On July 24th honor an extraordinary woman
There are many women in history that have altered its course. Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Burns, Rosa Parks, Sally Ride among them. Unfortunately, most of them are not household names. People may have heard of them but not what their specific contributions were. There is one, however, who is known and has received notoriety equal to her contributions and that is Amelia Earhart.
This tomboy turned social worker took flying lessons while living in a Boston settlement house. While working, she managed to save enough money within her first six-months salary to buy her first plane. It was a bright yellow, second-hand two-seater biplane. Amelia appropriately named her “The Canary.” She used it to set her first women’s record by rising to an altitude of 14,000 feet.
One afternoon in April 1928, a phone call came for Earhart at work. Initially, she refused the call saying she was too busy to answer then thought it was a prank. The call led to an interview in New York with project coordinators and publicist George Putnam. She was asked to join pilot Bill Stultz and co-pilot/mechanic Slim Gordon. The team left Newfoundland, on June 17, 1928, and arrived at Wales approximately 21 hours later. Their landmark flight made headlines worldwide as she became the first women to fly across the Atlantic. When the crew returned to the United States, they were greeted with a ticker-tape parade in New York and a reception held by President Calvin Coolidge at the White House.
From then on, Earhart’s life revolved around flying. During this time, she would marry George Putnam on February 7th, 1931. Intent on retaining her independence, she referred to the marriage as a “partnership” with “dual control.”
On May 20th, 1932, five years to the day after Lindbergh, she took off from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, to Paris to become the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo. Strong north winds, icy conditions, and mechanical problems forced her to land in a pasture near Londonderry, Ireland. President Herbert Hoover presented Earhart with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the first ever given to a woman. At the ceremony, Vice President Charles Curtis praised her courage, saying she displayed “heroic courage and skill as a navigator at the risk of her life.” Earhart felt the flight proved that men and women were equal in “jobs requiring intelligence, coordination, speed, coolness, and willpower.”
In the years that followed, Earhart continued to reach new heights. On January 11, 1935, she became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific from Honolulu to California. Later that year, she was the first to solo from Mexico City to New Jersey.
In 1937, as Earhart neared her 40th birthday, she was ready for a monumental, and final, challenge: she wanted to be the first woman to fly around the world. Despite a botched attempt in March that severely damaged her plane, a determined Earhart had her twin-engine plane rebuilt.
“I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system, and I hope this trip is it,” she said.
On June 1st, Earhart, and her navigator Fred Noonan departed from Miami and began the 29,000-mile journey. By June 29th, when they landed in New Guinea, all but 7,000 miles had been completed. Unfortunately, frequently inaccurate maps had made navigation difficult for Noonan, and their next hop was by far the most challenging.
On July 2nd, At 10 a.m. local time, the pair took off. Despite ideal weather reports, they flew into overcast skies and intermittent rain showers. As dawn neared, Earhart called the ITASCA, reporting “cloudy weather, cloudy.” At 7:42 a.m., the Itasca picked up a message, “We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.” The ship tried to reply, but the plane seemed not to hear. At 8:45, Earhart reported, “We are running north and south.”
Nothing further was heard from her.
A rescue attempt immediately commenced and became the most extensive air and sea search in naval history. On July 19th, after spending $4 million and scouring 250,000 square miles of ocean, the United States government reluctantly called off the operation. In 1938, a lighthouse was constructed on Howland Island in her memory, and across the United States, streets, schools, and airports are named after Earhart. Her birthplace, Atchison, Kansas, became a shrine to her memory. Amelia Earhart awards and scholarships are given out every year.
In a letter to her husband, written in case a dangerous flight proved to be her last, her brave spirit was clear. “Please know I am quite aware of the hazards,” she said. “I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”
July 24th is honored as Amelia Earhart day in observance of her date of birth. I encourage you, not only on July 24th but every day, to read more about Amelia Earhart, her accomplishments, and the other women mentioned at the beginning of this article.
Story by Fred Terling for Pennsylvania Bridges