Amelia Earhart teaching students in Newark, New Jersey
© Bettmann/Getty Image
Her legend and mystery endure. Amelia Earhart
Few people in modern history have captured our imagination as much as the famed American aviator Amelia Earhart, born on this day in 1897. She was doubly a pioneer of her day, a skilled pilot when flying was a relatively new and daring endeavour, and a woman in a field dominated by men. Earhart’s legend was made, sadly, not as much by her piloting accomplishments as by her sudden disappearance in 1937 when her fame was still ascending. The 39-year-old famously went missing, along with navigator Fred Noonan, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, near Howland Island, while attempting to fly around the world. The official search for Earhart and Noonan lasted 17 days. The US Navy and Coast Guard searched more than 300,000 square kilometres of the Pacific, an effort that became the most expensive search in history at the time. Her husband George Putnam led a private search in the months that followed.
No verified trace of Earhart, Noonan, or the twin-propeller Lockheed Electra plane has ever been found. Earhart was born in Kansas and began flying lessons at age 23 soon after taking her first flight. She bought her first plane a year later and with it, set the first of her many records: the altitude record for a woman pilot at 4,267 metres. In 1928, she became the first female passenger to fly across the Atlantic; in 1932, she became the first woman to fly nonstop solo across the Atlantic, and the second person (after Charles Lindbergh) to accomplish the feat; later that year she became the first woman to fly alone across the U.S. and set the woman’s distance record of 3,938 kilometres; and in 1935, she became the first person to fly from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland. By then Earhart was an American hero, an international celebrity, and a role model for women and girls.
Her premature demise has spawned countless theories, documentaries, books, movies, tributes, and a permanent place in popular culture. We’ll never know what else she could have accomplished had she lived longer. But in her relatively short life, she created a legacy that has far outlived her.