By Logan Hawkes
Pioneer, innovator, explorer, daring adventurer - Amelia (Millie) Earhart is a woman that will long be remembered as an individual who greatly embodied the Spirit of America, who fearlessly accepted the challenge of rising above the limitations of life, an individual that lived each moment with real gusto and courage; an inspiration for future generations who will not accept less than their personal best.
In the history books she is credited with being the first person to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean, the second aviator to fly nonstop across the Atlantic (after friend and fellow aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh accomplished it), and set a women’s altitude record of 14,000-feet, a title she didn’t hold for long.
But when friend and fellow aviator Charles Lindburg became the first man to fly nonstop from Mexico City to Brownsville’s newly developed airport March 9, 1929, a flight that christened the first airmail service between the two nations, he insisted on having Amelia attend the ceremonies. The event, considered to be of major international significance, was attended by some 20,000 people, attracting the press from as far away as New York and London.
But Millie’s beginnings were much more humble. Born July 24, 1897, Emelia’s early years were rocked with family problems. In 1917 she attended college preparatory school in Canada and decided to train as a nurses aid. She served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse at a military hospital during World War I until the Armistice in November 1918. In the fall of 1919 Amelia enrolled as a premed student at Columbia University. Although doing well in her studies, in 1920 she decided to join her mother and father in California. It was here, at a county fair, she took her first airplane ride and said from that moment on, "that's the life for me".
So intense was her interest, Amelia found a woman pilot who gave flying instructions and shortly afterwards began lessons with pioneer aviatrix Anita "Neta" Snook at Kinner Field near Long Beach. Amelia and Neta took to each other on sight, both having similar backgrounds. Neta had restored a "Canuck"...an old Canadian training plane. In July, she purchased a prototype of the Kinner airplane, naming it "The Canary".
Known for her daring flight style, she suffered several mishaps during this period. Neta Snook had reservations about Amelia's skills as a pilot, a feeling that was later held by many of Amelia's contemporaries.
But it didn't slow Millie down. She did sell her first airplane and purchased a Kissel, a sports car, that she nicknamed "the yellow peril". She drove her mother, Amy, cross-country to Boston shortly thereafter. Wherever they stopped people would gather asking about the roads and other questions. Cross-continental travel by automobile was still very much a novelty. On April 27, 1926 her life was to change forever. A phone call from Captain H.H. Railey invited her to become "the first woman to fly across the Atlantic?"
In June of 1928, Amelia did become the first woman to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. But the title was empty for Millie because she was not the pilot of the aircraft. But in 1928 she flew a solo flight from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast to attend the National Air Races. Amelia organized a cross-country air race for women pilots in 1929, the Los Angeles to Cleveland Women's Air Derby. Will Rogers coined the name "The Powder-Puff Derby"...a name that stuck! The "Ninety-Nines", a now famous women pilots organization, was formed by Amelia Earhart in her hotel room in Cleveland during a meeting with other women pilots.
By early 1932 no other person had successfully flown solo across the Atlantic since Lindbergh. On May 20, 1932, exactly 5 years after the Lindbergh flight, Amelia's modified Lockheed Vega began the journey. The following day and somewhat off-course, she landed in an open field near Londonderry in northern Ireland. She had broken several records on this flight...the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo and only person to fly it twice...the longest nonstop distance flown by a woman...and a record for crossing in the shortest time.
In the autumn of 1934, Amelia announced that her next venture would be a transpacific flight from Hawaii to California, and then on to Washington D.C. Ten pilots had already lost their lives attempting this crossing. Amelia's flight would be the first in which a civilian plane would carry a two-way radio telephone. She departed Wheeler Field on January 11, 1935 and landed in Oakland, California to a cheering crowd of thousands. President Roosevelt sent his congratulations.
In 1935 Amelia began to formulate plans for an around-the-world flight. A Lockheed Electra 10E was chosen as the plane for the flight. The flight would be two major firsts: She would be the first woman to accomplish the task, and she would travel the longest possible distance, circumnavigating the globe at its waist. Fredrick Noonan, a former navigator on the PanAmerican Pacific Clipper, was chosen as the navigator because of his familiarity with the Pacific area. The first leg of the journey would be from Oakland to Hawaii on March 17, 1935. On takeoff from Hawaii, Amelia bounced the plane off the runway causing serious damage to the wing and ending this first attempt. Later that year, On June 1, 1937 Amelia and her navigator Fred Noonan departed Miami, Florida bound for California by traveling around the world.
"I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system and I hope this trip is it. Anyway when I have finished this job, I mean to give up long-distance "stunt" flying.," she told reporters.
The first destination was San Juan, Puerto Rico...from there skirting the northeast edge of South America and then on to Africa and the Red Sea. The flight to Karachi was another first...no one had previously flown nonstop from the Red Sea to India before. From Karachi the Electra flew to Calcutta on June 17... from there, on to Rangoon, Bangkok, Singapore and Bandoeng.
It was June 27 before Amelia and Noonan were able to leave Bandoeng for Port Darwin, Australia. At Darwin the direction finder was repaired, and the parachutes were packed and shipped home...they would be of no value over the Pacific.
Amelia reached Lae in New Guinea on June 29. At this point they had flown 22,000 miles and there were 7,000 more to go...all over the Pacific. Amelia cabled her last commissioned article to the Herald Tribune. Photos show her looking very tired and ill during her time at Lae.
Amelia left Lae at precisely 00:00 hours Greenwich Mean Time on July 2. It is believed that the Electra was loaded with 1,000 gallons of fuel, allowing for 20-21 hours of flying.
At 07:20 hours GMT Amelia provided a position report placing the Electra on course at some 20 miles southwest of the Nukumanu Islands. The last weather report Amelia was known to have received was before takeoff. The head wind speed had increased by 10-12 mph, but it is not known if she ever received the report.
At 08:00 GMT Amelia made her last radio contact with Lae. She reported being on course for Howland Island at 12,000 feet.
Several short transmission were received by the Itasca with varying signal strengths but they were unable to get a fix on her location because they were too brief. At 19:30 GMT the following transmission was received from the Electra at maximum strength...
"KHAQQ calling Itasca. We must be on you but cannot see you...gas is running low..."
At 20:14 GMT the Itasca received the last voice transmission from Amelia giving positioning data. The Itasca continued to transmit on all frequencies until 21:30 hours GMT when they determined that Amelia must have ditched at sea and began to implement search procedures. It has been determined that the plane went down some 35-100 miles off the coast of Howland Island. President Roosevelt authorized a search of 9 naval ships and 66 aircraft at an estimated cost of over $4 million. On July 18 the search was abandoned by ships in the Howland area.
Millie has not been heard from since, a mystery that remains as one of the most intriguing in aviation history. But the search, apparently, is not over. A lonely South Pacific atoll may hold the secret to what happened to Amelia Earhart. Or it may be just another red herring in the 70-year-old search for perhaps the world’s most famous missing person. A 15-member expedition is heading to the remote island of Nikumaroro to find out.
The team, led by Ric Gillespie of Wilmington, Del., hopes to find evidence to prove its theory that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, crashed on the island (then called Gardner Island) on their ill-fated 1937 attempt to circle the globe. The expedition will look for skeletal remains and other clues.
The trip coincides with the 110th anniversary of Earhart’s birth in Atchison, Kan., and the 70th anniversary of her disappearance. For a woman who vanished so long ago, Earhart’s legacy is still going strong, as are efforts to discover her fate.
Her disappearance spawned scores of books, movies and many a late-night documentary. Her high-flying life as a female aviator — long before the women’s movement — has inspired generations. She’s one of only four Kansans honored with a statue in the state capitol, and she’s the only one whose plaque has a question mark next to the year of her death.
To commemorate the pioneering aviator’s July 24th birthday and her connections to Kansas, Atchison will hold its annual Amelia Earhart Festival this weekend.