Monday, July 24, 2006


The American media, with its habit of producing instant celebrities without intensive labor or talent, occasionally lights upon a latently talented person and actually becomes an instrument for her evolution. One such media star was Amelia Earhart (born on this day in 1898 in Atchison, Kansas), a tomboy who wore gym suits as everyday clothes and delighted in shooting rats.

When she was 23, she had her first plane ride, and knew immediately that she wanted to learn to fly. While taking flying lessons and eventually sidelighting as a somewhat wobbly air show barnstormer, she drifted into pre-med studies at Columbia, a failed career in photography and social work in Boston when her big break came. In 1928, a group headed by explorer/publishing heir George Putnam and Admiral Richard Byrd sought to finance the first flight of a woman across the Atlantic, a year after Charles Lindbergh's historic first solo flight across the Atlantic. The original candidate for the trip, a wealthy Brit named Mrs. Frederick Guest, had to pull out due to family objections, so Putnam and Byrd cast about Boston flying circles for a suitable replacement.

Earhart wasn't the most accomplished of woman pilots, but there weren't many to choose from in Boston, and it didn't hurt that she somewhat resembled the lean, freckled Lindbergh. There was a catch, however: Earhart was only going to be a passenger in a plane flown by two men; the objective was to fly a woman across the Atlantic for the first time, not to have a woman pilot a plane across. Disappointed, Earhart nonetheless accepted the mission for the adventure, and on June 18, 1927, she landed in Wales after a 21-hour flight from Newfoundland with Wilmer Stutz and Louis Gordon at the helm. Putnam handled her publicity carefully; while Stutz and Gordon were quickly forgotten, Earhart received a ticker tape parade in New York City and her fresh Midwestern face began to appear in magazine endorsements. Her mother even cashed in on a baking ad.

Earhart's modern media miracle financed her dream to become a real pilot, and become a real pilot she did. Later that year, she was the first woman to fly solo round-trip across the U.S., stopping frequently for hugely attended personal appearances along the way. In 1931, Earhart married Putnam (a "marriage of convenience," as he managed her career), and set a world altitude record (18,415 feet). On May 20, 1932, Earhart flew a bright red Lockheed Vega from Newfoundland to Ireland, finally becoming the first woman, and only the second person, to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic. In 1935, by this time one of the most perennially famous women in America, Earhart was the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to California.

At the age of 40 in 1937, Earhart undertook her most ambitious mission, a round-the-world trip. With navigator Fred Noonan, she began in Miami, landing in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Dutch Guiana, Brazil, French West Africa, Chad, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Karachi, Calcutta, Rangoon, Singapore, Java, Darwin, Australia and Lae, New Guinea -- 20,000 miles in about 3 weeks. On July 2, 1937, on her way from New Guinea to Howland Island, a tiny speck in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy lost contact with her, and no trace of her was ever found.

Her disappearance has been the subject of rampant rumor and speculation. Following one preposterous mythical strand, the movie Flight for Freedom (1943, with Rosalind Russell and Fred MacMurray) depicted a story about a woman aviator who became deliberately lost at sea so that the U.S. had an excuse to investigate the area and examine Japanese military preparedness. It is more likely that brave Amelia Earhart and her comrade Mr. Noonan simply lost their way.



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