records on the flight: The flight was the fastest crossing of the Atlantic by air (in 14 hours, 54 minutes) and the longest distance flown by a woman (2,206 miles), and Earhart became both the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and the only person to have flown across the Atlantic twice. When she returned to the United States, President Herbert Hoover presented her with a medal from the National Geographic Society, and she received a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

After her second transatlantic flight, Earhart became active in encouraging the development of commercial aviation. She served as vice president of Luddington Airlines, which provided passenger service between New York and Washington, D.C., and wrote her second book, The Fun of It(1932). Three years after her solo transatlantic flight, Earhart became the first person to fly from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland, a 2,408-mile flight across the Pacific Ocean. Before her successful flight, ten pilots had died attempting this journey. Earhart’s voyage had the further distinction of being the first time a civilian aircraft carried a two-way radio.

On May 20, 1937, Earhart set out from Oakland, California, in a twin-engine Lockheed Electra in an attempt to fly around the world. Fred Noonan served as navigator on the flight, the route of which went from Miami to Puerto Rico, South America, Africa, India, and Australia. On June 29, Earhart and Noonan reached New Guinea and had only 7,000 miles left to go. On July 2, they left New Guinea on the most difficult segment of the trip, a 2,556-mile flight to Howland Island, which was only 6,000 feet long and 1,500 feet wide. They carried a two-way radio, and their last confirmed position report was over the Nukumanu Islands, about 800 miles along their route. The Coast Guard cutter Itasca was at Howland Island to communicate with Earhart and help her locate the small island, but the Itasca never received a clear transmission from Earhart, and an intensive search found no trace of her, Noonan, or their plane. The disappearance became one of the unsolved mysteries of the twentieth century.


Earhart used her fame as an aviator to promote two causes in which she strongly believed: She became an advocate for the developing industry of passenger air transportation, and she encouraged an increasingly prominent role for women in aviation. Earhart’s second transatlantic flight demonstrated the growing safety of airplane flight. Prior to this flight, several pilots had perished on their first attempt to cross the Atlantic, but only a few years later, on March 26, 1939, Pan-American Airlines made its first trial transatlantic flight, from Baltimore, Maryland, to Foynes, Ireland, using a Boeing-314 Yankee Clipper. By the 1970’s, jet airplanes had replaced ocean liners as the most common mode of transatlantic travel.

In 1929, Earhart cofounded the Ninety-Nines, Ninety-Nines[Ninety Nines] an international organization of female pilots, and she served as its first president. The Ninety-Nines, which grew to more than five thousand members, continued to promote opportunities for women in aviation and offered the Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship to support female pilots trying to complete advanced pilot-training courses. As part of her support of women’s rights, Earhart suggested that women be drafted to fight in wars just like men. Aviation;development

Further Reading

  • Gilbert, James B., and Amelia Earhart. Twenty Hours, Forty Minutes: Our Flight in the “Friendship.” Salem, N.H.: Ayer, 1979. Earhart’s own account of her first transatlantic flight includes copies of pages from her flight log and many photographs.
  • Lovell, Mary S. The Sound of Wings: The Life of Amelia Earhart. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. A well-researched account of Earhart’s life from her childhood to her consuming quest for aviation fame. Well illustrated; includes twenty-four pages of photographs.
  • Morrissey, Muriel Earhart, and Carol L. Osborne. Amelia, My Courageous Sister: Biography of Amelia Earhart. Santa Clara, Calif.: Osborne, 1987. Earhart’s sister provides an account of the pilot’s life and achievements in aviation. Includes many family pictures, letters, and documents.
  • Rich, Doris L. Amelia Earhart: A Biography. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1989. Account of Earhart’s life includes discussion of her first flying experience, how she was selected to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, her marriage to Putnam, her support of women’s rights, and her attempt to fly around the world.
  • Van Pelt, Lori. Amelia Earhart: The Sky’s No Limit. New York: Forge Press, 2005. Brief account of the life and achievements of Amelia Earhart emphasizes her efforts to refuse all limits on the role of women in American society.

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