31 Days of History: 24 July

In 1897, 112 years ago today, the famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart was born in Atchinson, Kansas.

Amelia Earhart

After a troubled childhood in various locations, Amelia found herself working as a nurse in Toronto in 1918. Despite a good job, she was discontent and restless, and passed the time reading poetry, learning to play the banjo and studying mechanics. At some point during this time, she got an idea that she would learn how to fly.

It would be late December 1920 before she took her first plane ride. It quickly convinced her that flying was her passion. She was a quick learner, and by 1923, Earhart became only the 16th woman to be issued a pilot's license. Although she was a competent pilot, flying was still her passion, but not her livelihood, and throughout the next few years, Earhart worked a variety of jobs (a teacher, a social worker, a photographer) and bounced around the country. As years passed, her reputation grew, as female pilots were few and far between in the 1920’s.

Earhart, shortly after her first plane ride

After Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, the climate was right for a female to duplicate the feat. Earhart was contacted and agreed to the flight as part of a larger project, one that would include a book, a publicity tour, and time on the lecture/speaking circuit. After the successful flight, Earhart returned to the United States where she was greeted with a ticker-tape parade in New York followed by a reception with President Calvin Coolidge at the White House.

Earhart is welcomed to England; 1928

Glamour shots; 1928

Earhart and President Hoover; 1932

Fame followed. The publicity tour gave way to celebrity endorsements and a long speaking tour. Throughout this time, Earhart spent a great deal of time with her publicist, George P. Putnam. After proposing to her 5 times, she accepted the sixth proposal and they were married in 1931.

The happy couple

Amelia Earhart and George Putnam

Throughout the 1930’s, Earhart undertook a variety of high-profile flights, gaining more recognitions and competing in long-distance races. In July 1936, she started planning a round-the-world flight. While it wouldn’t be the first flight around the globe, it would be the longest. As 29,000 miles, it followed a route roughly around the Equator. She chose Fred Noonen, an experienced Pan Am pilot, as her copilot.

Earhart and Noonen; 1937

Earhart andher beloved Vega

On 1 June 1937, they departed Miami and after numerous stops in South America, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, they arrived in New Guinea on 29 June. 22,000 miles of the journey had been completed and the remaining 7,000 miles would all be over the Pacific Ocean. The plan was to refuel on Howland Island, a tiny island slightly longer than a mile and less than ¼ of a mile wide. The US Coast Guard Cutter Itasca was standing by to assist if needed. As they approached the location of the island, Earhart and Noonen had trouble finding the tiny airstrip. After a series of confusing and garbled radio transmissions with the Itasca, Earhart’s plane was never heard from again.

The Coast Guard was assisted by the US Navy, and the search continued for 17 days to no avail. Despite a search of unprecedented proportions (at a cost of $4 million), not a shred of physical evidence was ever found. Most believe they ran out of fuel and had to crash land in the open sea, and the plane and all evidence sank shortly thereafter, although people still speculate on what really happened to her, and whether she is living on some tropical island with Elvis and JFK.


You can find various artifacts associated with Earhart at the National Air and Space Museum, located on the National Mall in downtown DC.

Earhart's Lockheed Vega on display at the National Air and Space Museum

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