Amelia Earhart – Courage
In an era when driving a car was thought to be unladylike, Amelia Earhart was doing barrel rolls in her own two-seater airplane. While most women were tending to the laundry and the dishes at home, she was setting high-altitude and long-distance records in the sky. At a time when women wore only skirts or dresses, she preferred wearing her faded leather coat, khaki pants, and goggles. In fact, when she purchased her first leather coat, she slept in it for weeks to give it a worn look. Earhart never really cared about the traditional role of a woman. She wanted to live life to the fullest and be able to look back and say, “I have no regrets.” If she saw a challenge, she wrapped both arms around it and didn’t let go until she conquered it.
The challenge that Earhart embraced most enthusiastically was flying. For those of you who are picturing a comfortable Boeing 747, just remember that the “friendly skies” were still decades into the future. At the time Earhart learned to fly, aviation was less than 20 years old. It was in 1903 that Wilbur and Orville Wright recorded the first flight in history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The flight lasted all of 12 seconds and covered 120 feet. The field of aviation progressed in many ways before Earhart took up flying in 1920; however, flying was still considered extremely hazardous. Pilots were routinely killed in accidents, and the thought of a large group of passengers traveling in a plane from one place to another was considered suicidal. Flying was only for the courageous— and certainly no place for a woman, many thought. However, Earhart challenged every notion of what a woman should be. In so doing, she blazed a trail for all women to follow. If Amelia Earhart could be a pilot, which was unthinkable for a female, then other women could be doctors, engineers, or lawyers. She always believed that women were equal to men, and as her life progressed, she proved it. Her story was then, and is now, an inspiration to women who have been told: “it’s a man’s world.”
Earhart’s progressive beliefs began at home in Atchison, Kansas, where she was born in 1897. Her sister, Murial, arrived two years later. The Earhart girls were raised to believe that they were capable of doing anything that boys could do. This belief was expressed in subtle, yet important ways. Amelia and Muriel were encouraged to go fishing, play baseball, climb trees, and hunt wild game. Getting dirty was considered an essential part of growing up. Unlike other neighbor girls, the Earharts were not limited to wearing dresses or playing with dolls.
Amelia developed into a self-confident, independent, and courageous young woman. She was admired for these traits later in life, but during her childhood, she was often ridiculed for being different. Her home life added to her difficulties. Due to a drinking problem, Amelia’s father frequently lost his job and had to move the family to a different town to find employment. After leaving Kansas, the family lived in Iowa, Minnesota, and Missouri. Amelia finally graduated from high school in Illinois. Despite the frequent moves, she was an excellent student with high grades. She attributed part of her success to a practice she began as a young child. She kept and treasured a scrapbook of women who achieved greatness in fields traditionally dominated by men. These women became her role models, inspiring her to become a better person. Socially, Amelia was somewhat of a loner in high school. The caption in her yearbook described her as “The girl in brown who walks alone.”
Amelia loved to read and even occasionally wrote poetry, but college was not a good fit for her. It could have been because the preparatory school she attended did not allow her to explore the areas in which she was interested. She wanted to study politics and women’s rights, but in 1917 neither of these were part of the curriculum for girls. Amelia was like a square peg that was not about to be forced into a round hole.
When World War I broke out, she took a break from college and became a nurse’s aide. While caring for wounded soldiers, she was inspired by their heroic tales. Some of these men were pilots who fought the enemy in the sky. At that time, pilots actually fired at enemy pilots with hand-held machine guns and used hand grenades for bombs.
When the war ended, Earhart wanted to continue helping people. She decided to become a doctor and enrolled in a pre-med program at Columbia University. “But,” as she would later write in one of her books, “after a year of study I convinced myself that some of my abilities did not measure up to the requirements which I felt a physician should have.” Earhart would have to find another way to make her mark on the world. She went on to hold several different jobs. She worked at a telephone company, developed film for a photographer, and taught English to foreign college students before becoming a social worker at the Denison House, a home for immigrants struggling to adjust to life in the U.S. Earhart found fulfillment as a social worker and even moved into the Denison House to dedicate herself more fully to this profession. However, social work could never compete with the thrill of flying a plane, and she decided that aviation was her true purpose in life.
On December 28, 1920, Amelia Earhart was formally introduced to flying. She was 23 when her father took her to a stunt-flying exhibition in Los Angeles, California. After being bitten by the flying bug while listening to the stories of World War I pilots, she was now ready to see these planes in action. As the stunt planes flew overhead, a curious thing happened. A single plane broke formation and made a beeline toward the crowd. Earhart had a strange reaction. Instead of running like most of the people, she courageously stood her ground. At the last second, the pilot turned away, missing Earhart by the narrowest of margins. Instead of being afraid, Earhart was mesmerized by the beauty and the speed of flying. She later said, “I did not understand it at the time, but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.”
Later that day, Earhart confided in her father, “Dad, you know, I think I’d like to fly.” Mr. Earhart obliged his daughter’s fancy and scheduled a flying session for her. The pilot agreed to take her up in his plane under one condition—another pilot had to sit beside her. She understood the meaning of this restriction and later wrote, “I was a girl—a ‘nervous lady’. I might jump out. There had to be somebody on hand to grab my ankle as I went over.” The pilot’s attitude was typical of society’s view of women at the time, but Earhart refused to be intimidated by such comments. She was not about to let a little thing like fear stand in the way of her dream of flying. The short flight only confirmed what was already in her heart.
“By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground,” she exclaimed, “I knew I had to fly.” When she returned to the ground, Earhart knew exactly what she was going to do with the rest of her life. The challenge would be making it happen.
As fate would have it, Neta Snook, one of a handful of female pilots in the country, owned a flying school in Los Angeles. Earhart immediately signed up for flying lessons and had her heart set on becoming a licensed pilot. To pay for the expensive lessons, she took on two jobs. Because she understood the inherent danger, she took her flying lessons very seriously. Earhart was not interested in the stunt flying that was so popular at the time, but she insisted on learning a few acrobatic maneuvers. She would not fly solo until she felt confident that she could handle any situation that might arise during flight. In 1921 she became a licensed pilot. Only a few months later, she went up for a leisurely flight and broke a world record by flying higher than any woman ever had—14,000 feet. She would later increase this mark by soaring to 15,000 feet and again later to 18,415 feet.
Earhart loved flying so much that she bought herself a plane for her 25th birthday. It was a two-seater biplane with an open-air cockpit that allowed her to feel the wind in her face and the bugs in her teeth. The plane was painted bright yellow—her favorite color—and she named it The Canary. Like all pilots of her day, Earhart had her fair share of accidents in The Canary. The most common type of crash in those days occurred when the nose of the plane flipped over. This would happen when the plane stopped suddenly, usually after landing. This “nosing over” created quite a jolt for the pilot and usually caused minor damage to the plane. Earhart described one of these experiences: “On one occasion I landed in a mattress of dried weeds five or six feet high, which stopped me so suddenly that the plane went over on its back with enough force to break my safety belt and throw me out.” She went on to nonchalantly refer to these minor crashes as “the flat tires of flying” and “incidental.”
The more serious injuries usually happened during flight. On one such flight, Earhart struggled to get her plane over some trees that stood between her and the runway. She pulled back hard on the stick, which unfortunately caused the engine to stall. The plane crashed hard into a field below, seriously damaging the propeller and landing gear. She referred to the crash as an “interesting experience.” Nothing seemed to rattle Earhart. No matter how casual she might have been about the dangers of flying, these crashes were real and potentially deadly. Unfortunately for Earhart, finances became tight and she reluctantly decided to sell The Canary to a former World War I pilot. After buying the plane, the new owner invited a friend to join him for a leisurely flight. Once up in the air, he began to show off for those on the ground. “Suddenly, on one vertical bank the plane slipped,” recounted Earhart. “That was the end of it. Both men were killed. It was a sickening sort of thing because it was so unnecessary.”
Despite the hundreds of people who died during the infancy of aviation, several significant advances did occur. The most notable took place in 1927 when Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Earhart marveled at this accomplishment and hoped to one day accomplish such a glorious feat. Four women had previously attempted to cross the Atlantic—all of them perished in their attempts. In total, 17 pilots had attempted the crossing and failed. Now it was Earhart’s turn to try. She knew the risks involved, but just the chance of succeeding was worth it. She made out her will and wrote goodbye letters to loved ones. Still, when asked later if she was afraid, she coolly responded, “I’m sorry to be a disappointment in answering… It would sound more exciting if I only could admit having been shockingly frightened. But I honestly wasn’t.”
On May 20, 1932, she finally proved her abilities to the world, making her first attempt to fly solo over the Atlantic in her single-engine Vega. She began the flight at 7:00 p.m., intending to fly throughout the night. However, the plane’s altimeter soon failed, making it impossible for her to judge her altitude. Without daylight, she had no idea how close to the ocean she was flying. Making matters worse, she flew directly into a terrible storm. The plane shook uncontrollably in the fierce winds, forcing Earhart to choose between rising above the storm into colder air or diving below the clouds, perilously close to the ocean. Fearful of crashing into the ocean, she chose to fly above the storm. Unfortunately, when she did so, ice began to form on her wings, a dangerous situation that could only be remedied by flying at a lower altitude. Earhart lowered the plane to what she estimated to be a few hundred feet over the ocean’s surface. Next, the engine caught on fire, making the situation more hazardous by the minute. Even for a courageous woman, this was a terrifying situation.
Earhart was in the middle of an ocean aboard a burning plane without an altimeter and she could not radio anyone for help. As she later put it, “Probably, if I had been able to see what was happening on the outside during the night, I would have had heart failure then and there; but, as I could not see, I carried on.” As day broke over the eastern horizon, she realized all that she was up against. However, she had little choice in the matter—she kept flying and hoping. With less than an hour’s worth of fuel, she spotted land. She was aiming for Paris, but found the countryside of Ireland. At that point, it did not matter. Earhart landed safely, becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Of her landing, she said, “After scaring most of the cows in the neighborhood, I pulled up in a farmer’s backyard.”
Earhart received even more notoriety than before as the world celebrated her great accomplishment. It was like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon or Michael Jordan hitting a last-second shot to win the NBA Championship. Amelia Earhart was a legitimate hero. She became the first woman ever to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross from the U.S. Congress. Vice President Charles Curtis praised Earhart for her “heroic courage and skill as a navigator at the risk of her life.” Her accomplishments were celebrated by all, and she became an inspiring role model for women in particular. Earhart always wanted women to believe in themselves and fight for greater equality. She believed her achievements in the air demonstrated that men and women were equal in “jobs requiring intelligence, coordination, speed, coolness, and willpower.”
Her notions of equality in relationships went against the traditional thinking of the day as well. Her first boyfriend proposed marriage, but she was unwilling to give up her career to be a stay-at-home wife and mother. She cherished her independence and knew most men’s notions of marriage would not include her flying. Because of her strong beliefs, Earhart declined his proposal. Her next serious suitor was George Palmer (G.P.) Putnam II, a wealthy publisher who quickly fell head over heels for Earhart. From 1930 to 1931 G.P. proposed to her six different times. She said no five times. She was a woman with ambition and dreams. The last thing in the world she wanted was a man to tell her what she could and could not do. G.P. finally convinced her that he did not want to limit her career. In fact, he suggested that he become her manager and promoter. With this understanding, Earhart finally said yes to his sixth proposal. She and G.P. Putnam were married in 1931. Like everything Earhart did, she also had an unconventional approach to marriage. She kept her maiden name professionally, but used her husband’s last name in her private life. Unlike most of her contemporaries, Earhart viewed marriage as an equal partnership.
Central to her efforts to bring more women into aviation, Earhart and her female peers formed an organization exclusively for women pilots. The organization was named the Ninety-Nines—the number of charter members who founded the group. Earhart became the group’s first president, and under her leadership, the Ninety-Nines sponsored air races and provided financial aid to struggling members. Today this organization has about 6,000 members worldwide and awards the Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship each year.
During her lifetime, Earhart traveled around the country speaking about women’s rights and encouraging Americans to fly commercially. She knew that flying would become a popular way to travel once people got over their initial fears of safety. To demonstrate just how safe flying had become, she took First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for an aerial tour of the Washington, D.C., area. Upon landing, Mrs. Roosevelt exclaimed that flying was “fun,” and later she even earned a student pilot permit. Several years later, Mrs. Roosevelt played a significant role in ensuring the 332d Fighter Group, otherwise known as the Tuskegee Airmen, became the first black squadron to fight in combat during World War II.
Earhart continued to set aviation records, even surpassing many male pilots. In January 1932, she set a speed record of 17 hours and seven minutes traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States. On January 11, 1935, she became the first person to fly from Hawaii to California. Later that year she was the first pilot to fly solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City and from Mexico City to New Jersey. In 1937, she set a speed record for flying from California to Hawaii in 15 hours and 43 minutes. Reporters repeatedly asked her why she continued to take such enormous risks. Her response was usually the same: “For the fun of it.” She said it so often that she appropriately used the phrase as the title of her second book.
In 1937, when Earhart was 39, she commented, “I have a feeling that there is just one more good flight left in my system.” That good flight was an attempt to fly around the world at the equator, a 29,000-mile trip. This daring feat had never been attempted. Not only was it dangerous, but the trip would require assistance from the U.S. government, a great deal of money, and a lot of luck. President Roosevelt authorized the U.S. Navy to use its vessels to help Earhart navigate a tricky stretch in the Pacific. Her husband managed to raise the necessary funds through private donations. One such donation came from Bernard Baruch, who accompanied his donation with the following statement, “Because I like your everlasting guts!”
Along with her radioman, Fred Noonan, Earhart took off from Miami on June 1, 1937. Heading east, they traveled some 22,000 miles, making scheduled stops along the way for sleep, refueling, and equipment maintenance. On July 2 they took off from Lae and were scheduled to travel some 2,000 miles before making landfall on Howland Island, between Australia and Hawaii. This was the trickiest leg of the trip because Howland Island is only a half-mile wide and 1.5 miles long—a difficult target to find in the vast Pacific Ocean. A U.S. Coast Guard cutter named Itasca was responsible for guiding Earhart to this remote island. Specifically, radio communications would be used to direct the plane toward the island, and when Earhart got close enough, the Itasca would send up smoke signals. Unfortunately, the 2,000-mile voyage was filled with communication problems. One hour before the plane’s fuel was to run out, the Itasca received the following radio transmission from Earhart: “We must be on you but cannot see you. Gas is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio… One-half hour fuel and no landfall.” All attempts to determine the plane’s position and respond to Earhart’s message failed. Approximately one hour later, a final message was received from a desperate-sounding Earhart. “We are on the line of position 157-337… Will repeat this message…we are running north and south.” She was never heard from again.
The search for this American icon was widespread and unprecedented. Over $4 million was spent on the search, which involved 3,000 people, 10 ships, and 102 planes. No trace of Earhart or her plane was ever found. The theories about her death are endless, but subsequent searches have failed to uncover the truth. In fact, three separate research teams spent millions of dollars in 2001 to figure out what ultimately happened to Earhart. Each mission came up empty. The mystery remains unsolved.
As she did before each trip, Earhart wrote a letter to her husband that was only to be opened in the event of her death. It read, “Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. 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.”
Earhart never had regrets. She lived life to the fullest and brought a certain level of intensity that few of us will ever know. While she died far too early, her courage paved the way for women to earn equality with men in the work world and in their personal lives. Her progressive ideas about equality—once considered outrageous—are the norm in the 21st century. Because of her pioneering spirit, more women became pilots and more Americans took an interest in flying as a way of travel. For all of these reasons, Earhart is one of the great role models of the 20th century.
Amelia Earhart’s life should inspire us all to be more courageous. However, it is important to note that you don’t have to risk your life to be a courageous person. Courage can be found in the small details of life. According to author Harper Lee, “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” Therefore, a person who is afraid to try something new, but does so any way is courageous; a person who fails the first time, but tries again is courageous; a person who tells the truth regardless of the consequences is courageous. Amelia Earhart left a legacy that challenges us to stand up to our fears and fight for our convictions.