Amelia Earhart
American aviation pioneer

1897 - 1937?

Amelia Earhart, an American aviator, became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean alone. She was also the first woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross, which was awarded to her by the United States Congress.

Amelia Mary Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas. A modest inheritance from her maternal grandmother helped give her a secure life with considerable opportunity for travel. She became a volunteer nurse during World War I (1914-1918).

In 1920, Earhart moved to California to live with her mother. While there, she became fascinated by aviation, which was a new and dangerous sport at that time. Earhart took flying lessons from an instructor named Neta Snook, who was one of only a few women pilots in the 1920's. Earhart purchased her own plane and set an unofficial altitude record for women. In 1924, she moved to the East Coast. Earhart became a social worker in 1926, but she continued to fly.

In 1928, Earhart rode as an observer on a transatlantic airplane flight from Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland, to Burry Port, Wales. The flight made her famous as the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air.

In 1929, Earhart helped found the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots that provides professional opportunities to women in aviation. In 1931, she married George Palmer Putnam, a wealthy publisher who had helped organize her 1928 flight.

Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean alone in 1932. She took off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, and landed in a pasture near Londonderry, Northern Ireland. She went on to set other speed and distance records, and became an important figure in the movement to develop commercial aviation.

On May 20, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Frederick J. Noonan, took off from Oakland, California, in an attempt to fly around the world. On June 1, after repairs and adjustments to their plane, they took off from Miami, Florida, and flew to Puerto Rico. On June 30, they landed in New Guinea. They had traveled about 20,000 miles, more than three-fourths of their planned flight. On July 1, they left New Guinea and began the longest leg of the journey, a 2,600-mile flight to Howland Island in the central Pacific Ocean. The next day, a U.S. Navy vessel picked up radio messages from Earhart in which she reported empty fuel tanks. But efforts to make radio contact failed. A massive search found no trace of the plane or crew.

In later decades, some people claimed that the United States sent Earhart and Noonan to spy against Japanese forces in the Pacific. Many reports described captives resembling the two Americans on Japanese-held islands during World War II (1939-1945). But little convincing evidence supports these claims. It is more likely that Earhart's plane ran out of fuel after navigation errors took her off course. She and Noonan probably crashed into the ocean and died.

Contributor: Roger E. Bilstein, Ph.D., Prof. of History, Univ. of Houston, Clear Lake.

Additional resources

Earhart, Amelia. Last Flight. 1937. Reprint. Crown, 1996.

Rich, Doris L. Amelia Earhart. Smithsonian Institution, 1989.


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