The accomplishments of Earhart & other female aviators
Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) was one of the most famous Americans of the twentieth century. Most of you know the basic outlines of her career. She was a very important aviator, and she set all kinds of records for solo flying, and for being the “first female aviator” to accomplish feats. She was exciting, innovative, attractive, and shy in a way that made people like her even more. She also became famous at a time when movie newsreels were becoming popular and the “star making” apparatus that sprung up around her certainly did a good job of boosting her fame.
So far so good, but where’s the myth, Professor?
Of course, most people know Amelia Earhart from her ill-fated attempt to become the first female pilot to fly around the world in 1937. She and her navigator disappeared and have been presumed dead ever since. As so often happens, myths and conspiracy theories about her disappearance have been with us ever since. But the crucial point, at least for our analytical purposes, Buzzkillers, is that these myths and conspiracy theories about her disappearance pre-occupy the popular imagination about Earhart and swamp the history of her real achievements in aviation.
Born in that all-American state Kansas, Amelia Earhart had a very active, tomboyish childhood, including hunting, extensive tree climbing, insect collecting, and having lots of adventures. After graduating from high school, she went to the Canadian National Exhibition in 1917 in Toronto, where she was captivated by the Exhibition’s air show.
When the 1918 influenza pandemic hit, she trained as a nurse and worked in a Canadian Military Hospital. She became very sick with pneumonia and spent a long time in the hospital having sinus operations related to her illness. Things didn’t go well and she suffered with terrible post-op headaches that kept her more or less invalided for a year. Lots of people chalk her adult dynamism up to the fact that she became so bored and frustrated while convalescing.
On a trip to Long Beach, California in December 1920, she flew as a passenger in air racer Frank Hawks’ bi-plane. That flight did the trick. Earhart became obsessed with flying the minute they touched down. She stayed in California and trained under Anita Snook, a very early female aviation pioneer. After gaining her pilot’s license, Earhart became one of the most famous aviators in the United States because of her persistence not only in flying, but also by being as “manly” a flyer as the male pilots who often mocked her. She set many flying records and her fame grew.
Here is an audio clip of part of her famous 1935 speech, “The Future of Women in Flying.”
However, her “greatest” fame came from an attempt to fly around world (with stops, of course), in 1937. It wouldn’t have been the first flight around the world, but Earhart would have the first woman to do so. Starting in Oakland on May 20, 1937, Earhart and her co-pilot flew east across the US and then departed Miami on May 23rd to go around the world. Their plane disappeared on July 2nd over the Pacific Ocean on the way to Howland Island. A massive search never found them and they were declared lost at sea on July 19th after having gone more than 75% of the way around the world.
There’s been lots of speculation about what happened, and various theories about what happened to Amelia herself have been put forward. They include: she was captured by the Japanese; she wasn’t a good flyer and when the plane started to run out of fuel, she panicked and crashed in the ocean; her navigator, Fred Noonan, was an alcoholic and got them lost; and, of course, that the government still has secret files on Earhart that they refuse to release. All of this is bunkum. None of them have stood up to scrutiny.
As I said at the beginning of the show, Buzzkillers, these myths and conspiracy theories about her disappearance pre-occupy the popular imagination about Earhart and swamp the history of her real achievements in aviation. These achievements include:
1922 — Female aviation altitude record of 4,267 meters (14,000 feet).
1928 — First woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger in the Fokker F.VII Friendship.
1929 — Female aviation speed record.
1930 — Female aviation speed record.
1931 — First woman to fly an autogiro.
1931 — Autogiro altitude record of 5,612 meters (18,415 feet).
1932 — First woman (and only the second person) to fly solo and nonstop across the Atlantic. Also first person to cross the Atlantic twice by air.
1932 — First woman to fly solo and nonstop across the United States.
1933 — Reset her transcontinental record.
1935 — First person to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii, to the U.S. mainland (Oakland, California).
1935 — Speed record between Mexico City and Washington, D.C.
1935 — First person to fly solo from Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey.
She was a total aviation rock-star. Myths about her disappearance tend to make Earhart, in a way, “too famous” for the wrong thing. But she was also a member of a fantastic generation of female aviator pioneers.
What we forget is that Earhart’s generation produced lots of these. Perhaps the most famous of these was the British flyer, Beryl Markham, who, in 1932, was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic east to west. Markham’s highly-regarded account of her flying life, “West with the Night,” was published in the 1940s, and revived in the 1980s to tremendous review and sales.
But there were many other notable female aviators at the time, including:
1906 E. Lillian Todd (USA) First Woman to Design and Build an Aircraft
1908 Therese Peltier (France) First Woman to Pilot an Aircraft
1910 Blanche Stuart Scott (USA) First Woman to fly an Airplane Solo
1910 Raymonde de Laroche (France) First Woman in the World to Receive Pilot License
1911 Melli Beese (Germany) First Woman in Germany to Receive a Pilot License
1911 Harriet Quimby (USA) First U.S. Woman Cross the English Channel
1915 Katherine Stinson (USA) First Female Aerobatic Pilot
1918 Marjorie Stinson (USA) First Woman Airmail Pilot
1921 Bessie Coleman (USA) First African-American (male or female) to Receive a Pilot License
1922 Tadashi Hyodo (Japan) First Woman in Japan to Receive a Pilot License
1927 Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie (USA) First Woman to Obtain an Aircraft Mechanics License
1929 Louise Thaden (USA) First Winner of All Women’s Air Race
1929 Florence “Pancho” Barnes (USA) First Woman Stunt Pilot in Motion Pictures
1929 Bobbi Trout (USA) First Woman to Perform In-flight Aerial Refueling
1930 Amy Johnson (UK) First Woman to Fly from England to Australia
1931 Anne Morrow Lindbergh (USA) First U.S. Woman Glider Pilot
1932 Ruthy Tu (China) First Woman Pilot in the Chinese Army
1932 Amelia Earhart (USA) First Woman to Cross the Atlantic Solo
1934 Helen Richey (USA) First Woman to be Hired as a Pilot for a U.S. Commercial Airline (Central Airlines)
So let’s put the Buzzkill Institute Seal of Approval on the fact that Amelia Earhart truly was a great aviation pioneer and deserves to have her full story told.
But let’s also encourage folks to look at all the other female pilots who set records, broke through barriers, and helped create the friendly skies. You can’t have many better role models than them!
Doris Rich, “Amelia Earhart” (1996)
Fleming, Candace Fleming, “Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart” (2011)
Susan Butler, “East to the Dawn: the Life of Amelia Earhart” (2009)